What’s the Head of School’s Dog’s Name and Other Important Leadership Questions

I was interviewing for a Head of School position when the Chair of the Search Committee asked me if I had any pets. I was in rapid-fire answer mode and said, “Yes, I have two rescue dogs.” Next question. Later that evening, during the “social” part of my interview, a trustee went one step further and asked me my dogs’ names. She was another dog lover of course, but my answer, “Sandy” and “Moose” had me talking about my love of the outdoors and why we named one dog for the beach and the other for a town in Wyoming. Within minutes, I was sharing my passions, travels, and stories involving my wife and kids as she was sharing some of her life experiences as well. It was the beginning of a relationship.

When my wife and I decided to launch an initiative that would provide support for independent schools – a place where we had spent our careers and educated our children – we researched areas where we could make an immediate difference. We chose to use our experiences to enter an under-represented area where we would be advisors in the specific area of building strong and lasting relationships among key partners. The premise of our work is to facilitate meaningful relationships between Heads of Schools, Boards, and Teachers. We believe the success of these relationships can make the difference in achieving strategic goals, increasing enrollment, balancing the budget, and improving fundraising at any independent school. Conversely, at its worst, poor relationships can do just the opposite and result in truly unfortunate consequences.

The proposition seems obvious, but every year there are schools in which relationships between Head of School, Board, and Teachers disintegrate. This month, NAIS President Donna Orem wrote a timely piece on this topic, calling attention to the root causes of the problem. She offers sound advice on trustee selection, financial responsibilities, and the role of board culture and diversity. What I know from experience is that if you attend to these relationships once they begin to fracture, it’s already…too late. So, what if we, as independent school leaders, focus on these key partnerships from the beginning? What could we prevent? And more importantly, what might we achieve more rapidly and more successfully?

It may not start with the Chair or teachers knowing the Head’s dog’s name, but it does require that each partner knows a great deal about the other. In addition to personal information, there should be an agreed-upon, professional understanding of how each partner will support and trust one another. Key questions that should be answered include:

  • When do we formally speak to each other?
  • Which topics elevate themselves to our dialogue? Which do not?
  • How will communication work with faculty?
  • What faculty concerns require board-level attention?
  • What’s our crisis communication plan?
  • How will we set our goals, share them, review them, and keep them present?
  • And how will we ensure we trust each other through thick and thin?

These questions and their answers are only the beginning steps to take in a meaningful partnership.  It will take a comprehensive approach to relationship-building to strengthen a school’s ability to prevent missteps and achieve its goals. To that end, we look forward to supporting independent schools through a concept we call concinnity. It’s not a great name for a dog, but it does describe great relationships – something needed in all of our schools.

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