February 2020

Member query:

The 2018 NAIS Governance Study indicates that 87% of Heads of School and 97% of Board Chairs rate “guiding and supporting the Head of School” as very or extremely important. 67% of Heads indicate Boards do that very well or extremely well whereas 83% of Board Chairs indicate the same. In the NAIS Head Turnover Report, published February 2020, NAIS writes the following referring to the above statistics: “In particular, ‘guiding and supporting the school head’ was ranked more important (by 10 percentage points) by board chairs than by heads. This suggests that some boards may try to exert more influence over the head than the head believes they should or that some new heads arrive unprepared to deal with the complexities of their roles and need (or are perceived as needing ) additional support.” Given that Boards are told time and time again that they need to establish a strong partnership with the Head of School and support the Head, my questions for you are:


1. What do you make of NAIS’ comments on the interpretation of the reported statistics?

Cathy’s reply:

Like all data regarding beliefs people hold about the relative importance of various items and how well people perform on those items, these are open to interpretation and, unless we’re in the minds of the raters, one interpretation is as good as the next. I have a somewhat different view about these ratings from the ones expressed by NAIS (but not saying mine is better). My interpretation is that darn near everyone—Heads and Board Chairs alike—feels that “guiding and supporting the Head of School” is “very” or “extremely” important. Having said that, to my mind, “guiding” and “supporting” are two different things (which is why surveys should avoid “and” questions). I would think that 100% of respondents would say that “supporting” the Head is “very” or “extremely” important if your idea of the meaning of “supporting” is the same as mine—providing sage counsel, having the Head’s back, being clear about expectations, candid feedback, etc.). But “guiding” is another matter, as that is very subjective. One person’s “guiding” is another’s “controlling” or telling the Head how to do their job which is not the Board Chair’s job. It’s possible that Heads were focused a bit more on the “guiding” part and perhaps Chairs were thinking “supporting.”

The percentages about performance of boards in “guiding and supporting” are more interesting and not at all atypical. Many boards (and board chairs) have an inflated sense of how great they are. And, of course, like beauty—it’s in the eyes of the beholder. Some, perhaps most, heads would find it challenging to tell their boss (the Board Chair) that their “guidance” is not helpful or is in fact misguided.


2. What does ’supporting and guiding the Head of School’ ideally look like for a Board?

Cathy’s reply:

‘Ideal’ is also a matter of opinion so there’s no one size fits all approach. I believe that the Head and Board Chair should discuss what they each need and want from the other; in other words, define “ideal” together. And then discuss the action steps to take to ensure high performance. It’s critical to stay focused on the partnership and understand that, like any relationship, things evolve and what’s needed changes over time. For example, more time, guidance, and support are typically called for in times of crisis than when things are humming along smoothly. Also, it’s important for the Board Chair to ensure that all board members understand how the Head wishes to be supported and to rein in trustees who sometimes overstep (knowingly or not). Essential roles of the chair are guiding the board to high performance, leading by example, and being the conduit between Head and Board.

For more on the topic of the CEO-Chair partnership, see Chapter 6 of my book, The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High Performing Nonprofits Boards (Jossey-Bass, 2013). For more on being a great chair, see AGB Trusteeship, Jan/Feb 2020, 28(1): 36 – “So, You’re the Board Chair.