Breaking in a New Board Chair Without Breaking Anything

It is that time of year when schools celebrate Commencement, which we all know is not an ending so much as a beginning. For many school leaders, this is not only the end of the year but also the commencement of new leadership in the Board Chair role. So as Heads of School begin to clear off piles on their desk, finish late season hiring, and review both accomplishments and plans for the year ahead, it’s easy to assume that a transition in Board leadership will be seamless. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s been a great school year. But a transition in Board leadership is not just a changing of the guard, it’s an opportunity that properly addressed can mean even more success in the years ahead. Don’t be complacent about this transition!

Consider this: If we presume that the two most significant leadership positions in a school are the Head of School and the Board Chair, let’s compare the transition. For a new Head of School, there is a search committee, often a search consultant, offers of transition training, committees to orient the new Head, events to welcome, and a community buzz that points to a promising new chapter in the school’s history. For a new Board Chair, there is a board-level vote, sometimes followed by a short meeting/orientation, and often an announcement with a letter from the new Chair. That’s about it.

Let’s upgrade this transition. What steps would a school’s Board and Head of School take to truly optimize this change in leadership?

  • Recognize that the relationship between the new Chair and Head of School will be different.
  • Establish (re-establish) the basic protocols: Goal setting, Head contract/compensation procedures, evaluation procedures.
  • Familiarize each partner with each other’s background. What has the Head accomplished thus far? What are the imminent and long-term challenges? What are the passions that drive the Chair’s desire to lead this organization?
  • Codify communication expectations.
  • Jointly communicate to faculty, staff, and external audiences. Consider events to introduce the new Chair and show off the Head of School/Chair partnership.
  • Review scenarios that the two might experience in the year ahead – expected and unexpected – and rehearse how together you will handle them.
  • Commit to participating in a facilitated relationship-building exercise through an advisor/leadership coach or by attending a workshop together.
  • Don’t forget the spouses. Include them in the transition.

Changes are exciting for those in the transition but often concern other constituents. They are also the moment when expectations are solidified and a foundation for trust begins to be built. If you have a new Board Chair at your school, don’t start your summer vacation or launch any new initiatives without paying meaningful attention to this moment – it’s the only way to break in a new Chair without breaking anything.

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