Updated: Jun 24, 2021
An item for heads' to-do lists for later this summer: a conversation with the board chair about a board reset. The pandemic thrust boards into operational detail, blew up the board calendar, interrupted long range projects and tested the relationship of the board with the head and the rest of the school community. The results of this conversation should materialize in early board activities, particularly orientation of new trustees and non-trustee committee members. If your board has not historically held a fall retreat, this would be a great year to put one in place.
Perhaps your school was fortunate to have a deep-groove board calendar, a long-serving chair, and even better, a long-serving head's assistant, and you have great confidence that the board's rhythms will snap back into place with little additional oversight. Or, perhaps the pandemic exacerbated existing weaknesses in board planning or arrived at a moment of leadership transition. Now is the time to program the yearly work of the board and any long range projects so that members can plug it all into their professional and personal calendars.
Boards spent much of the past 15 months engaged in operational planning in response to the shifting conditions of the pandemic. Some boards will take up back burnered projects like strategic planning, or facility master planning, or accreditation, and thereby elevate the board's gaze to more distant horizons. For schools not at such a serendipitous moment, I recommend that the summer time board chair/head conversation moves next to the earliest Executive Committee session for a review of the operational details they'll leave behind this year, a gleaning of initiatives that were uncovered over the last 15 months and some initial planning for their execution. Much of this work would fit nicely into a fall Saturday mini-retreat, a great way to set the course of the year.
Convenience and Community
Like most organizations, boards should ask themselves how videoconference meetings could become a permanent way of doing work. Particularly for day schools, Zoom calls offer extraordinary convenience and could expand the pool of potential board members to include the geographically distant and those with complicated and less flexible work hours. That said, in-person meetings provide trustees with organic opportunities to see the life of the school, and they create moments for trustees to build collegial relationships with their colleagues. We strongly recommend that board chairs provide direction on this matter to committee chairs. Boards with a strong culture of collegiality do better analytical and strategic work.
Heads have endured what has almost certainly been the most harrowing year of their professional lives. They have hemorrhaged political capital, made excruciating decisions, and supported an increasingly fragile community. Starting with approving the head's yearly goals in the very first full board meeting (even better, an early September mini-retreat), the board should plan concrete ways to support the head of school. What does this mean? Pull your weight in the board room, observe governance best practices, publicly praise the head's work, thank the head for her good work, help the head stake out personal time, diligently and efficiently carry out the head's evaluation and contract negotiations, drop by the head's office with a cup of coffee every once in a while.