January is the time when many independent school boards begin to think about their slate of board members and filling seats for the upcoming year. You will begin to hear at the end of board meetings: “Does anyone know of someone who would be willing to be on our board?” And your governance committee will be wracking their brains to think of folks they can ask to join.
And although you know you need a diverse board, and want board members from outside of your school, frequently boards will resort to only looking for new members from the same group: current parents.
While having current parents on your board is not a bad thing, and actually can be a very good thing, having an ALL parent board can be problematic. For starters, whenever you have ALL of any constituent group, it means you do not have a diverse board. And we know from research that having diversity in your group leads to better thinking, decision making, and organizational outcomes.
So how do you find people who will be interested and willing to serve on your board? The answer is to be strategic.
But many boards are not strategic at all when it comes to board member recruitment- not because they don’t want to be, but because they don’t know how to be. They resort to the same tactics they have used in the past: ask the people they know.
And, not surprisingly, they end up with the same results: a board comprised of similarly-minded people from similar backgrounds with similar skills and abilities.
Instead, boards need to strategically consider who they have on the board currently in terms of perspective, constituent group, skills, and abilities and who they need. Then boards need a plan with clearly articulated steps for recruiting the needed people from the wider community.
Having the right board members who are fully engaged and bring a diversity of perspectives and thought is the foundation to having an effective board. Boards need to carefully consider their recruitment strategies in order to identify and onboard new board members who will enable their school to thrive.
P.S. I have a FREE webinar for board members coming up where part of the focus will be on strategic board member recruitment.
3 Keys to a Strategic Board
Thursday, January 21st at 3 pm EST (2 pm Central, noon Pacific)
Learn more here.
My December wish for each of you is self-care! You have been extraordinary this year and I know how exhausted you are. I think the word extraordinary is particularly fitting here- extra-ordinary -because although you have done a lot of new things in 2020 (hello remote teaching!) you have mainly done more of what you always do: show up for kids and colleagues with open hearts and minds, focus first on the needs of students and families, embrace learning and jump into new experiences with both feet, go above and beyond because you love what you do... the list goes on and on. You are amazing every year; in 2020 you were even more amazing.
Research tells us that prolonged stress has negative effects on the brain, impacts our memory, learning, and creativity, and can lead us to withdraw and avoid social interactions. I would say that 2020 constitutes as prolonged stress! So please take winter break to de-stress in whatever way works best for you. Whatever you do, un-plug, relax, and care for yourself- it is time to put your own oxygen mask on!
I look forward to re-engaging with you in 2021- with restored energy, optimism, and creativity to continue to support the wonderful work you do of educating our students.
As the possibility of a Covid-19 vaccine comes ever more into focus, we can tentatively start thinking about life after the pandemic. Around the world, across our country, and within our schools, we will all need to figure out and adjust to what our “next normal” will be. Those organizations who have taken this time of disruption and change to self-examine as well as think to the future will likely fare the best in the new circumstances. This is particularly true for independent school boards.
Heads of schools have been put through the ringer these past 9 to 10 months; all educators have. Everyone is tired and some are dispirited. There is speculation that over the next few years we will see a widespread shake-up in school leadership and that many educators will chose to leave the field. Some have already departed. Given what we know about how disruptive leadership change can be in schools, it behooves boards to start thinking about and preparing for the possibility that they may need to find a new head sometime in the next several years. Hopefully, board members have been working diligently to support their heads during this crazy time, and your current head has no plans to leave in the near future. Nonetheless, you never know when you may be faced with the unexpected, and being prepared is always the best course of action.
Here are three areas where boards can focus to prepare for a head transition, whether it is imminent or planned for the future. Paying attention to these areas will set a school up to be as ready as possible for a head transition, whenever it comes.
Head transitions are challenging for a school community and require a great deal of time, attention, and effort by a board. Significant planning is required. The most prepared boards will be those who have started the preparation process well in advance of a new head search. There is no time like the present to begin setting the stage for the success of your school and the transition to a new head, whenever that may be.
