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Pub Preview Story 2014-8-28 Board/Head Retreat
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{HeadLines} August 2014, Vol. 1 

Preview Story: SAIS Board/Head Retreat

By Sarah Stewart 

Effective leadership drives the success of any great organization. In independent schools the board of trustees and the head of school set the tone. A strong working relationship between the board chair and the head of school is critical for a school's success. This year, members will have the opportunity to deepen this critical relationship at the 2014 SAIS Board/Head Retreat, which will be held October 18, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM, at the Crowne Plaza Ravinia in Atlanta, GA. The retreat will precede the SAIS Annual Conference.

This year's retreat will feature psychologists Dr. Rob Evans and Dr. Michael Thompson along with SAIS President Steve Robinson.

Evans is the executive director of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, MA. He has consulted with more than 1,700 schools in the United States and abroad, and is the author of three books, including The Human Side of School Change. Thompson has also consulted schools nationwide and is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, and the author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. Topics of discussion will include governing schools in the age of anxiety, board management and the chair’s responsibility, keeping the board focused, and maintaining a healthy relationship with the head. 

Robinson has written numerous papers on the topic of board/head relationships. He has also led workshops, and worked one-on-one with countless leaders. He says the board chair and head should understand the mission of the school and their roles in the leadership structure. A school’s board defines the school’s mission and drives its growth by managing the financial resources and strategic planning. Meanwhile the head guides day-to-day operations, raises the school’s profile in the community through service and fundraising, and keeps the board connected to the campus, alerting the chair to trends or issues. The board should train new members in their role, and only the board chair should act as the point person when communicating with the head.

Robinson says that a great board chair/head relationship should be approached with the same care and respect as a marriage. He suggests that board chairs and heads should focus on three key ingredients when building their relationship: maintaining a common purpose, excellent communication, and respect. Plus it is important for all parties to maintain a service mentality. They should continuously reflect and refocus on their primary goal, making decisions based on what is best for the school’s students.  

Evans has written and spoken widely about the most effective strategic planning methods for school boards. He says boards cannot approach strategic planning for schools in the same way they do businesses. He lists three reasons that this process can fall short in today’s school environment. (“The Case Against Strategic Planning,” Independent School, Fall 2007) First, the world is changing too quickly to plan for every contingency; leaders simply cannot know every issue they will face in the near future. Those who spend long periods planning may find that when they emerge there are different issues to address. Second, strategic plans are often data-driven, and while data is an important component, many of a school’s strengths are difficult to measure. School environments are personal, idiosyncratic, situational, and dependent on relationships. Third, strategic plans can fail because they assume that a rational sequence of analysis, planning, and recommendations, will lead to action. In his research, Evans has found that strategic plans often result in large volumes of goals that are never realized. This is because schools are developmental undertakings; they are not a simple service provider, or product manufacturer, but an organization dealing with students and families whose needs change over time. There is a delicate human side that must be considered in every strategic undertaking. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Evans suggests that instead of "strategic planning" boards should pursue "strategic thinking." This mindset “sees planning as a journey, not a destination; an outline, not a blueprint.” Strategic thinking provides a flexible approach to key challenges. It favors plans that are simple and focus on specific targets over a short period of time. These plans are also easier to implement.   

After the joint morning session led by Evans, the group will split up with board chairs attending a session led by Robinson while heads spend the afternoon with Evans and Thompson. The psychologists will lead a discussion on how heads can deal with parents and families in "The Age of Anxiety."  Our world’s hyperconnected and competitive environment has changed the way we live and work, and likewise, what is expected from schools. Demands on a head’s time are constant, and while new technologies are empowering, they can also be distracting and even dangerous.  Both parent and student expectations have never been higher, making strong leadership all the more critical.  The afternoon session for heads will offer tips and advice to develop a strategy for dealing with stressed out families and creating a culture of trust.

Register for the SAIS Board/Head Retreat here!

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