We were sitting in the superintendent’s office after the board meeting talking about her relationship with the board, and I asked her what she did to keep the relationship really healthy, beyond such obvious things as making sure board members were actively engaged in shaping key governing products like the annual operating plan and budget and regularly communicating with the board as a whole and individual board members. “On a more personal note – beyond the good governance stuff,” I recall her saying, “I like to think of every member of my board as a potential ally, and one of my key jobs as superintendent is to build alliances with board members. I suppose in this sense I’m a kind of diplomat.” She went on to say that she really enjoyed this more personal aspect of relationship building, which involved getting to know her individual board members really well, on a personal level – where they grew up and went to school, their professional aspirations, their families, their tastes in books, music, and movies, the personal challenges they were dealing with, etc. She also emphasized that effective alliance building couldn’t be one-way; she had to be willing to share information about herself, not just quiz board members about themselves. She went on to explain that she wasn’t trying to turn board members into close friends, but she had learned that making a personal connection – going deeper than merely getting governing business done – was a kind of “glue” that, in her experience, helped to build a solid relationship that could withstand quite a bit of stress.
I was reminded of this conversation when I saw a piece by Michael Shear in the March 11 issue of the New York Times, talking about President Obama’s style in relating to world leaders. The piece quotes historian Robert Dallek, who, referring to the “kind of warmth that characterized the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher or between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill,” observes: “If a foreign leader connects with another head of government it can be salutary in helping them work through difficulties or problems that may exist.”
Now, I’d be the first to admit that comparing presidential diplomacy to building relationships between superintendents and their board members is a bit of a stretch, but I do think that experience has taught that superintendents who are willing to don the “diplomat-in-chief” hat and add a more personal touch in working with individual board members will find it easier to build an effective working relationship with the board as a whole. Adding the personal dimension won’t, alone, get the relationship building job done, of course, but it does add some glue that helps to cement the relationship. And I should point out that, over the years, I’ve seen many more board-CEO relationships fray because of failures relating to the human dimension than problems with organizational performance. In fact, I’ve seen many board-CEO working relationships rupture even when all is going quite well, organizationally speaking.
I’d love to hear what readers are doing as diplomats-in-chief in their districts. And, as always, I welcome dissenting views and caveats.