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A Crisis is Coming – Is Your Board on Board?

From our esteemed colleague, attorney David Wolowitz:

What makes an independent school succeed or fail when crisis strikes? More often than not, the difference hinges on whether the administration and board work collaboratively. The greater the crisis, the greater the stressors on the relationship between the two. Advance planning is critical. A crisis is no time to find out what works and what does not, much less to let one or more outspoken or undisciplined trustees hijack any commitment to transparency and accountability.

I’ve seen it again and again. In the face of crisis, an independent school’s operational leaders, such as the head of school and CFO, almost always commit to taking the moral high ground and doing the right thing, even if it’s tempting to “protect the school’s reputation” instead. The board chair and executive committee typically share this commitment as well. The problems often begin
when the crisis comes to the awareness of the full board. High-stakes scenarios tend to trigger emotional reactions. One or more trustees may balk against some aspect of the crisis-response plan or recommendations. They might “know someone” who can do a better job. Or they might casually reveal highly classified information to their family or friends.

Any of these scenarios can backfire in ways that prove to be calamitous for the school. Here’s a better approach.

Agree on Roles, Guiding Principles and Information-Sharing

Prior to any crisis, be sure your school’s administrators and trustees agree on three key organizational dynamics: respective roles, guiding principles and information-sharing.

• The board and the administration have different roles, and a crisis can test the capacity of either party to stay in its role.  The board’s role is governance. It sets the school’s mission, vision and values, and it provides oversight through inquiry. The administration’s role is management. This involves conducting the school’s operations, carrying out strategy and shaping its culture.

• Your school’s guiding principles for strategy and decisions should support its mission, vision and values. In crisis situations, I encourage school leaders to strive for a balance of transparency,  accountability and equity, to the extent possible.

• To maintain trust, the board and the administration must share significant information with each other. This involves having clear expectations about not only what is shared, but also about when and with whom it is shared.

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