2020 has been a whopper! Heads of schools have worked harder and have been under more stress over the past nine months than ever before, with less time to rest, recover, and recharge. They didn’t take much of a vacation this past summer, not just because of travel restrictions, but because there was so much work to do to plan for the beginning of the school year. The fortunate ones have boards and others who are effectively supporting them in a variety of ways. Yet even the fortunate ones are tired and fraying. Some of them may be considering whether they want to continue doing the job.
When I first talk with board members about conducting a head search, many of them are surprised at how early I suggest starting the process. Finding the right next leader for a school is critical, and can even be the difference between a school’s ultimate success or failure. Therefore, head search takes time and attention. Head searches for independent schools consist of much more than posting a job opening and interviewing candidates. Board members and search committees need to spend time carefully considering where the school is and where it is going, listening to the feelings and opinions of the community, clearly articulating the desired characteristics of the next head, and carefully vetting potential candidates. These activities result in the best outcomes when they are not rushed.
Head searches for independent schools typically fall into three time frames. The earliest ones start about 20-22 months before the beginning of the head’s tenure. That means they are starting now for heads who will begin at their new school in July 2022. The next wave of schools begin their head searches about 14 to 16 months in advance. Those schools will begin the process next spring for a July 2022 start. And the third wave begins in the summer or fall before the start date. Those schools have just begun their search now for a new head to begin in July 2021.
What I have learned over the past several years of facilitating both head and interim head searches is that regardless of when a school starts, there are strong, experienced candidates out there who will be a good match for the school’s needs. Head candidates have their own sets of circumstances that result in their looking for a position at various times. I have also found that when schools take their time to go through the process, to ensure that the board is prepared and aligned, the community feels fully included, and there is ample opportunity to collect and vet a wide diversity of candidates, they feel better and more confident about the outcome.
One factor in determining the start of a start a head search is when the current head indicates to the board that he or she is considering leaving the position, or, when a board decides they will not renew a head’s contract. Ideally, heads give their boards 15 to 24 months’ notice. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why a head might be leaving and this kind of timeframe is not always feasible. Boards will need to respond whenever they learn of a potential transition. The best scenario is when a head and board chair have a close, honest, and open relationship where the head’s goals and plans are clearly articulated throughout their tenure; there are no surprises.
Head searches are time-consuming and can be emotionally draining for a school community. Hopefully, your head is feeling well-supported, particularly through this incredible time of change, uncertainty, and stress, and is not planning on leaving anytime soon. If you are a board member- have you checked recently how your head is doing? What support might you be able to provide or facilitate? And are they thinking they will be able to stay in their position- or are they thinking of leaving in the next year or two? Straightforward conversations now will enable the board to fulfill their responsibility to support the current head and plan for the next.
If you think there is a possibility that you will need to conduct a head search in the next 2-3 years, it behooves you to start thinking and planning now. There are many board and school processes that should be strengthened before a head transition. Boards should be reminded of the famous Bobby Knight quote “The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.”
Acies Strategies provides head of school search consultation for small schools. We have slots left for the 2021-2022 season. For more information see: www.AciesStrategies.com/head-search.
Independent school Boards have SO much to consider right now as we begin the 2020-2021 school year. Annual retreats and beginning of the year Board meetings will certainly include time to discuss ongoing responses to the pandemic as well as consideration of topics such as social justice, equity and inclusivity, financial sustainability, etc. In addition to focusing on responses to these immediate needs, it is also important to engage Board members in reflection about your processes and practices to ensure that you are working together in the most effective ways. An annual Board retreat is an ideal time to engage in such reflections. Asking well-crafted questions will lead to fruitful conversations. Here are four broad topics that can be considered through small and large group activities to develop shared understandings and allow your Board to more effectively and efficiently work toward annual goals.
