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.