Board-Savvy Superintendent

Wearing the Hat of Psychologist-in-Chief


The most board-savvy superintendents I’ve worked with over the past quarter century — the ones who have built rock-solid partnerships with their governing boards that can stand the test of time — have in common the close attention they pay to the emotional and psychological dimensions of their relationship with their board.

BSav-Eadie-web.jpgDoug Eadie

These executives wear what I call the “psychologist-in-chief hat.” Wearing this hat, effective superintendents aggressively pursue opportunities to strengthen their school board members’ ownership of their governing work and provide their board members with ego satisfaction.

Ownership Feelings
Experience has taught us that school board members who feel like owners of their work make much better partners for their superintendents than boards that feel like an audience for finished staff work to which they’re merely expected to react. Ownership is a powerful feeling that primarily comes from early, meaningful involvement in the process of shaping governing “products,” such as an updated governing mission that lays out the board’s functions and responsibilities, a values and vision statement for your district, your strategic change targets, or your district’s annual operating objectives and budget.

Superintendents wearing the psychologist hat devote serious attention to designing processes that engage their board members early enough to make a significant difference.

To take a real-life example, the newly appointed superintendent of a 30,000-student urban district in the Southwest recognized his board’s governing role, structure and processes badly needed updating to provide a firm foundation for partnership building. He was savvy enough to know that, if he and his senior administrators or an outside consultant merely sent recommendations to the board aimed at strengthening it as a governing body, most board members would feel so little ownership that the chance of implementing the improvements would be limited.

Wisely, he teamed up with his board president in putting together a “governance fine-tuning task force” headed by the president and consisting of two board members and himself. The task force, which was given consulting help, was responsible for generating practical recommendations for clarifying the board’s role and updating its committee structure. The recommendations ultimately sent to the full board were the result of intensive involvement by three of the seven board members, who also took the lead in presenting the recommendations, with their consultant in a backup role.

In another school district, the superintendent of a largely rural district in the Midwest, faced with the need to update her district’s strategic plan, knew enough to get the whole board involved early in the strategic planning process, rather than merely sending a finished planning tome to the board at the tail end of the process when feelings of ownership would be nil. The vehicle was a daylong retreat hosted by the board’s planning committee, at which district values and vision were brainstormed, strategic issues identified and change initiatives explored. This early, meaningful involvement ensured board members felt a high degree of ownership of the ultimate plan.

Ego Satisfaction
The individuals who are elected to school boards, in my experience, have robust egos. There’s certainly nothing wrong or unusual about that; it’s actually a healthy characteristic of ambitious, high-achieving people.

However, large egos do demand regular satisfaction, and woe be unto the superintendent who doesn’t pay attention to the normal ego needs of school board members. A wide range of opportunities exist, from high-impact ones that are more complex to many simpler, lower-impact options.

At the higher-impact end of the spectrum, take, for example, the superintendent who wisely chose to get her board members involved early in the strategic planning process via a daylong work session. Holding the session addressed the ownership issue, but she also made sure the session included six breakout groups, each one led by a different board member. Three breakout groups met concurrently, in each of two rounds. Each of the six board members leading the groups was provided with a thorough orientation on the leader role and had staff support, ensuring their success in playing this demanding public role. As such, added to the feeling of ownership that the session generated was the ego satisfaction of doing a visible and important job well.

At the lower-impact end of the spectrum are board-savvy superintendents who never accept an invitation to serve on a community committee or task force without asking themselves, “Would one of my board members be interested in and capable of serving on this body?” The superintendent of a school district in upstate New York passed along the chance to serve on a communitywide workforce development task force being formed by the county commission to a board member interested in the subject. The involvement, without question, proved ego satisfying to this board member, making her a stronger partner with her superintendent.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie and Co. in Oldsmar, Fla. E-mail: