A few years ago, I was chatting over lunch with a superintendent about her brand new board president. She was feeling pretty apprehensive since her relationship with the last president had been really rocky. He’d resisted her overtures to work together as a leadership team, in fact, he’d behaved more like a competitor than partner on several occasions during his term. For example, he’d aggressively challenged her in a recent board budget work session about a couple of key revenue assumptions she’d presented. And this was after she’d tried – and failed – to get him to spend an hour or so on the phone going over the assumptions a week before the work session. “I feel so worn down,” I recall her saying, “that I can’t face a second straight year jousting with my president.” She said she’d appreciate any thoughts I wanted to share about turning her new president into a real partner. She made clear she didn’t need a friend chairing the board, but she’d love not having an adversary in the role. I told her I definitely had some thoughts to share, and we scheduled three coaching sessions over the coming five weeks to come up with some practical ways to build a solid relationship with her new president.
During our first one-on-one session, the superintendent and I discussed what I told her was the indispensable first step in partnership building: getting to know her new president in depth – really, really well. I told her that distance is a cardinal sin in the relationship building business, so she’d be well advised to spend a big dollop of one-on-one quality time with her new president from the get-go – preferably in person. Otherwise, she wouldn’t know enough to move to the next step in building this really critical new relationship. We went over a number of things she needed to know, such as the impact her president aspired to have – his imprint, so to speak, his passionate professional interests, how he preferred to communicate with her on an ongoing basis, etc.
Once we’d covered what she needed to know about her incoming president, she asked about the next step in the process. My response? “Now you put together your president’s compensation package.” By the expression on her face, I could tell she was thinking to herself, “What’s Doug smoking? He’s got to know our board president’s an unpaid volunteer who at most’ll get reimbursed for some travel expenses.” I assured her I was well aware that her president couldn’t earn a real paycheck for his work in the board room, but had she ever thought about non-monetary compensation for her president? She couldn’t assume that altruism alone would take her president very far on the partnership road. Over the years, I’d learned that the typical board president expects a more robust return on her investment of time and energy than just the satisfaction that comes from doing a great job in the boardroom. At the end of this first coaching session, the superintendent and I agreed that after she’d spent enough time getting to know her new president in depth, our second and third coaching sessions would focus on brainstorming the elements of a non-monetary compensation package for the president.
As it turned out, one of the new president’s professional goals was to play a leading role in taking the board’s leadership to the next level during his term, so the superintendent decided she would design a daylong board governance retreat aimed at identifying governance issues and brainstorming possible solutions in the form of board improvement targets. She would would involve her president in selecting the facilitator, would support the president in playing a leading role in the retreat, and would make sure that there was strong staff support in following-through: mainly refining and implementing the governance improvement targets that’d come out of the retreat. And since her new president was obviously interested in raising his public profile in the community, she decided to identify a number of forums where her president might speak about K-12 issues and to engineer speaking invitations.
These are just a few of the items making up the non-monetary compensation package we came up with during our coaching sessions. What you need to know is that the package really worked. It helped create a close, positive and productive board president-superintendent partnership with none of the friction the superintendent had experienced with her prior president. Our readers are invited to comment and share how you’ve “paid” your board president