Board-Head Collaboration: When Best Practices Aren’t
The sine qua non for a Jewish school’s functional governance lies in creating an effective partnership between the institution’s professional administration and its lay leadership. Choose virtually any of the array of consultants to make a presentation to your board and you are guaranteed to spend a major chunk of time discussing this axiom. Board manuals for Jewish schools across the country should include a preprinted page with the concept emblazoned in bold letters. Boards support the head of school primarily by raising money, leaving the operations—educational, recruiting and fiscal—to the professionals. Lay leaders cross this line at the peril of the school’s ability to function.
And this discussion has become ubiquitous for very good reason. Malfunctions and failures in the crucial interface between professional and lay leadership can kill an institution faster than just about any other malady. But labeling something as “best practice” does not explain how it applies to challenging circumstances. Despite our affinity for black letter law, while certain common foundational requirements permeate all healthy situations, there exists no static one-size-fits-all approach to board-professional relationships. Even within the confines of one institution, the nature of the relationship will invariably ebb and flow as a function of the particular challenges presented at any given time, as well as the unique talents and skill sets of the professional and lay personnel on hand.
You would not find one nurse or doctor who would disagree that a surgical suite must be completely sterile under all circumstances. An accidental scratch of the nose will get anyone evicted from an OR. But at a trauma site, the role of the medical personnel shifts to triage—identifying the worst problems, mitigating damage, and making the best of a difficult situation. In other words, “best practices” must shift to accommodate the exigencies of reality. A melodramatic analogy? Probably. But consider this: what if the school’s administration lacks the ability to face the challenges presented? Should lay leaders who have created, funded and internalized the school’s mission sit on their hands for fear of crossing the line away from “best practices”? What if doing so would come at a terrible cost?
The ongoing turnaround story of Los Angeles’s Shalhevet High School provides a useful study of the ways in which the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship between professional and lay leadership can impact the success or failure of a Jewish school, on even an existential level. By deviating—at times significantly—from the accepted best practices, the school has managed to navigate several distinct sea changes, and finds itself steadied and ready to face the inevitable storm fronts yet to come.
Best Practices Violation #1: Leave the Recruiting to the School’s Professionals
Shalhevet was founded in 1991 to deliver a Torah-driven education designed to foster a higher moral development with everyday, practical application, providing equal emphasis on girls’ and boys’ education, and dedicated to addressing the needs of each student rather than squeezing kids into a predefined box. The core ideas—particularly the coeducational model and the emphasis on a democratic model featuring student participation in the school’s day-to-day governance—presented a challenge to the status quo in LA’s Orthodox community. The school not only struggled to gain a foothold among the community of feeder schools and synagogues, but indeed sustained a consistent barrage of attacks, often of the ad hominem variety.
A best-practices approach to the challenge would have involved the head of school adjusting recruitment policies and simply building the better mousetrap, with the board providing support from behind the scenes. Any single person involved in the Shalhevet endeavor at the time will affirm that had the leadership taken such an approach, the school would have slipped away with a whimper. The situation required a drastically more hands-on approach by the lay leadership. First, the board voted with its collective feet and checkbook. Board members sent their kids to the school when others were afraid of a new venture, and directly recruited within the largely skeptical community. They opened their checkbooks and essentially underwrote the school’s operations. They actively and zealously advocated for the school at countless Shabbat tables. Addressing the community’s constant concerns and misunderstanding of the school, the “trust the head of school” approach would simply not have sufficed. The school survived not only in spite of, but because it departed from best practices. The key lay leaders put the marketing efforts on their backs, backed it up by sending their own kids to the new school and lobbying their friends to send their kids, and time and time again used their own personal resources to fund the nascent institution.
Best Practices Violation #2: Let the School’s Professional Leadership Weather the Storms of Crisis
By 2008, a steady decrease in Shalhevet’s enrollment had coincided with a rapid increase in both the number of students receiving financial assistance and the total amount of assistance granted. The school attempted to stem the drop in enrollment by accepting students and families who were not mission-appropriate. These steps severely diluted the value of the product being offered and the financial picture deteriorated. A decade of borrowing money to survive came crashing down as the school found itself massively overleveraged and running a dramatically unsustainable deficit. The school teetered on extinction.
