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Five Attributes of a Great Board Chair

By November 28, 2023December 21st, 2023No Comments

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Three impactful decisions weigh on the board as they carry out their responsibility to safeguard the mission of their school: 1) choosing the head of school, 2) choosing future board members, and 3) choosing the board chair.

If a board takes each of these decisions as seriously as their potential impact warrants, then it does about 80% of its job well. Boards usually understand the weight of the head decision but rarely give the other two decisions sufficient consideration. The first step for a board selecting a great board chair or for a chair becoming one, is to understand what one looks like.

 

First: A Great Chair is Restrained

In many ways, being chosen as a board chair is the antithesis of a privilege.  The chair must be willing to relinquish the rights of a regular board member instead of obtaining additional ones. Since the chair is responsible for running the board’s meetings, it would be easy for the chair to give him or herself the floor first, last, and often in between, especially on issues of great personal interest. To do so, however, is to manipulate the conversation; to put a proverbial thumb on the scale of the board’s decision-making. In 2018 The Harvard Business Review published an article focused on the private sector entitled, “How to Be a Good Board Chair” (https://hbr.org/2018/03/how-to-be-a-good-board-chair). In it, one board chair boiled this down to a simple rule: “Avoid the use of ‘I,’ and never take up more than 10% of the airtime during any board meeting.” 

Whenever I say this to a group of board chairs, some resist. They believe they can simultaneously hold and express strong views while ensuring a full and robust conversation.  They are rarely objective about the dynamics of their boardrooms. Every classical, Christian board has members, often a majority, who do not enjoy vigorous, confrontational debate. After all, productive conflict is not a common hallmark of Christian non-profits. Faced with a forceful opinion, especially one held by the leader, many will choose to modify their own comments at best and remain silent at worst. Inevitably board members feel marginalized, decisions carry less buy-in, and in the worst cases, heads become frustrated with board decisions that seem increasingly illegitimate.

 

Second: A Great Chair Safeguards the Process

Every time I mention the importance of the process, people visibly lose interest.  I suspect instead of “process” they hear “bureaucracy.” If you are one of those people, stay with me. I am not advocating a strict adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order. While some predictable meeting structure is necessary to respect people’s time and create a clear record of board decisions, rigid parliamentarianism is counterproductive. By “respect for the process,” I mean that a board chair must believe that all board-level decisions belong to the board. That seems like an obvious tautology, but in my experience, it is one of the two primary and most damaging ways that board chairs go wrong (the other is by being overly passive—see attributes four and five below).

It is easy for a board chair to begin to believe that he or she can clearly see what ought to happen.  After all, the board chair is often elected because of demonstrated leadership and sound judgment. Strong and vocal leaders are accustomed to rallying the troops and galvanizing action, but that is not the board chair’s role. That is the job of the head. The board of a classical, Christian school is a unique organism. It is responsible for collective decision-making, and it is the chair’s job to ensure that decisions are in fact collective.  Note that I do not say that the board is a consensus decision-making body. It is not. At decision time there is a vote. The majority wins and the minority loses. Once the vote is taken, all board members are expected to fully support the decision even if they did not vote for it. It is the chair’s job to ensure that everyone has voiced their opinions in the boardroom prior to that vote. Tepid debate in the boardroom and coalition-building discussions outside the boardroom both destroy collective decision-making.

A board is composed of board members who are equally powerful when they are gathered together (they each have one vote, the chair included) and equally powerless when they are not (individually they have no status or authority). In my experience, and my reading of the Bible, God promises to give us wisdom when we seek it from Him, but He does not often give it until we need it. A classical, Christian school board does not need God’s wisdom until it is gathered together because until that moment there is no “board.” There is only a collection of individuals with no authority. A great board chair must have both the respect for the working of the Holy Spirit and the humility to be open to the possibility, even the probability, that the wisdom of the group when gathered will be different from individual opinions outside the boardroom, including his or her own, no matter how deeply felt.

 

Third: A Great Chair is Discerning

The chair is responsible for productive and complete discussion that is still reasonably efficient. This requires the chair to exercise discernment and tact. The chair must discern when there are things not being said that should be. Are there opinions voiced outside the boardroom but not inside? Body language that suggests concerns? Conversely, have all the opinions been aired, and is the board now on its third time around the same track? Is there a board member monopolizing the conversation? Has a board member inappropriately picked back up his parent hat? The board chair must keep the discussion productive and appropriate, ensuring full debate while simultaneously respecting the time of everyone involved. 

