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The Board Chair Factor: Elevating Schools from Good to Great

By March 20, 2024No Comments

After visiting a couple of hundred schools over the last decade, there is one clear thing a school must do to build a strong, thriving institution. It is not something every school should do, it is something they must do. Doing this one thing will do more to advance a school’s mission than almost anything else. What is the one thing every school must do? Find the right board chair.

Every flourishing school I have observed reached a point in the life of the school when it became necessary to govern in a more sophisticated way; when the challenges and opportunities required a higher level of focus, engagement, and organizational excellence. Usually, the need for stronger governance corresponds with the need for more space, fundraising, building a leadership team, redefining the head’s role, and growing the operations. When this happens, the school needs strong leadership at the board level. They need to find the right board chair to help the school develop a clear vision, steward resources, and, most importantly, create a sustainable governing infrastructure built on best practices. The chair is usually the one who decides this must finally be done. The best ones don’t shoulder it all alone, but rally the board around a vision to take their school to the next level.

However, after a lot of hard work and effort to establish the school on solid footing, oftentimes boards become fatigued. They feel like it is time to let the Head do his thing and go into maintenance mode. Boards at this stage realize they should not be operational, but they don’t really know what it means to be strategic.

The schools that tend to advance more quickly find the right chair. Then, what follows is a remarkable series of events. The board acquires the knowledge and skills to appropriately govern the school’s needs, the head is encouraged and energized (and excited about the future), and the vision is clearly articulated to the community, which brings in support and funding. There is momentum and purpose; faculty don’t see it directly, but they feel it… the security, stability, and the focus on the right things. To be clear, this transition is not easy and every chair should count the cost. However, make no mistake, the board chair is key. The chair first sees her responsibility with a strong sense of conviction and sobriety. She is not front and center. Great board chairs are powerhouse leaders who know people, processes, and the profound impact of one motivated leader. Find that chair! Be that chair!

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