Perhaps most important: the school’s professional leadership was ill-equipped to handle this massive challenge. Again, best practices will tell you that the job of the board under those circumstances was to go find the right head of school and empower him or her with the tools necessary to succeed. And here’s a spoiler alert: that is exactly what the board eventually did. But at this crucial moment in time, the school was in no position to conduct a search when the place was crumbling around them. The rubber was hitting the road and lay leadership had to choose: go all-in or let the school die a natural death.
The answer came from the school’s indefatigable president, who essentially devoted every resource she had—energy, time and money—to the school. It cannot be overstated: she embodied the school and internalized every one of its problems. With the participation of a very small group of committed leaders, she financed the school’s bleeding operations. When key staff, spooked by the grim reality, looked for more secure employment, she personally convinced them to stay. Key families in the community left their kids in the school—and in many cases actually enrolled them at the school—based almost entirely on their confidence in her. Under her leadership, in a desperate attempt to save the core high school program, the board itself made the extraordinarily difficult decision to close the early childhood, lower and middle school programs. Once the situation stabilized to a degree, the board shifted its focus to finding the right head of school for the incredible challenge presented. But make no mistake: for the better part of two years, the lay leadership had a hands-on role in virtually every function of the school, and essentially served as the de facto head of school and something of a personal guarantor for the school’s success.
Board consultants reading this likely will cringe at the total obliteration of the line between lay and professional leadership. But at the end of the day, with the fate of the school literally in the balance, the lay leadership simply did what it had to do. To be sure, the circumstances were fortuitous: a lay leader of incredible skill, means and dedication occupied the key leadership position at the perfect moment. But had the board opted for a more measured approach in keeping with norms of governance, the school would not have survived.
Best Practices Violation #3: Delegate to Create a Diffuse and Broad Consensus
Though the situation had been temporarily stabilized, the new head of school inherited a largely rudderless ship taking on water in multiple places. Enrollment, recruiting, financial operations, fundraising, physical plant, staff morale—virtually every practical component of the school stood in disrepair. Armed with little more than a belief in the mission and the commitment and wherewithal to back it up, the lay leadership had employed drastic measures to save the school, but now handed the new HOS an institution barely functioning in terms of operations and governance. To make matters more drastic, a loan was coming due and the school again stared down the barrel of extinction.
At that moment, the HOS and the president of the school made a decision that again departed from best practices. With ample time, they both understood that the correct approach would be to work with the key constituencies of the school in building a consensus for devising and implementing a turnaround strategy. But facing imminent disaster, the head of school worked with a tight circle of lay leaders and professionals and devised a turnaround plan that involved financial planning, development, staff recruiting, admissions, public relations, board recruiting, and virtually every other component of school operations. Again, as luck would have it, one of the lay leaders had a background in financial turnarounds that lent itself well to the requirements of the situation, and another essentially took the entirety of the fundraising burden on his own able shoulders.
Contrary to almost every principle of effective lay leadership, the small team presented and “sold” the plan as more of a fait accompli than a proposal. While fraught with potential negative repercussions, this circling of the wagons enabled the school to implement a complete turnaround with lightning speed that exceeded any expectations. The school presently occupies a brand new building, has gone from a dramatically eroded enrollment to being maxed out at capacity, and boasts a faculty and a curriculum that is the envy of Jewish schools across the country.
A couple very important points must be made. Without question, the heroic measures of a few dedicated and capable people proved essential in Shalhevet’s surviving a genuinely existential crisis, but the bedrock of the school’s current firm foundation lies squarely in the leadership and vision of the new head of school and the talented staff he has recruited and installed. And the inability to adhere to best practices comes at a cost. Among the many challenges facing the new president are dealing with a key donor base that is simply exhausted from years of carrying the school, and restructuring board governance in a manner designed to derive full advantage from the diverse skill and talents sitting around the board table.
Best practices are so-named for a very good reason. When an organization is operating at a high level of function, and even when that organization is faced with trying times, the clear line between professional and lay leadership provides the firm and stable footing essential to success. But sometimes drastic times call for unusual measures. At those moments, Jewish schools must not be afraid to think outside the box and utilize the unique skills of the people in key leadership positions.