July 13, 2020

Noses in, hands off!

In my opinion, the relationship between a principal and the board chair is the single most important relationship that contributes to the overall health of a school.

In my own career as principal, I was very fortunate to mostly have highly proficient chairs with whom I enjoyed excellent working relationships.

Paradoxically, despite the principal-chair relationship being of great importance to the overall health of the school, very few members of the school community are aware of its importance or of the explicit nature of the current principal-chair relationship in their school.

What then, are the characteristics of a healthy principal-chair relationship?

As well as drawing on my personal experiences here, I will make reference to the thoughts of experienced school board member and chairman David Gonski who impressed me with his perspectives on the subject at an ISCA conference in 2018.

(1) It is important that the principal, chair and governing body all share a common understanding of their respective roles.

I concur with Gonski’s view that essentially, it is the role of the principal to run the school and that the board is there to assist the principal, while also monitoring how the principal performs their duties.

Gonski warns against the chair who also wants to be CEO of the school. There is a pertinent saying that I came across that all chairs and boards should adhere to that sums this situation up nicely: “Noses in, hands off!”

(2) Like all positive relationships, the principal-chair relationship should be one of trust and respect.

Principalship is a lonely position. In my experience, there are not many sources of confidential, timely and considered advice to which a principal can turn in times of duress.

Consequently, the presence of  proficient chairs with executive leadership expertise who are prepared to exercise their principal support role is a godsend to the principal.

Throughout my career, with almost all of my chairs, I met on a fortnightly basis to “chew the fat” in relation to school issues, thereby gathering  perspective from an alternative  respected source. And as with all successful, positive relationships, mutual trust and respect were the foundation stones of those meetings.

During my time in education, I have been aware of chairs who lacked the executive ability to provide meaningful support for their principals and of others who lacked the desire to meet regularly.  I have been aware of others whose bombastic nature was dreaded by the principals unfortunate enough to be subjected to regular meetings with them and in one case, of a principal in this situation who chose to exit the profession to save his mental health.

This issue of the lack of support options for principals confronted by  the occasional rogue or incompetent chairman/board has long been of a concern to me and is an issue that has already confronted my fledgling Principal’s Concierge service.

(3) A good chair has a schizophrenic relationship with the principal.

Gonski explains that despite the chair having a nurturing and supportive role to the principal, they are also responsible for monitoring the performance of the principal on behalf of the board and unfortunately in some cases will be the one responsible for terminating a principal who fails in their mission.

Interestingly, Gonski suggests that chairs cannot discharge their duties properly if they are too friendly with the head or alternatively, if they dislike or are envious of the head.

In my experience, a warm, professional rapport between principal and chair makes for a constructive working relationship. This is not to say that there should never be disagreement in the relationship. I particularly remember with professional fondness one of my chairs who was exceptional at challenging some of my thinking; my overall analytical and problem-solving prowess improved dramatically as a consequence of his input.

(4) An effective chair is an excellent team player.

Many assume that because the chair presides over the board which “hires and fires” the principal, then the chair is in essence the “boss” of the school. Gonski disagrees with this interpretation, instead likening the role of the chair to the conductor of an orchestra.

It does not matter how proficient a particular conductor is, successful output from the orchestra relies on successful input from all. Similarly, the role of the chair is to coordinate input from council members and the principal to produce successful outcomes.

The chair can also strongly influence the composition of a board and Gonski suggests that  diversity is necessary, citing areas such as gender, age, professional background, skill sets and length of board service as important requisites in this area.

On the issue of length of board service, Gonski claims that a board consisting predominately of people who’ve just joined it is as dangerous, if not more so, than one made up of long term members.

My observations support this claim. In fact, I suggest that it can be a threatening period for the career prospects of a long serving principal in a situation where the appointment of a new chair, particularly one without a long history on the board, is followed by a significant turnover in board members. This situation can sometimes result in a new team eager to “make their mark” but without a historical appreciation of why many things are as they are in the school.

In conclusion, I agree with Gonski’s sentiments when he suggests that governance properly administered is very important to the success of a school, but governance not properly implemented acts not only as a retardant but as a cause for misery for everyone involved.

There is no more important a player in the determination of good governance than the chair and there is no more important a relationship than that between the chair and principal. I was very fortunate to have spent most of my twenty plus years as principal in positive and rewarding relationships with chairs and boards and for that I am truly thankful.

You can read the full transcript of Gonski’s presentation here.