There are some governance practices that make leadership searches easier on schools and districts, and we owe it to our clients to tell you about them even though we should never tell you how to run your schools.
Here are our three favorite pieces of advice for boards in their support of leadership searches:
1. Stay out of school operations even when “we have to do it.”
Despite everyone’s good intentions, when board members get involved in the day-to-day operations of a school or district, it has the immediately corrosive effect of undermining the authority of the professional hired by the board to run the organization.
Once the authority structure has been undermined and the chain of command has been short-circuited, employee morale falls because their input gets overridden. When students experience low teacher morale, it gets back to the parents, who then complain… to the board.
As faculty and parents interview leader candidates, word gets out that “the board is very involved.” Details come out, and qualified candidates get nervous. Would you want your authority to be undermined, your reputation to be on the line where you don’t have control, and your people’s morale to be low?
Staying out of school operations demonstrates to your community and to candidates that your board can work collaboratively within the requirements of almost every accreditation agency, that you follow the recommendations of almost every board-governance advisory firm, and that you will respect their authority once they’re hired.
2. Establish and advertise an open process for participation on the board.
It’s pretty common for parents and teachers, particularly in private schools, to feel that board members are distant and that trust has not been established with them.
Public school boards are usually democratically elected, but private-school boards are not usually elected by open vote. Even without an open vote, there are processes that make parents, teachers, and candidates feel more connect to and positive about the board’s composition:
• Send an email once a year calling for nominations for the board. Link the email to your board’s web page, which should contain information about the board-nomination process and a form to express interest in board participation. The form should include an opportunity to express alignment with the mission of the school, commitment to the school, and skill set relevant to your board’s needs.
• Reply to each nomination with a request to meet, interviewing potential nominees about their mission alignment, commitment to the school, and skill set relevant to your board’s needs.
• For the nominees whose mission alignment, commitment, and skill sets are relevant to the board’s needs, assign them to a standing board committee as a non-board member of that committee. They should serve a one-to-two-year term as a non-board member of that committee.
• For committee members whose committee service demonstrate their ability to work collaboratively, to be responsive, to add value, to maintain the mission and vision of the school, and to honor the boundaries of volunteer service, they may be nominated after their committee term to be elected to the board.
• Ideally, board members serve finite terms (typically two-to-three years per term) and a finite number of terms (typically six total years) prior to rolling off the board for a term. Term lengths and limits allow fresh thinking to join the board while retaining organizational memory and culture, as well.
3. Achieve consensus on the hire.
At the end of the search, you should vote unanimously on your hire for Head of School or Superintendent. Knowledgeable leaders will not want to work for a split board. And you want a knowledgeable, rather than naïve, educational leader. So find a way to achieve unanimity.
If you can work together to these three governance goals, you will have a much easier time hiring — and, ultimately, retaining — expert school leaders.