Building the All-Important Chair-Head Relationship

Many times it has been said that the most important relationship in a school is that between the board chair and the head. Too often, the commentary ends there, yet many questions flow from that position. If one agrees that this statement is true, an obvious strategic initiative is developed: Build the relationship! What, then, are the key ingredients of this chair-head relationship, and how is it developed to a tensile strength that can sustain a healthy school?

Like most strong relationships, the foundation lies in the trust that stems from authenticity, honesty, and mutual respect.

With both of us currently in our first year of our respective roles, we have been able to use the transition as an opportunity to know each other better. The board made a helpful decision to name its chair-elect as search committee chair, so we were getting to know each other when we were still in the interview process. Once the hire was made, a collaborative goal-setting process helped not only flesh out our roles but also get on the same page about the school’s general strategic trajectory, before the first day of school. After these interactions, it was just a few loose meetings with a meandering agenda — and a few more formal ones — before we started sharing a vision and understanding each other’s strengths to help us get there.

We share a belief that an essential element of a good chair/head relationship is an agreement to approach the work as a team. Here are some points we outlined at the outset of our collaboration:

Agree on Parameters. Each office holds clearly different responsibilities, and also some responsibilities where the lines become a little gray. Agreeing to these parameters ahead of time helps inform a strong, enduring partnership. When you can’t agree, the parameters provide a decision framework for how to resolve the disagreement. They set expectations and build mutual understanding of an articulated – though not punctilious – sense of boundary.

Talk Openly about Vision. In the steady current of ‘keeping each other in the loop,’ it’s easy to get caught up in details and the day-to-day – exactly where you don’t want to be. Conversations about vision keep the focus on the big picture and also help flesh out ideas before they’re ready for prime time. These discussions of shared vision nurture agreement on the bigger actions that grow from them, and build partnership around the most important steps the school will take.

Interaction in Diverse Ways. Building a strong partnership can be aided by a variety of communications. Office meetings and phone calls are likely the sine qua non, of course, but opportunities for lunch, a family dinner, or just a drink on the back porch – not to mention participation in some common interest – all expose sides of a person that help build knowledge, trust, and, in turn, partnership. Parameters can be established explicitly, or they can find themselves. One must always be honest if any personal boundary is approached. While the partnership is about the work of schools, spending time in each other’s company should be fun.

Be Honest, Be Yourself. No matter what, tell each other the trust. That means that when the trust is difficult to hear, responses must be genuine but carefully expressed; anger or disrespect in either direction can be a deterrent to open honesty the next time. A deterrent to honesty can lead to surprises, lies of omission, and a lack a clarity on institutional direction. If you are not yourself in the interactions, the relationship could eventually become forces and ineffective.

Remain Unified. In a partnership, there is a single voice. That is not to say only one person speaks, but that two people send the same message. With relational integrity, debate and vigorous exchange are welcome signals of strength – but they are private. That means that disagreements stay behind closed doors, confidences are vaulted, and that once board-relevant direction is determined, the pronoun to use is, unequivocally, ‘we’.

The interaction between a board chair and a head of school is not simply a business relationship; it is a complex organism based on respect, trust, familiarity, and collaboration. When combined, these traits can encourage a shared vision and enhanced strategic direction for a school.

Originally published in The Trustee’s Letter. By Vince Watchorn, Head of School, and Mary P Heffner, Board of Trustees, The Providence Country Day School, Providence, RI

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