It’s Time for a Governance Tune Up!

Wickenden Associates
September 5, 2019

Board-Head relationships are as individualized as the independent schools where they occur. Because each Head brings his or her own style of interacting with the Board President, committees, and the Board as a whole, the new Head will likely influence the ground rules under which the Board operates. At the same time, it is important for the Board to be clear about its own expectations and obligations in the Board-Head partnership.

Because a strong and supportive Board is the best gift you can give your new Head, it’s important that the Board be operating at the top of its game when the new Head arrives. We recommend that the Committee on Trustees be assigned the task of reviewing the Board’s recent performance, identifying potential threats to a healthy Board-Head relationship, and leading the Board in a discussion of steps it can take to strengthen its own performance.

This review is particularly important if governance issues contributed to the departure of the outgoing Head. But even schools undergoing an orderly transition can benefit from a review of Board practice. Among the questions that should be asked as part of this review process are the following:

  1. Does the Board have an effective process in place to identify new trustees? How deep is the bench? With a new Head of School about to arrive, there’s no time like the present to fill the leadership pipeline with wise and knowledgeable trustee candidates, who are deeply committed to the school.
  2. To what extent are new trustees effectively oriented to their roles and responsibilities? Particularly important at the time of a new Head’s arrival is a clear policy governing how trustees will respond to the criticisms they will hear from disgruntled parents and faculty members. Trustees should be advised to bring such information to the President of the Board rather than to the Head. The President can then determine whether and how this information should be brought to the Head’s attention.
  3. Are trustees who behave in inappropriate ways counseled promptly and removed if necessary?
  4. Is the confidentiality of Board deliberations an issue?
    Does the Board maintain an up-to-date policy manual that codifies its position on essential issues?
  5. Is there a well-documented Head of School evaluation process in place? If not, create one. There is nothing more disconcerting for a new Head than to have the Board suddenly raise the issue of an evaluation on the heels of a brewing controversy. It is far better to design an evaluation process early on that is linked to the Charge to the Head and the goals the Board wants the Head to pursue.

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