Everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated. Most of us are growth-minded and want to understand our “growth edges” and where we can improve. Receiving concrete, constructive, and clear feedback from people we trust and respect is critical in helping us feel acknowledged and supported as we learn, grow, and accomplish our work. However, most of the Heads of small schools that I know are not receiving particularly helpful feedback and support from their Boards.
It is not that Boards don’t want to be supportive and constructive- it is that they don’t know how to be. In recent coaching sessions with Heads of small schools I’ve heard of two different, and common scenarios. In both cases, the Head and a subset of the Board developed goals for the Head at the beginning of the year. At mid-year check-ins, in one case, the Board told the Head how wonderfully she was doing. Everything was great- keep up the good work. In the other case, the Head was “dinged” for not meeting all of her goals- even ones that were outside of her control. In both cases, the Heads were left feeling that the Board didn’t have a clue about what they were doing or how to support.
Through my research, experience, and conversation, it has become clear to me that Heads of small schools need to take an active role in shaping and guiding the practices of their Boards; even the practice of Head Evaluation. Trustees who sit on small school Boards typically don’t have the expertise to develop and conduct meaningful evaluations, nor do they have the knowledge of all of the job performance requirements of an effective school leader. Heads need to intentionally guide the way they are evaluated if they want feedback that will be helpful.
Head evaluation processes serve two purposes. One is to provide specific feedback to the Head that will enhance their job performance. The other is to inform the Board of the Head’s duties and success in fulfilling those duties so that they can effectively govern. Each element of an evaluation process should be developed to best achieve these two outcomes.
Elements of meaningful evaluations:
Goal-setting: I believe (and there is data to support) that articulating a few, annual, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals to focus and guide work throughout the year is beneficial. Conversely, setting many, vague, general, and/or un-measurable goals is much less beneficial. There is an art to goal-setting. When Heads and Boards sit down to create a Head’s annual goals, there should be consideration of the school's needs (i.e. accreditation self-study activities or work towards strategic planning goals), the Head’s “growth edges,” and the Head’s curiosity. Then, there needs to be a guide for measuring success that goes beyond Board members’ opinions. There also needs to be a specific timeline for checking in throughout the year that is the responsibility of the Board- not the Head.
Accountability: There are many things a Head must do in order to keep a school running in good order. Listing all of those and evaluating progress or compliance every year would be onerous. Nonetheless, Heads need to be held accountable for their most important job responsibilities- and Boards need to know what those responsibilities are. Creating an accountability/compliance list, and considering it on a bi-annual or tri-annual basis will ensure that important details are not overlooked. This list can include:
Culture: The culture of an organization and the climate among constituents within an organization both have a dramatic impact on the organization’s functioning. The leader of an organization has the most influence on culture and climate. Therefore, Boards need to assess the school’s culture and climate relative to the Head’s performance. This can be done through surveys and/or “360” reviews- with care and respect so that the information gained is useful and not merely complaining. Like accountability, assessing culture and climate doesn’t need to happen annually, yet it does need to happen regularly.
Supporting and providing feedback to their Head of School is one of the most important responsibilities of a Board. Yet most small school Boards are inexperienced and overworked. Heads of Schools need to guide their Boards in developing a process for providing meaningful feedback and support on a regular basis. A robust evaluation process not only helps the Head learn and grow, it also enables the Board to more deeply understand their own roles and responsibilities.
What do you think? I welcome thoughts about other elements of meaningful Head evaluations. Please comment!
Writes about small school leadership and governance