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Chaim Y. Botwinick

The Ebb and Flow of Board Leadership in our Yeshivot and Jewish Day Schools

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In a recent blog entitled The Senior Leadership Turnover Crisis in our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot (Times of Israel, November 1, 2002), I referenced several factors which contribute to the ever-increasing senior professional leadership turnover crisis in our Jewish day schools and yeshivot.

Since that blog was posted, I received numerous responses from both yeshiva and day school professionals and laity. With the exception of several somewhat less than positive reactions, they were overwhelmingly positive and quite meaningful and valuable.

To be sure, most of the comments focused less on the nature of the Jewish day school leadership profession per se, than upon the role, impact and effect of Board leadership on the health, effectiveness, welfare, retention and stability of yeshiva and day school professional leadership.

The Context:

First and foremost, it is important to note that one should never paint a portrait with broad brush strokes. There are always exceptions to every circumstance. Here too, the portrait which I am painting is comprised of a landscape colored with a mosaic of amazing day school and yeshiva successes, accomplishments and impact. But as we know, it is also a  field fraught with daunting challenges.

Besides for ongoing exigencies facing our schools relating to financial viability, affordability, hashkafic issues, and the paucity of high quality teaching and administrative personnel, there is a growing crisis in leadership on the board (lay) level. This crisis is not quantitative in nature, but rather qualitative.

In many cases, the financial support and viability of our yeshivot and Jewish day schools are obtained from very generous, sincere and passionate Board members who unfortunately lack a variety of Board leadership skills and training. For many, this lack of training and experience can in part be resolved by requiring them to participate in Board leadership skills training. But, as we know realty dictates that training alone may not be sufficient to change a Board member’s personal demeanor, personality or disposition, let alone behavior patterns. As a result, these leaders may require a special one-on-one  personal conversation with the school Board President, Chair of the Board or the school’s Dean or Rosh HaYeshiva. These conversations must focus upon expectations of a Board member. This includes the critical imperative for Board members to act appropriately and respectfully towards the Head of School and/or Principal and with utmost derech eretz.

In my practice as executive leadership coach, I more often the ever,  hear complaints about board leadership and their profound lack derech eretz for professional school leadership and their lack of derech eretz for professional school leadership, lack of understanding and/or an appreciation let alone respect for professional boundaries, roles and responsibilities.  These realities are exacerbated by the absence of menchlichkeit and the unswerving desire and need to micromanage senior school leadership. This is in addition to the manner in which a growing number of inexperienced lay board members publicly and privately gossip behind closed board room doors while spreading  lashon harah  about the school’s senior educational leadership or leadership team.

The analogy I draw is that of a child who craves attention. The child enters the sandbox, and begins kicking sand into the eyes of other children, For some Board members. joining a Board is like playing in a sandbox. They enter the box, kick up a lot of sand, do damage  and then leave. But unfortunately, they leave others with uncomfortable and irritating sand in their eyes. Essentially, these folks, the school board and the school  itself becomes their sandbox. They do their damage, collect their toys and than go home.

This is not an over dramatization of the situation. To be sure, this analogy has been used often by select outstanding  Board members who are sincerely embarrassed by the behaviors of their lay peers. But, they are either paralyzed or too weak in spirit to challenge this status quo. In the interim, we witness very damaging results and impact on the school’s professional leadership. Indeed, a very sad state of affairs.

These toxic realities represent a growing problem and dilemma for our schools. On the one hand, our institutions are in desperate need of continued financial support and resources from these very individuals who are truly  disrespectful; on the other hand, these institutions must continuously maintain positive working relationships with these generous donors and financial champions, irrespective of their character, demeanor, style or temperament.

The consequences resulting from this growing disconnect and dissonance is challenging at best. Although philanthropic support obviously benefits the school financially, donor dysfunctionality can have a devastating effect on the culture of our schools and can have a lasting negative effect on senior professional leadership who are entrusted by the community with the responsibility to lead our institutions.

This growing level of mistrust, disharmony and dysfunctionality usually results in either the head of school or principal leaving the school on her/his own volition, is let go in a very well-staged, well-orchestrated and politically correct manner; or the professional is just right-out fired from her/his leadership post.

Irrespective of the manner in which the Head of School or Principal leaves or resigns from his/her post, the bottom line question is WHY? And its a “WHY” in all caps. In addition, to the growing number of professional leadership vacancies  this creates, it leaves a trail of senior professional leadership departures which are detrimental to the reputation and stability of our yeshivot and day schools. In fact, the average tenure for a Jewish day school or yeshiva principalship or head of school position  is about 4,5 years – not a very stable profession.