A. Are we using effective processes to make the best decisions?
Rationale: While Boards may consider the method of making decisions (Roberts Rules, consensus, etc.), they rarely consider the process for making decisions. This typically leads to bias and ultimately, poor decisions. Questions you could consider include:
B. Are our meetings as effective as they can be?
Rationale: The effectiveness of many Boards is hindered by their own practices. Meetings that are insufficiently organized and prepared for, poorly facilitated, and/or do not result in actionable outcomes are unfortunately common. Establishing thoughtful, researched, and disciplined practices enables Boards to do their best work, engage in meaningful and generative conversations, and arrive at productive decisions.
C. Do we regularly engage in generative thinking to establish and test where we need to go as an organization- before we engage in strategic thinking?
Rationale: Boards typically only spend time on “visioning” during major endeavors (accreditation, strategic planning, Head transition). Regular consideration of factors that impact your vision will not only clarify the strategies you need to take to achieve that vision, it will help all members of your Board understand, “get on the same page,” and support the vision.
D. Are we serving our Head of School as a proactive, supportive, and transparent employer?
Rationale: The Head-Board relationship in independent schools is unique and unusual, in that the Head (employee) has considerable influence on the Board and typically knows far more about the “business” of the organization than the Board. The relationship between the Board and the Head is a critical one, and needs to be open, honest, transparent, and collaborative. The Board needs to consider how it fulfills its role as “employer” as well as collaborator with the Head to ensure the Head can be as effective as possible.
In times of crisis, it is very easy to focus solely on the immediate situation. Nonetheless, independent school Boards need to continuously remember their responsibility for the long-term viability of their school, even as they respond to current needs. Ensuring that the Board operates at its most effective and efficient will enable it to best fulfill both immediate and long-term responsibilities.
A recent email from a Head of School included the line “I haven’t had much of a summer.” I’ve heard from many Heads of their long days, working weekends, and sleepless nights- worrying about so many issues confronting their communities as we all get ready to begin the school year. It has been a strange and uncomfortable experience- and not the restful, rejuvenating summertime that Heads desperately need!
So I’ve been thinking about what Heads of Schools can do to maintain wellness, preserve their sanity, and move through the fall with mental and physical health. With their reality being packed schedules and all kinds of interruptions, Heads need wellness strategies that are quick, flexible, and adaptable.
Boards members also need to be focused on Head well-being to ensure their Head can be the most effective leader as possible. Board members should talk with their Head of School about what they need, and when possible, and can support by paying for these strategies! When I was a Head of School, one of the most thoughtful gifts my Board gave to me was a gift certificate for a day at the spa. It recognized my need for stress reduction and self-care and was something I could fit into my own schedule. Boards need to be thinking about what would be most beneficial for their own school leaders.
Here are five wellness practices that have been shown to be effective-I welcome ideas for others!!
2. Maintain your exercise routine! This one is up to you to determine- as exercise is so individualized.
3. Become even more organized. Heads have to be organized to accomplish even half of what is on their to-do lists. In my experience, everyone can learn and use new strategies for daily time, work, and energy organization.
4. Work with a leadership coach. Being a Head of School can be lonely, overwhelming, and isolating (even as you are surrounded by people!). Engaging with an unbiased and experienced person who can help you 1) examine your school’s situation from a different perspective, 2) clarify your personal and professional goals, and 3) strategize problems and solutions, can lead to clarity and peace of mind.
5. Take time for more extensive self-care. This is also very individualized. What feels caring and rejuvenating to you? Research is very clear that when we disconnect from our daily issues, rest our brains, and engage in non-work pursuits, we return more energized and clear-thinking. This is not indulgence, this is what will enable you to be a better Head of School. Board members- what can you offer to your Head of School? Here are some ideas (some of which will need to wait until we are no longer physically distancing- some of which can be done now!):
Heads of Schools have even more on their plates than usual right now. In order to be the most effective leader for their community, Heads need to ensure that they are physically healthy and emotionally well. This takes time and attention. Health and wellness for the Head of School needs to be a priority for both the Head and their supporting Boards.
