Superstar Trustees: A Celebration of Service

Alison Cumming, Wickenden Associates
September 7, 2019

Much has been written about the ways in which Boards as a group and trustees as individuals fall short in their efforts to govern. At the same time, we know from our consulting work with nearly 400 schools that many institutions have reaped remarkable benefits from the efforts of extraordinarily dedicated Board members. We’ve also heard many Heads speak with gratitude and admiration about trustees who have offered invaluable professional and personal support.

Clearly, trustees do a number of things really well on a daily basis. First, they demonstrate commitment to the school by contributing their time and talent. Second, they respect the school’s history and traditions by approaching critical decisions with an understanding of what works and what is valued within the school. Third, they give generously to capital campaigns (sometimes up to 25% of the dollar goal), while their contributions often go largely unrecognized by the broader school community. And they work willingly—energized when confronting high-stakes issues such as a change in the school’s mission, the search for a new leader, the launch of a capital campaign, or a major building project.

And there are trustees who even go above and beyond—“superstars” whose contributions to their schools have been exemplary. Over the years, we have had the privilege of hearing from hundreds of Heads who describe the remarkable accomplishments of and enduring relationships forged with these superstar trustees. Their example of extraordinary service should enlighten and inspire others, who wish to make meaningful contributions to the schools they serve. According to our research, superstar trustees tend to share the following characteristics:

A purity of motive. These exemplary trustees serve their schools out of loyalty, gratitude, and commitment to the mission of the institution. They embody the ethos of the servant leader, grateful for the opportunity to give back to the schools they love.

A record of sustained service, often stretching over many years and, in some cases, decades. Their longevity and their willingness to devote significant amounts of time to their trustee obligations make them valuable repositories of wisdom.

An ability to serve their schools in myriad ways. Generalists rather than specialists, these trustees rise to whatever challenges confront their schools. Through it all, they earn the respect, affection, and gratitude of their fellow trustees and their Heads.

Probably one of the most interesting things we learned about these superstars is that, according to Heads, their values mattered the most, while their expertise mattered the least. It’s almost counter-intuitive, given the high value placed on a trustee’s knowledge and skills in areas like governance, fund-raising, education, and finance. But Heads were clear—exemplary trustees are first and foremost exemplary people! They possess high standards and good values. They respect others and are well respected in return. They can be trusted. They have the ability to separate their own interests from the best interests of the school and to focus on the big picture. They are nice people—relationship-builders who bring out the best in others. Heads said they also have other key attributes, like a sense of humor, patience, positivity, flexibility, inclusivity, and courage.

So who are these superstars? They tend to have some distinct powers.

The Builders
These are the superstars, who not only understand good governance, but possess the ability to elevate the performance of their fellow trustees on behalf of the school. Builders have the special ability to make Board meetings more interesting, to strengthen committee work, codify Board policies, rewrite bylaws, and strengthen board unity. They take on the extremely unpopular and difficult task of reining in runaway trustees. Above all, Builders bring out the best in each trustee, while earning the respect and affection of their fellow Board members.

The Givers and Getters
The work of these superstars is evident on campuses across the country—in gleaming new facilities, strengthened faculties, and healthier endowments. Givers and Getters are responsible for donating and raising hundreds of millions of dollars for their schools. More often than not, these exemplary trustees are strategic Givers and Getters—allocating their gifts to areas of greatest need and leveraging their donations to attract the support of other major givers.

The Transformers
Some superstars are pressed into service time and again in the face of school crises or upheavals. It is not an exaggeration to say that these Transformers can be credited with “saving their school” at defining moments. Through bold and decisive leadership, Transformers carry their schools through controversial changes of mission, disruptive changes of leadership, major financial disasters, campus moves, expansions, and contractions. Many also play key roles in the transition to a new Head of School, eventually moving into the Board Chair role.

The Advisors
These superstars forge genuinely close connections to their Heads of School. Advisors are not only mentors but are often close friends and confidants, who care as much about a head’s personal life as his/her professional life. In a lonely and isolating job, Advisors can be relied on for encouragement, perspective, advice, and doses of humor. They offer both public gestures of support and private expressions of criticism that sharpen Heads’ thinking and improve their performance.

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