Finally, I would be remiss in my analysis if  I were not to suggest that there are many instances where professional school leadership deficiencies or poor professional leadership and/or management performance lead to dismissal.  Not all heads of school or principals have the wide array skill-sets, bandwidth,  knowledge or experience required to work effectively with school board lay leadership or for that matter lead a school. This challenge requires further discussion, review and deeper analysis.

Nevertheless, this reality does not justify or eclipse the growing toxicity created when members of the school board do not carry out their mandated leadership responsibilities with derech eretz, menschlichkeit and kavod for the very senior professionals they recruited and hired and have the privilege to work with.

As we know, parents are sensitive and impressionable when it comes to their children’s schooling. If they observe a lack of respect or derech eretz emanating from members of the Board towards the school’s administration (or faculty), there is no reason why they should not follow suit. Its all about setting examples, modeling and support – “leadership leads”.

I have heard on more than one occasion where parents will complain directly to a Board member regarding an academic, teacher or student-related concern as opposed to approaching the head of school or principal. One can only imagine how this interference  and misdirected communication can spiral out of control and how it effects and compromises the school’s culture.

In these select cases, its impossible to prevent parents from ignoring appropriate protocols or practices. Nevertheless, it should be the Board member’s responsibility and obligation to inform the parent that these issues or concerns must be directed to the head of school or principal. Once a  Board member takes it upon herself or himself  to address this issue directly, it not only compromises the role of professional leadership, but also sets a terrible precedent for similar actions in the future. To be sure, these are “rabbit holes” which should be avoided and averted at all cost.

Parenthetically, in all fairness, if this occurs with greater frequency, it does beg the question as to whether this is symptomatic of a parent’s lack of trust or confidence in the head of school or principal; or is it a Board member flexing his or her muscle. Alternatively, it can be a combination of both and must nevertheless be addressed.

Either way, it is imperative for the senior administrative team in partnership with school Board Executive Committee to address this issue post haste in order to prevent if from spreading out of control.

Important Factors and Contributing Variables:

In a wonderful paper entitled Board and Leadership Change authored by Debra P. Wilson (National Association of Independent Schools, Spring 2015), several examples are presented which support the contention that dysfunctional school boards may be due in part to several factors including: poor evaluation and communication; poor succession planning for boards; the misuse of power by major donors; not working together to address the issues; lack of engagement; and the inability to stay the course.

What is fascinating and revealing about these six challenges is that they can all be addressed if  Board leadership respond to them with a sense of planful urgency. In other words, they are not insurmountable challenges. But, if they are not addressed, they will eventually destroy the board and eventually erode the governance and culture of the school.

Several of the signs which strongly suggest dysfunctionality of a school Board of Directors include, but are not limited to:

  • lack of confidentiality
  • lack of trust
  • promotion of personal and political agendas
  • lack of derech eretz/respect
  • secret meetings behind doors impacting school policy
  • lack of transparency
  • micromanagement
  • conflicting agendas
  • inability or failure  to understand or support a shared school vision or mission
  • a pervasive my-way or the highway syndrome demeanor or attitude

These troubling signs require a sense of urgency on the part of senior board leadership. This imperative also requires Board leadership to re-examine and reboot the school’s governing by-laws in order to hopefully eliminate, curtail and/or discourage these leadership impediments. The ultimate goal is to change school board culture in a manner that promotes appropriate governance practice and professional leadership standards.

As clearly and poignantly stated in the Ohio State Board of Education newsletter:

The first indicator of a problem is thinking that one’s appointment to a school board qualifies one to lead; the second symptom is believing that one’s appointment to the school board qualifies one to lead.

I take the liberty of adding a third,,,,,,,

The third symptom is behaving and acting in a manner that suggests that one’s election to the board qualifies one to lead.

These three assumptions are offered to suggest that leading is earned and learned. It is not an automatic magical manifestation or an entitlement; nor does it suggest self-empowerment just because of  an appointment. It requires training, sensitivity, modeling and experience. This is especially true when it impacts the lives of senior educational professionals who have devoted their lives to leading schools at tremendous sacrifice to their families; and eventually the culture of the school.

Proposed Solutions/Recommendations

As indicated, this blog does not address Head of School or Principal leadership effectiveness. I and other have opined and written numerous papers, articles and blogs regarding this topic – in addition to the myriad of workshops, conferences, seminars, programs  and/or coaching interventions which in part respond to these issues and concerns.