Heads of schools have A LOT on their plates right now! They are determining how and when to bring students and faculty back into buildings, how to train teachers to effectively teach from a distance, how to better address equity, inclusion, and social justice, and how to respond to parents’ fears and concerns about health and safety and knowledge loss- all on top of the other “normal” planning they need to do over the summer. If there was ever a time the Heads of Schools need an effective, responsive Board, it is NOW.
Unfortunately, I come across many Boards that are not effective nor responsive. Most Board members want to be helpful and supportive, and yet they don’t have the knowledge or consistently engage in the practices that allow them to fully fulfill their responsibilities. I’ve talked with many Heads of Schools who like and respect their Board members, yet A) wish they were more proactive and didn’t rely so heavily on the Head to guide them, B) wish they focused less on identified problems and more on researching and developing specific strategies and scenarios to support the school, or C) wish they engaged more actively in creative and productive development activities. These Heads feel stuck because they know their Board members are working hard, and yet the school is struggling.
There is considerable evidence that good governance has a significant and positive impact on the overall success of a school. When Boards fully fulfill their governance responsibilities, schools thrive. The most effective Boards have both a high level of knowledge about Board practices and a culture of implementing those practices. Their knowledge is not based on “what they think” or what works in corporate Board rooms, but what has been demonstrated through research and practice in nonprofits and schools. Boards with high knowledge of effective practices have taken the time to learn about governance from trusted sources and hold one another accountable for consistently practicing good governance.
Here is a matrix of what I have seen regarding Board practices.
I most commonly see Boards that operate in the bottom right or top left quadrants. Boards in the bottom right quadrant have some knowledge of effective Board practices and yet don’t have a culture of implementing them. These Boards are ineffective in their ability to accomplish their responsibilities because they are not consistent and/or active. Boards in the top left quadrant are more active, yet don’t implement what is most needed. These Boards often spend time “in the weeds,” engaging in operations and don’t have the knowledge on how to effectively govern.
In order to consistently operate in the top left quadrant, strategically and productively, Boards need to know what their responsibilities are and how best to accomplish them. This takes time, effort, and practice. It requires a clear understanding of Board responsibilities and “the line” between governance and operations.
So how can Board best support Heads in times of uncertainty? Be better at governance. Here are 5 things Boards can do that will both directly support Heads and free them up to focus on operations.
We know that governance has a significant impact on the ability of organizations to operate successfully. Especially now during these uncertain times, independent schools need engaged and productive governors. The schools with the most sustainable operations have Boards that take responsibility for their own professional development and ensure that they are consistently engaging in effective governance practices.
The Building Better School Boards Professional Development Program enables independent school Boards and Heads to improve their governance practices so they can ensure the sustainability of their schools without wasting time or money.
I’ve had the privilege of talking with almost 100 Heads and Board Chairs of small schools over the past 3 weeks through workshops I co-led (with the amazing Dr. Valaida Wise) on reentry and recovery for small school heads and Board chairs. I am always so energized by learning with such intelligent and creative folks! These school leaders are confronting the need to plan and strategize this summer in dramatically different ways than normal in order to be ready for school in the fall. Along with just about every other school leader in the world, they are thinking about health and safety while physically distancing, how to effectively implement a robust, mission-aligned curriculum from a distance, and how to support the social and emotional well-being of all of their constituents- students, faculty and staff, parents; while respecting and responding to their diversity. These school leaders are unique, however, in that they lead small schools and this context provides both distinct challenges and significant benefits and opportunities.
From the myriad of discussion topics we engaged in (over 2 sessions each, with schools in 3 different associations), here are five things that emerged as themes that all schools should be considering:
By gathering small school heads and board members together to share information, ask questions, and (sometimes) commiserate, we affirm the strength, value, and need for our small schools. The wisdom of these school leaders is vast and important. Together, they have weathered the pandemic-required emergency at-home learning this spring, and together they will reenter school and recover from this unprecedented time by sharing insights and support. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from them!
