In my May blog, “Turning Around An Underperforming School: Do You Have What It Takes?”, I wrote about the exciting research being done in England to uncover the leadership characteristics of headmasters that actually turn around underperforming schools. The authors (Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard) describe five kinds of educational leaders and demonstrate that only architect-leaders provide leadership that translates into long-lasting, meaningful and significant change. Independent school thought leader Grant Lichtman further developed the ideas I presented in order to give a more complete picture of the architect-leader (you can read his article here.) After reading Grant’s blog and thinking more deeply about what an architect does, I see the richness of this concept for independent school heads and its power to reframe leadership in a way that produces real results.
Let me share a specific example from my career as a head of school.
Throughout my two headships, trustee meetings scared me. I was afraid that a group of people, well-meaning but often lacking in knowledge, would make decisions about the direction of the school. To be perfectly honest, as Head, I did not want to give up power unless I knew that the people making the decisions had a deep understanding, rich in context and nuance, of the issue at hand. Because they were trustees, however, they ultimately had the power to make decisions on important issues; in short, they had more power than I did. Now, before you accuse me of being Machiavellian, let me state that I was more than willing to give up power to a group of people who clearly knew what they were talking about. I was more than willing to turn over decision-making about how to structure five-year budget forecasts to trustees who deeply understood finances. I dutifully listened to the folks on the endowment committee who knew far more than I did about managing portfolios and learned from some of the leading strategic marketing consultants in the area.
But when it came to open-ended discussions at trustee meetings, I dreaded them. I had nightmares (okay, slight hyperbole) about trustees pontificating about school issues they knew nothing about. And as a result of their aforementioned power, senior administrators and I spent countless hours on “stuff” that would not advance the school—all because there was a structure that encouraged uninformed people to make decisions that either made no difference or cost administrators valuable time or at worst, caused harm to the school. I confess I never bought into the “generative board of trustees” concept. I admire Dick Chait and the wonderful work he has done with non-profit governance, but I determined during my first headship that relinquishing power to people who did not know what they were talking about or who often had hidden and perhaps counter-productive agendas (we all have hidden agendas) was not good for the school.
So what does this all have to do with the architect-leader? It seems to me that architect-leaders design with intentionality. They do not just accept existing structures that can negatively influence behavior. They design structures that lead to the behavior that will advance the school. In my second headship, I consciously decided to move power away from the full board and place it in the committees. I made sure these committees consisted of trustees and non-trustees who had deep knowledge of the area for which the committee was responsible. Thus, in these meetings I could comfortably relinquish power to people whose ideas would ultimately advance the school. And I was more than willing to do so. Because of their expertise, when they presented proposals to the full Board, there was little discussion.
Finally, I worked with the Board president to reduce the number of trustee meetings per academic year to four and a half (the last one was mostly a party), thus reducing the exposure for people lacking expertise to make bad decisions. In short, we changed the structure to fit with our intentions—let’s get knowledgeable people on committees and transfer governance power to these committees and let’s reduce the opportunities for less informed people to influence policy. Form follows purpose.
So what are the takeaways?
- As head of school, you should be concerned about power, thoughtful about gaining it (see my previous blog posts) as well as relinquishing it.
- Architect-leaders are intentional; ultimately, they want to create or add value, and they design structures that lend themselves to this purpose.
- There is no substitute for talent. If the committees at my school were filled with people who lacked expertise, then the structure would not matter, and I ran the risk of leadership hubris. No longer would the mantra be “best idea wins.” Rather, it would become “my idea wins.” This is a prescription for disaster.
Too many day school boards meet too often and the structure can encourage decision-making that is detrimental to the health of the school or at the very least, a waste of time. The frequency of these board meetings is a structure without a purpose—the antithesis of what an architect-leader would do.
But beyond the issue of how frequently boards meet, heads must think more like an architect. Every structure should have a purpose that connects to the realization of the head’s vision and the fulfillment of the school’s mission. Business guru David Burkus writes, “Great leaders don’t innovate the product; they innovate the factory.” As head of school you do not need to be the smartest person in the room; rather, you need to create structures that allow expertise and talent to rise to the top, ultimately advancing the school in profound ways.
For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.