Having said that, the role of the Head of School and Principal in supporting governance effectiveness is paramount.

The following is a five-step proposal for improving the board leadership condition in these institutions.

  1. Recruitment and Appointment Criteria:   It is essential that school board leadership develop an extensive and comprehensive review of board recruitment practices and policies. These practices must include select criteria including past volunteer experience,  the submission of a resume or bio; and, a written  personal statement detailing the board candidate’s motivation for serving on the school board; willingness to provide a financial commitment to the school (minimum donation/gift);  and the signing of a written document (‘contract”) detailing roles, responsibilities, obligations, expectations and best practices of an effective/high performing school board member.

Concurrently the prospective Board member candidate should be interviewed by a Board  Nominating Committee and posed very specific targeted questions regarding the candidate’s background and aspirations.

Interviews with prospective Board members should never be perceived or interpreted as having one foot in the door. It should be viewed as a first step in the nominating/appointment process. Over time, it will be viewed as a privilege, not an entitlement – irrespective of the board members communal connections, affiliation or generosity.

2. Onboarding and Provisional Appointments: Once the board candidate/nominee is accepted and invited to serve on the school board, he/she will be expected to serve as a provisional board member for a six month period. This provisional period is  suggested in order to ensure that the board appointment is an appropriate fit for both the board member and for the board.

The Board Nominating Committee should assume full responsibility for overseeing the school’s onboarding and board member induction process,

3. Leadership Training and Development: Each member of the Board will be expected to participate in a comprehensive series of board leadership training and development seminars and workshops

Throughout this process, the new board member will be paired with a learning partner/mentor in order to ensure that he/she has a “go-to” person for questions, concerns, etc., relating to the workshops and seminars and their applications.

Suggested topics, to be facilitated by expert presenters may include but not be limited to:

  • team building;
  • developing effective and respectful working relationship between board members and senior professional leadership;
  • Torah enrichment/text study;
  • differentiated roles and responsibilities between board members and senior executive staff;
  • solicitation training (if board member volunteers  to become involved in school fundraising and or financial resource development);
  • Board member as ambassador
  • “The Art of  Board Leadership”

In addition to the aforementioned professional leadership development opportunities, all board members should be required  to serve on at least one working committee or subcommittee. How these voluntary Board committees and subcommittees are identified, is a post for a later date.

4. Individual Performance Assessments: Following a year of service, the Board member will determine whether her/his role is the right fit. This will ensure that the Board member is provided with appropriate and valuable feedback regarding roles and responsibilities  and impact of the Board member.

Finally, the entire Board of Directors (as a group) led by the President or Chair of the Board will be engaged in an annual year-end 360 performance assessment.

The 360 review process will measure the Board’s effectiveness and compliance as well as valuable feedback regarding the Board’s  impact on policy development and fiscal oversight.

5. Governance Strategic Planning: In order for the Board to improve and enhance its role and responsibility, it is recommended that the School Board of Directors and senior administrative staff engage in a joint comprehensive strategic planning process.

This process will not focus upon the school’s academic goals, culture or curricular aspirations, but rather on board governance effectiveness.

The ultimate goal for this process will be to create and develop a Board Strategic Action Plan detailing specific goals, objectives, benchmarks and implementation strategie..

It is hoped that by engaging in this process, many of the dysfuntional characteristics and toxic disposition of the Board will be addressed and at best mitigated and eventually resolved.

Conclusion

As our yeshiva and Jewish day school enrollment increases, so will our evolving school needs and challenges.

Critical to this challenge will be the recruitment and retention of high quality teachers and Rabbeim, in addition to heads of school, principals and senior administrative staff.

For these professional recruitment and retention efforts to succeed, our schools will need to ensure a more viable and effective governance structure, culture and process, Otherwise, our schools will continue to experience a downward spiraling of its leadership and effectiveness.

I am hopefully that over a period of time, as we experience the increased dearth and inadequate supply of senior educational leadership, that  our lay leaders (read Boards) will need come to the realization that the very survival of our schools  is greatly dependent upon leadership norms and standards. – whether they be focused in the classroom, school dining halls, playgrounds, study halls or board rooms.

So as our yeshiva and Jewish day school boards “ebb and flow” through this changing governance process, they will need to be consciously reminded that chinuch is about the education of our children and their children.

Its not about ego, power or control.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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