Board-Savvy Superintendent

A Healthy Recipe for a Presidential Relationship

by Doug Eadie

The superintendents I’ve seen take the time and trouble to build a really solid working partnership with their school board president have realized a powerful return on their investment in relationship building:

Their school boards tend to function as higher-impact governing bodies, doing a more effective job of addressing the really critical strategic and policy issues facing their districts.

Their working relationships with their boards as a whole tend to be close, positive and productive without dysfunctional stresses and strains.

• And their district’s images and public relations strategies benefit from the superintendent and board president creatively collaborating in the external relations arena.

An underdeveloped or eroded board president-superintendent partnership can cause no end of trouble for your school district, making the superintendent’s life miserable, lowering the school board’s governing productivity and tarnishing the district’s image.

Fortunately there are superintendents around the country who have blazed trails in building creative, productive partnerships with their board presidents, providing us with lots of practical wisdom we can apply in a notoriously high-risk arena.

Their experiences are reflected in the following four measures for building a cohesive, positive and productive partnership with the school board president.

• Take the initiative.
Truly board-savvy superintendents take the initiative in building a partnership with their board presidents, not standing back and waiting for relationship problems to occur. They not only see their president as a precious asset to be deployed on behalf of their district and welcome a real partnership with him or her, they also fashion detailed strategies for building and maintaining a positive working relationship. These board-savvy superintendents meet regularly with their board presidents following a well-developed agenda for working through their joint leadership issues.

• Manage the human dimension.
Board-savvy superintendents recognize the human and psychological dimension of their work with their board presidents and consciously manage the relationship from this perspective.

Recognizing their board presidents are ambitious, high-achieving people who have normal ego needs, these superintendents take the trouble to understand what will give their board presidents feelings of satisfaction and make sure they find that satisfaction.

Board-savvy superintendents also employ such strategies as making sure their board presidents are invited to sit in on key interviews with the media, are booked to speak on behalf of the district on important occasions and are involved in meetings with critical constituencies.

In addition, these savvy superintendents take the next step and make sure their presidents are successful by, for example, providing them with a handsome set of PowerPoint slides to use for their presentations in the community or at school board conferences and ensuring they are well briefed on the issues to be discussed at meetings with constituency groups.

• Creatively divide labor.
The successful partnership-building efforts of these board-savvy superintendents are based on a fundamental, broad division of labor: The board president is pre-eminently accountable for leadership of the board as a governing body, and the superintendent is pre-eminently accountable for operation of the total school system within board-fashioned directions, strategies and policies.

Another fundamental premise on which successful partnerships are built is that only the whole board — and never the board president alone — can give direction to the superintendent. Within these broad boundaries, however, there is lots of room for creative division of labor, especially in the public affairs area, where both the board president and superintendent must be involved in speaking for the system and representing it to key constituencies.

I’ve observed board-savvy superintendents who, recognizing this shared agenda, have made a real effort to reach agreement with their board presidents on dividing the external role, deciding, for example, when to share the podium at the chamber of commerce luncheon meeting and who will address the Rotary Club on the issue of school funding. These board-savvy superintendents know that leaving the division of labor vague is a recipe for frustration and relationship erosion.

• Fine-tune regularly.
As we all know, human relationships are notoriously fragile and can erode overnight. Board-savvy superintendents work closely with their board presidents to keep the working partnership healthy and fine-tuned. In this regard, the single most important step is regular, in-depth communication focusing on the relationship itself, not just on district educational and management issues.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie and Co., 3 Sunny Point Terrace, Oldmar, FL 34677. E-mail: doug@dougeadie.com