The special board work session had been scheduled to consider a key recommendation coming out of the daylong board-superintendent-cabinet governance retreat three weeks earlier: replacing the board’s dysfunctional silo committees (e.g., curriculum and instruction) with committees aligned with the board’s broad governing functions (e.g., strategic and operational planning). Not long into the session, the superintendent realized that her preparation had been fatally flawed. When three particularly obstreperous board members launched a full-bore attack on the recommended structure, the superintendent expected the board president to join her in beating back the attack. Alas, he sat back quietly, leaving her alone at the rostrum. And worse, he signaled clearly that he wasn’t in her corner by chiming in with some skeptical questions about the new structure. Predictably, the re-structuring initiative was doomed.
I heard this true story in my first one-on-one coaching session with this superintendent several weeks after the debacle. It wasn’t all bad news. The silver lining, as this superintendent recounted, was that she’d learned a valuable lesson – the hard way, by failing. She now understood that she’d had a real choice. She could have made a serious effort to transform the board president into her preeminent ally and champion for high-stakes chief executive leadership initiatives. Instead, she chose to pay a steep price in terms of failing to advance the critical board development agenda.
Over the course of the following three coaching sessions, I shared with this superintendent five important strategies that long experience had taught me she could employ to turn her current and future board presidents into close partners.
#1 Start with the right mindset.
From the get-go see your board president as your preeminent stakeholder with whom you must build a close working relationship if you intend to be a high-impact chief executive officer of your district. Keeping a wary distance would be a dumb-dumb strategy.
#2 Get to know your board president as well as you can as soon as you can.
Your partnership building strategy is far likelier to pay off handsomely if it’s based on an in-depth understanding of your potential partner, in terms of her decision making style, the goals she hopes to achieve as president, her long-term professional aspirations, her leadership strengths and weaknesses, etc.
#3 Do whatever you can to help your board president succeed as “CEO” of the board.
This strategy will pay off in two ways. First, by succeeding at the helm of the board, your president will be a more influential partner for you. Second, she will feel indebted to you for helping her succeed in meeting a stiff leadership challenge.
#4 Provide your board president with non-monetary compensation.
Two primary forms of non-monetary compensation that you, as superintendent, can deliver to your board president are intense ego satisfaction and assistance in realizing professional aspirations. For example, you can ensure that your president is recognized publicly for her leadership labors, you can draft reports to the board that your president can deliver early in every board meeting, and you can nominate your board president for appointment to one or more other boards in the community that she is really interested in joining.
#5 And co-lead governance improvement initiatives with your board president.
Your board president is far likelier to be an effective champion for governance improvement initiatives such as putting an updated board committee structure in place if she owns the initiatives, and ownership is the result of active engagement in developing and implementing initiatives. For example, your board president might chair the governance task force that you’re providing executive support to in coming up with governance improvement recommendations.