Is your Board leading your school using the most effective governance practices? The Building Better School Boards Professional Development Program enables independent school Boards and Heads to improve their governance practices so they can ensure the sustainability of their schools without wasting time or money.
The end of the school year is here. And what a year it has been! This winter, some of you had no snow days, some had too many, and some dealt with wildfires. You then helped your teachers switch, overnight, from teaching in-person to teaching remotely, you’ve written heartfelt, inspiring statements about anti-racism and promoting social justice, and you’ve facilitated physically-distanced graduation and moving up ceremonies for your seniors and students transitioning to other divisions. You have worried about your current students and faculty and wondered about future ones. If you haven’t already crossed the finish line, you will cross it soon. And most of you will be battered, bruised, and exhausted. My question is: How well has your Board supported you this past year? Have they made this remarkable year a little easier or have they added to the stress?
In my research on small school leadership and governance (with the incredible Dr. Valaida Wise), we found that Heads of small schools typically need to take a more active role (than larger school Heads) in ensuring that their Boards are effective in their work. Small school Boards often have fewer members who deeply understand the work of independent school governance and how to make decisions and act strategically to ensure the long-term viability of the organization. Heads usually have the most experience and expertise in these areas and need to actively help Boards to fulfill their responsibilities.
What I know about your Board members, even though I have never met them, is that they are passionate and dedicated champions of your school. While some may seem indifferent or disengaged, they all want the best for your current and future students. And most feel like they are putting in a lot of time and effort - over and above their other, everyday responsibilities. I also believe that many of your Board members know that they could be more effective and yet don’t know how to achieve this. They want to feel like they are making a difference!
If you have a good relationship with your Board Chair (and I hope you do!! This is one of the most important relationships in a school and one that needs to be carefully cultivated), I invite you, this summer, to talk candidly about your feelings regarding the Board’s work. How helpful were they? Did they meet your expectations? What would you like to see done differently? Here are some specific areas you can discuss:
There are many other questions you can and should ask one another! Ideally, the Head and Board Chair are able to have regular, open, honest conversations about their relationship and the work of the Board. I recommend creating time and space for these kinds of intentional conversations at least once or twice a year. This relationship will help you to set goals for your Board that will enable them to perform at their best.
Do you want your Board to be more effective? The Building Better School Boards Professional Development Program enables independent school Boards and Heads to improve their governance practices so they can ensure the sustainability of their schools without wasting time or money.
I am one of those people who likes to look for silver linings. While I try to be careful how much time I spend with my rose-colored glasses, I believe that it is usually more productive to focus on positives rather than negatives. I see a great benefit coming out of our current pandemic situation in that schools all over the country and the world are talking in meaningful ways about the social and emotional needs and health of our students, teachers, and family members. Yet there is some confusion as to exactly what social and emotional health is and what supporting social and emotional needs looks like in specific ways.
Typically, we talk about social-emotional learning in terms of teaching students to manage their own emotions and social interactions. This is certainly important and I’m delighted that we are shining a light on the need for more focus on social-emotional health both in and out of schools. However, school leaders also need to be aware of the social and emotional health needs of the adults in their communities- so that adults are able to effectively focus on the needs of their students. My work supports leaders of small independent schools so I will address social and emotional health and support from that perspective.
First of all, while they are often lumped together, social and emotional health are really two different things. Emotional (or mental) health is a person’s ability to regulate and manage their own emotions. It doesn’t mean they are happy all of the time, it means they feel a sense of control and ability to cope with how they are feeling. Social health is a person’s ability to connect with others and form meaningful relationships. It doesn’t mean you are an extrovert or always the “life of the party,” it is about satisfaction with relationships and the ability to adaptively engage in social interactions. School leaders who understand adult needs are able to lead in a manner that supports people in managing their own emotions and productively engaging in professional social interactions.
