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When examining the relationship between superintendents and school boards, two common questions emerge:

  1. How does a board get what it needs?
  2. How does a superintendent keep his or her board from meddling in day-to-day operations?

The nitty-gritty of good board management requires empathy around trustee issues and desires. Rather than rejecting or minimizing issues, effective superintendents try to understand where each member comes from. Becoming a source of validation and information will help the board channel its agenda.
Consultants from the Development Resource Group, which works with nonprofit boards and executives around the country, have outlined five time-tested strategies to bridge expectations between parties.

  1. No surprises. The golden rule of an effective relationship—whether news is good or bad—is that the board hears from you first. Start with the board chair. Enlist your executive cabinet in the phone tree to expedite or synchronize communication.
  2. Pamper the president. A good relationship with your board president or chair is your bread and butter. Make weekly contact. Plan the board agenda together. Ask, “How can I assist you?” Offer comfort and guidance when the going gets tough. If you’re struggling or overwhelmed, ask the chair to help you sort out the board’s priorities.
  3. Offer solutions. Never present your board a problem unless you’re ready to offer several viable solutions. Leaders who continually dump problems on the dais may end up being perceived as part of the problem. They also allow their board to do the thinking and work for them.
  4. Be confident. A big reason why school boards meddle in day-to-day operations stems from a superintendent’s lack of confidence. Strength of character and a resolve to succeed are major predictors of achievement. Teddy Roosevelt said it well: “Strong men come again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcomings.”
  5. Keep your commitments. If you tell the board you or staff will do something, do it. Meet the deadlines set forth. If a deadline is unreasonable, discuss alternatives with the board. If things go wrong, revert to rule #1 (no surprises). Don’t put your board in a position of having to ask for something they were promised.

Whether you love your board or find your board difficult to love, getting along is essential. [Tweet this.] Your strategic plan and board-adopted goals should be used to guide conversations. When you provide context for what the board is doing, it allows individual members to see the bigger picture. There are a multitude of factors that influence board-superintendent relations. Nitty-gritty superintendents leave nothing to chance; they practice relationship-building with a vengeance.

Bennington, W., & Brett, M. (2009). Managing your board: Tips and tactics for CEOs. DRG: The Institute for Nonprofit Excellence.

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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