Outside the boardroom, the chair must be equally discerning. What is the head’s relationship with the chair? With the board? Are there any board members struggling with their commitments? Is there anything brewing or any blind spots that ought to be addressed and if so, what is the appropriate avenue for doing so? The great chair never forgets that it is his or her job to wade into board issues, but it’s the head’s job to take care of school issues.  Navigating that line well requires prayer, patience, and finesse.

 

Fourth: A Great Chair Doesn’t Avoid Conflict

Discernment is not much use if the chair is not willing to act upon it. It is ironic how many boards worry that their head may be slow to give difficult feedback to employees when those same boards won’t discipline their members. Everyone would prefer to avoid the awkward conversation with a fellow board member who has missed too many meetings, doesn’t participate in the conversation, or participates too much or in the wrong ways but doing so in a selfish abdication of responsibility. The school deserves to have its board function at its best, the errant board member deserves the opportunity to learn and grow, and the other members of the board deserve to have their sacrifice of time honored. A great chair knows these goals are more important than personal discomfort. Likewise, a great chair ensures the head gets timely and accurate feedback usually through a Head Support and Evaluation Committee or its equivalent. Feedback that isn’t fully honest robs the head of the opportunity to learn and improve and to do so quickly. Failing to give that feedback also violates the responsibility of the chair and the board to do what is in the best interests of the school. A great board chair knows that love requires the courage to speak the truth even when the recipient might not want to hear it.

 

Fifth: A Great Chair Commits the Time

Finding someone who has the temperament and experience to be a great board chair is hard.  Schools can make it impossible by requiring an untenable time commitment. This is one of the main reasons boards should consider meeting no more than 4 to 6 times per year. Board chairs serve on multiple committees, meet regularly with the head, and shoulder significant preparation for each meeting. The cumulative burden for a board that meets monthly quickly becomes unsustainable for most potential leaders. Too many meetings can overtax not only your chair but your head. In an April article entitled “What Schools Can Do to Attract Heads of School” (https://betterschoolsllc.wordpress.com/) Chuck Evans of Better Schools noted that: “…boards need to meet less frequently and do their work more efficiently. Eleven or twelve scheduled meetings a year, plus a board retreat, plus committee meetings can take an exhausting toll on a conscientious head…other than a couple of start-ups, I havent encountered one school board in the past decade that should need to meet more than six times a year.”

Even if your board meets only 4 to 6 times a year, however, the chair’s job requires a serious investment of time. First, the chair must be available to the head. Available means picking up the phone; returning calls, emails, and texts within a day or less; and coming in for a meeting when requested. The chair holds two truths in mind simultaneously: he or she is not the head’s boss but in between meetings of the board or the Head Support and Evaluation Committee, the chair is the one person the Head can approach to get input, reaction, and advice that will most closely reflect the likely opinions of the “boss.” It’s the chair’s job to be the liaison that facilitates the relationship between the head and the board. That takes time.

Second, the chair must commit the time to ensure the board runs well. This goes beyond leading the actual meetings. A thriving board requires a strategic plan, financial plan, and an annual agenda generating clear committee charges and deadlines. It has reports and recommendations submitted in advance, and its members come prepared. While the chair shouldn’t carry this burden alone (the board secretary position is woefully underutilized by most boards), the chair is responsible for making sure that all the necessary preparation gets done and that takes time.

Third, the chair must commit to learning, preserving, and passing on the best practices that the board has developed and continue to build upon them. This requires personal and full board continuing education. Once again, this is a responsibility best shared with others. A strong Committee on Trustees should be the chair’s primary ally but the responsibility remains the chair’s. That too takes time.

In addition to spending days (months? years?) in board meetings over the past two decades, I have had the privilege of spending time with many of our best and longest-serving classical, Christian school heads. I love hearing their stories. Everyone has a tale of the time they almost left the profession and every one of those stories involves a board chair that was either the cause of their crisis or saved them from it. Let’s create more of the latter. Let’s be thoughtful about what it takes to make our boards, our heads, and through them, our schools, thrive.

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