Guest Column

Ingredients for a Board-Savvy Relationship


There are three sure signs of a board-savvy superintendent at work: a school board that consistently produces what we call high-impact governance; a close, positive and productive board-superintendent working partnership; and a school board that takes deep satisfaction in and feels strong ownership of its governing work.

High-impact governing boards make a real difference through their governing activities, setting clear strategic directions to guide a school district’s development, fashioning policies that provide boundaries for current operations, rigorously monitoring short-term educational, administrative and financial performance, evaluating longer-term educational effectiveness, and building close, positive ties with key stakeholders in the community.

The superintendent and the school board are the two most important members of what we call the district’s “strategic leadership team,” whose continuous, close, creative collaboration are essential in areas that are critical for a district’s long-term success: strategic planning, policy formulation, goal setting and public relations, to name but a few.

Neither partner can go it alone. The old-fashioned concept of a board doing its own thing in the policy realm and the superintendent unilaterally executing policies never corresponded to reality. And worse, this outdated notion has eroded many board-superintendent relationships. Not only does the superintendent, as the district’s chief executive officer, need input from a board in making complex, high-stakes decisions with significant long-term impact, the superintendent needs the legitimacy, authority and support of the board in carrying out these decisions. Of course, the board depends heavily on detailed planning and management in carrying out its directions.

A satisfied board is one of the most important indications of a board-savvy CEO at work, and the superintendent’s job security depends heavily on board members’ satisfaction. Superintendents should never forget that school board members are human beings of a special ilk—usually prominent, high-achieving members of a community who bring years of experience, networking and diverse expertise to a district’s boardroom. Their satisfaction depends on their making a significant difference in their governing work, on their feeling like the real owners of their decisions and on their having their normal ego needs met. Board-savvy superintendents pay close attention to ensuring this satisfaction is achieved and sustained.

Traits Required
Experience has taught us that the board-savvy superintendent above all else fulfills four conditions:

* Brings the right attitude to working with the board.
The board-savvy superintendent sees his or her board as a precious asset that is to be fully deployed in leading the school district, rather than as a damage-control challenge. He or she wants the board to be a high-impact governing body that realizes its tremendous leadership promise in practice and fervently believes in working in close partnership with the board.

* Makes governance a top priority.
The board-savvy superintendent adds governance to his or her CEO leadership portfolio, putting it high on the list of critical executive functions. This means the superintendent devotes the time required to become a true expert in this complex, rapidly changing field and he or she regularly dedicates a large chunk of time—somewhere in the range of 20 to 25 percent —to thinking about the governance function and working directly with the board.

Making the board a top CEO priority means not sitting back and waiting for the board to develop itself as a governing body. Rather, the superintendent assumes primary responsibility for helping the board to develop its governing design in the interest of higher-impact governing: defining its role, mapping out its governing work, and developing the structure and processes to accomplish this work. The board-savvy superintendent is a board capacity builder par excellence.

* Focuses consciously on the human dimension of the board-superintendent partnership.
The board-savvy superintendent views his or her partnership with the board as a precious and fragile bond that can be easily broken if not conscientiously and continuously maintained.

One of the most important ways of maintaining the board-superintendent partnership is to consciously manage the human dimension of the relationship, paying close attention to the psychological care and feeding of board members, paying close attention to meeting their ego needs and employing strategies to build feelings of ownership and commitment among them.

Another way is to ensure effective two-way communication. A well-designed process for regular board evaluation of CEO performance can also be a powerful vehicle for keeping the board-CEO partnership healthy.

* Functions as a full-fledged, contemporary CEO.
Board-savvy superintendents do not see themselves narrowly as chief administrative officers whose primary responsibility is representing the administrative staff to the board. Rather, they know that they are full-fledged CEOs and as such more leaders than administrators, and they consequently study CEOship, acquiring the knowledge and skills of contemporary CEOs.

Doug Eadie is founder and chief executive officer of Doug Eadie and Company, 4375 Wheatland Way, Palm Harbor, FL 34685. E-mail: Paul Houston is AASA executive director. This article is adapted from their book, The Board-Savvy Superintendent, recently published by Scarecrow Press.