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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

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Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Independent school heads are in the middle of their own pandemic Odyssey. I won't speculate which of the pandemic's 24 books is July's, but from my conversations with heads in the last two weeks, the title is "Human Resources and Governance," and it's the latter that I'd like to take up here.

At this moment in mid-July, independent school leaders have published their fall plans, or plan to do so in the next few weeks. Heads are thinking closely now about preparing trustees to be confident, knowledgeable ambassadors for these plans, particularly their dynamic edges. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of the board speaking with one voice, a central tenet of governance in any season and of critical importance in this crisis. In that piece I covered the head's role as the board's teacher, the board chair's role as the whip, and the responsibility of trustees to own the plan publicly. In this piece, I'd like to dig a little further into this matter of public ownership.

In new trustee orientations and governance workshops, I present the importance of presence as the much more rewarding counterpoint to the several "freedoms" that people relinquish when joining an independent school board: kvetching, second-guessing, cliquishness, even the mildest gossip. In its place is the opportunity to have a positive impact on school culture and the school's prospects for the future by simply showing up. At day schools in particular, trustee attendance at school events and activities assures members of the school community that trustees are engaged, enthusiastic supporters of the school as it exists today. Even better, trustees who listen for opportunities to congratulate and praise, introduce people to each other, inform, direct people to proper channels wield an enormous, positive influence on school culture, potentially far greater than any of the board's formal communications. And yet, anxious about the major commitment of time for direct board activities alone, board leaders consistently undersell the importance of collateral trustee presence when they recruit and orient new trustees. And, although not every trustee can meet the ideal, each should understand that attending most major activities is an expectation. You can be certain that your Director of Development is counting trustees at your yearly gala, as is the Development Committee Chair from two cycles back, and a couple of long-serving teachers, and that, no matter how pleasant the venue and cocktails, a capital campaign donor event devoid of trustees will have the exact opposite effect you intended. I've encountered some boards with highly-evolved evaluation processes in which trustees hold themselves accountable by setting thresholds and collecting attendance data on all direct board activity and command-performance community events.

Now, as we've all discovered through our various experiences as leaders (including as parents), it's one thing to emcee the celebration, quite another to "run toward trouble." This is the place where trustees will need to push hardest against their instincts, which will be heightened in the midst of schools' responses to the crisis, especially now that it has become, on cue, factionalized and politicized. The moments when trustees felt uncomfortable about showing up on campus in the past--when the tuition rate of increase goes public, or during that difficult disciplinary incident or head turnover--will seem quaint by comparison. Further complicating the matter is the likelihood that "showing up" will be difficult next year if some of the school year transpires remotely, or if non-employee adults are not allowed on campus. If your school is fortunate enough to have an administrator overseeing marketing and communication, I recommend that the board chair and head work with that person to create a small workshop for trustees, complete with resources and practice using tools that would allow them to be present remotely. Some of this will be a simple matter of making sure they're on the distribution list for remote events. More of it could be strategic, directed by the board chair in collaboration with the head to wield influence in the community by asking trustees to make calls to community members to shape views, direct concerns. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but I don't think trustees should engage the community in social media spaces where "takes" rather than rational conversation are the currency of the realm. If you don't have such a professional on staff, or if you wish to wrap a more complete overview of governance around this moment, a consultant is a very wise investment at this moment.

Think of this journey as one long series of case studies, a fair description of the Odyssey and, if boards can make the time for preparation, an opportunity for collective and individual growth in governance at your school.

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