Building Trust between the Head and Board

Jim Wickenden, Founder, Wickenden Associates
September 12, 2019

Truly collegial relationships between Board and Head are not that common; most are hierarchical in one direction or the other, with either the Head or the Board clearly in control. Furthermore, given the plethora of examples in the independent school world of Board-Head partnerships that have gone sour, many Heads are understandably wary about opening up to their Boards, sharing unsolved problems or issues. It is unrealistic to expect that this trust can be developed quickly or easily within the boardroom; the ground work must be laid carefully and consciously by both the Board and the Head.

First, a clearly articulated, annual Head evaluation process is an essential step in creating this requisite climate of trust. A Board that wants its Head to be open about critical issues facing the school needs to state that it intends to evaluate the Head on the quality of the issues he or she brings to the Board, as well as on the number of problems solved. An annual goal-setting session between Board and Head, with mutually agreed upon measures of success, ought to be among the first items of business for any Board. Boards should also annually assess their own performance, inviting the Head to contribute constructive criticism as part of that process.

Throughout the year, individual trustees can contribute to a healthy Board-Head relationship by viewing themselves as both an intellectual and an emotional support system for the Head. Even under the best of circumstances, independent school headship is a difficult job; trustees can help by balancing their natural tendencies to be institutional critics with concerted efforts to celebrate successes and to commiserate when thorny problems surface. All Heads need to feel that they can confide in Board members without fear that confidentiality will be breached.

Heads, in turn, need to recognize that trustees also want to feel valued and to know that they are making an important contribution to the institution. While most Heads are careful to cultivate relationships with the Board chair and a few key trustees, fewer make a real effort to forge a connection with each and every trustee by tapping their particular areas of expertise, acknowledging their individual concerns or occasionally seeking their counsel. Those, too, are trust-building activities that can help to create a climate of mutual respect.

Second, Boards should not employ a haphazard approach to collecting and using data in the governance process, because Heads must rely on trustees to make data-driven decisions in a consistent way. To do so, Boards need to identify critical success factors (Taylor, Chait and Holland, 1996) and then develop a governance information system to ensure continuous monitoring of the data. In addition to ongoing baseline data, Boards should also decide what information it needs to determine strategic priorities and monitor progress toward achieving current goals. For example, a school trying to decide the appropriate balance of academics, arts, and athletics in its mission and program can collect data comparing allocation of financial and staff resources in the three areas, student hours devoted to each, etc. The Board can then achieve a picture of current practice and monitor progress in shifting the balance. Each time a policy is adopted or revised, Boards can specify what information will be reviewed to monitor compliance with the policy and how often that information should be shared with the Board.