Board-Savvy Superintendent

The Board President-Superintendent Team

by DOUG EADIE

The board president and superintendent don’t automatically become a cohesive leadership team even when both are passionately committed to their school district’s mission and educational success. After all, not only is this an arranged professional marriage having little to do with either party’s preferences, the pairing is also usually more a matter of circumstance than conscious matchmaking. Only rarely does a board president get the opportunity to play a leading role in choosing the superintendent with whom he or she is paired, and virtually never does a superintendent get to influence the choice of the board president.

In light of this random pairing, as well as the fact that people at the top are apt to be strong willed and blessed with ample ego needs, it is just as likely that tension and occasional clashes will characterize the board-superintendent relationship as it is that the relationship will be harmonious. However, making the effort to build a cohesive board president-superintendent leadership team will yield powerful benefits in terms of building your board’s capacity to do the kind of high-impact governing these challenging times demand and averting board president-superintendent conflict that can interfere with the board’s governing work and even damage your district’s reputation.

Over the past quarter-century, I have learned three key lessons from observing board presidents and superintendents who have built and sustained close, productive and mutually satisfying working partnerships that have served their districts well:

• Lesson No. 1: Superintendent initiative
The superintendents I’ve observed who are members of really effective president-superintendent leadership teams have taken the initiative in building and managing the partnership with their president, not standing back and waiting for relationship problems to occur and merely reacting to them. They not only see their board president as a tremendously precious asset to be deployed on behalf of their district and welcome a real partnership with their president, they also fashion detailed strategies for building and maintaining a positive working relationship. For example, the highly successful superintendent of a large suburban district meets with her board president once a month over lunch, solely for the purpose of discussing the partnership and working through any joint leadership issues that have developed.

• Lesson No. 2: Attention to the emotional dimension
The superintendents I have observed who are successful at partnership building recognize the psychological and emotional dimension of their work with their board presidents and pay close attention to this aspect of the relationship. Recognizing that their board presidents are ambitious, high-achieving people who have normal ego needs, these savvy superintendents take the trouble to understand what will give their board chairs feelings of satisfaction and make sure they find that satisfaction without in any way violating canons of sound educational leadership and management.

For example, the superintendent of a large urban district, learning that his board president was interested in community economic development, made a point of inviting the president to sit in on a series of economic development discussions with the mayor, chair of the county commission and CEO of the chamber of commerce. A rural superintendent, knowing her board president seriously wanted to become a more effective public speaker, made sure that the president was regularly booked to speak before community groups. This savvy superintendent even took the trouble to have a PowerPoint slide presentation developed for these presentations and made sure her president had an opportunity to rehearse before a small group of senior administrators.

Taking the trouble to help their presidents find satisfaction, these savvy superintendents built an emotional line of credit with their presidents while also engaging in legitimate district business.

• Lesson No. 3: Creative division of labor
Successful board president-superintendent partnerships are built on the foundation of the partners’ mutual acceptance of a fundamental division of labor: (1) the board president is pre-eminently accountable for leadership of the school board as a governing body, with the superintendent’s active support; (2) the superintendent is pre-eminently accountable for operation of the total school district within board-fashioned directions, strategies and policies; and (3) external relations is shared leadership turf, with both the board president and superintendent speaking on behalf of the district and representing it to key constituencies.

The successful superintendents I’ve observed, recognizing this shared agenda, make a real effort to reach agreement with their board presidents on dividing the external role. They decide, for example, when it makes sense to appear side-by-side before the county commission to discuss the district’s financial condition and the need for a property tax increase and who will address the Rotary Club on the issue of the schools’ efforts to strengthen educational performance. These board-savvy superintendents know that leaving the division of labor in the external relations area vague is a recipe for frustration and relationship erosion.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie & Co., 4375 Wheatland Way, Palm Harbor, FL 34685. E-mail: DEadiePres@aol.com. He is the author of Eight Keys to an Extraordinary Board-Superintendent Partnership and co-author (with Paul Houston) of The Board-Savvy Superintendent.