There are several conditions that directly affect both our emotional and social wellbeing and ways that school leaders can specifically address them to support and promote health. These conditions will be particularly important to consider as administrators plan for re-entry to schools and moving to a “next normal” of organizational functioning following emergency at-home learning.
1. Clear expectations- It is very unsettling not to know, at least in part, what the future holds- even for those of us who are not “planners.” The level of uncertainty that COVID-19 has presented over the past months has been a major problem for many. Our teachers feel (understandably) anxious and frustrated when they don’t have job security, know where or how they are expected to teach, know when and if they can return to their classrooms, etc.
Suggestions for leaders: Continue to provide regular, frequent, and clear communication. Even if it is to tell what you aren’t certain of yet, people want to know what you are considering. At this point, erring on the side of too much communication may be preferable. Nonetheless, make sure that it is clear, concise, relevant, and true in the moment. Know that people are looking for as much transparency as possible.
2. Self-efficacy and control- Similar to wanting to know about the future and expectations, people need to feel they have some impact or control over what happens in their lives. Independent school teachers, in particular, are used to a good deal of autonomy in their classrooms. Over the past months they have been forced to dramatically change the way they teach, and sometimes, what they teach. They have been asked to do something new and learn new techniques and skills- all while being evaluated by school leaders, students, and parents. Furthermore, they have been asked to do this in an extremely short period of time- which can feel overwhelming. For many, this has led to feelings of loss of control and lack of competence.
Suggestions for leaders: Understand that your teachers need ongoing support and encouragement for the work they are doing. Provide professional development whenever and wherever you can to help them develop a sense of competency. Protect them, if you can, from taking on too much in too short a time period. Include them as much as possible in the decision-making process about what and how to teach in new ways so they feel that they have an impact on the outcomes. Provide constructive feedback regarding the development of their new skills and buffer them from parent feedback that may not be well-informed or constructive.
3. Meaningful connections- Research shows that humans need social connections to maintain emotional health. While technological connections help (ie. video-conference, etc.), they are no substitute for in-person relationships. When we work from home and only communicate through our computers we lose the informal, often fun connections we typically have with others over the course of a normal, in-school day or week. Jokes, personal sharing, commiseration, etc. are lost when we only communicate for specific work-related tasks.
Suggestions for leaders: Find ways to facilitate informal connections with your faculty and staff. I’ve heard of school heads who hold bi-weekly Friday “happy hour” through video-conference where teachers can just “chit chat” and socialize. Other school heads make time to check in by phone with each teacher and staff member weekly. Encourage your teachers to do the same with their students. Have connection times with students that are just fun- and not necessarily content related. These relatively small gestures can provide meaningful connections that promote both social and emotional health.
4. Reassurance and routine- We all want to feel that our leaders know what they are doing and have things under control. School leaders who manage their own anxieties and present a sense of their own efficacy and control reassure the other adults in their schools which allows them to focus on supporting students. Maintaining some type of predictable routine promotes a sense of control that is also reassuring.
Suggestions for leaders: Acknowledge and address your own emotions in appropriate ways so that you can provide reassurance to others. Be aware of how you are presenting yourself to ensure that you come across as informed and in control. Then, develop routines for your community that maintain important traditions such as weekly assemblies, morning meetings, etc. Remember that your demeanor and focus set the tone for the entire school community.
Each of us has different strengths, challenges, and competencies when it comes to our emotional and social health. Some of us were struggling going into this pandemic and the realities of our current situation are exacerbating our mental health challenges. Others are benefiting from new routines, expectations, and social and physical distancing. Moving forward, individual responses to the “next normal” will continue to vary. School leaders need to be aware of the types of social and emotional challenges their faculty and staff are facing in order to respond well to them. Effective support of those who engage on the front lines with our students will enable them to continue their extraordinary work.
Writes about small school leadership and governance