Board-Savvy Superintendent

Adding Spice to Prevent Burnout

by DOUG EADIE

With few exceptions, school board members are paid little if anything for their governing service. Yet the work of governing a modern school district is tremendously demanding in the best of times and all too often is downright grueling.

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Dealing with a never-ending succession of complex, high-stakes issues, such as significant revenue shortfalls, seriously underperforming schools and safety, can grind down school board members, leaving them dispirited and burned out.


What this means in practice is that board-savvy superintendents who want a rock-solid partnership with their board must pay close attention to providing board members with nonmonetary compensation to counteract the inevitable wear and tear of governing work.

The most valuable form of nonmonetary currency, as any effective chief executive knows, is the systematic, in-depth involvement of board members in making high-stakes governing decisions and judgments about complex issues. This requires participation in well-designed board committees and meticulously crafted processes, such as strategic and operational planning. Nothing is more energizing and satisfying than doing important, high-level work well.

A Theatrical Producer
A previous column of mine (The School Administrator, December 2010) talks about the need for superintendents to address the normal ego needs of their board members, wearing the psychologist-in-chief hat. Effective superintendents also compensate their board members by adding spice to the governing stew, wearing the theatrical-producer hat.

As theatrical producers, these superintendents concentrate on making their board members’ governing experience more interesting, entertaining and sometimes even dramatic as an antidote to governing burnout. Take the following case in point, which is based on real-life experiences, though the names of the individuals and their school districts are pseudonyms.

“We did it! Great job everyone,” said school board president Tom Halsey at the end of the sixth meeting of the governance task force of Riverdale School District. “Thanks for all the time you’ve given to getting a really top-notch report ready for the November 9 board work session.”

Halsey couldn’t have been more pleased. The task force members kept their collective nose to the grindstone, and with the help of Superintendent Grace Mendenhall and their consultant, they’d produced a detailed, 35-page report to the board recommending practical, easy-to-implement steps to strengthen the board’s leadership capacity.

The board members on the task force assumed their job was finished, but Mendenhall, wearing the theatrical-producer hat, begged to disagree. “Before we head our separate ways this afternoon, guys and gals,” she said, “we’ve got to think about the presentation of the report. You have a right to be proud — it’s a great document — but it won’t speak for itself. Compelling logic and well-crafted words won’t get the sales job done.”

The superintendent went on to recommend that key points in the report be put into a PowerPoint presentation that the task force members would divvy up among themselves. She also insisted, despite some grumbling from a couple of board members, they hold a full dress rehearsal to go over the slides before the board work session.

Mendenhall also talked about the need to add drama to the board’s work session by staging it at the media center in a room large enough to seat task force members at a head table facing the assembled board and executive team members seated in a horseshoe setup. As it turned out, the work session went beautifully, resulting in unanimous acceptance of the task force recommendations.

Chatting after the session, Halsey pointed to an added plus. “You know, Grace, I’d never made a PowerPoint presentation before, and I really appreciate your forcing this old dog to learn a new trick that I’ll put to use down the road.”

Enrichment Options
Less-elaborate tactics exist for board-savvy superintendents to enrich the governing experience, wearing the theatrical-producer hat.
You can add spice to the monthly board meeting by spotlighting exemplary faculty efforts, noteworthy student achievements and innovative new programs — not in writing, but by having the faculty members and students appear personally.

You can ensure the monthly superintendent’s report to the board is not just a ho-hum recitation of district events but a more personal view from the top that reports on interesting “CEO-centric” experiences and activities, such as a major speaking engagement before a national audience.

You can add drama to the annual board-superintend­ent-executive staff retreat, for example by making sure the planning committee’s opening presentation on trends pertinent to the district’s mission includes handsomely produced slides that make use of creative graphics.

And you can make sure board members regularly are offered opportunities to attend state and national conferences dealing with education and governance matters.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie and Co. in Oldsmar, Fla. E-mail: doug@dougeadie.com