At Chicago Jewish Day School, a vibrant, multidenominational JK-Grade 8 school, our process for selecting new board presidents has evolved since our founding in 2003. We have learned that choice and placement of an effective board president depend upon the timing and position of the institution as much as on the individual thrust into the job. Inspired by stories of leadership succession in the Torah, we have come to see the process of transitioning a new president as essential for ensuring a successful tenure and a strong institutional future.
In the first decade of the school, the position of board president was filled by one of the school’s original founders. They not only lived and breathed the school’s mission and vision; they had strong relationships with the head of school, and they knew each other and the inner workings of the school well. This allowed for easy transitions from one president to the next; they had shared experiences and a common language, were in close communication and understood the institution’s history and challenges.
When the board looked to take on its first non- founder president in 2012, the executive committee understood that with a quickly growing student body, the school’s next major hurdle would be expansion to a new and permanent building. The board had an active “institutional advancement” committee, whose function was to search Chicago’s North Side for a new home. Because this search was identified as a top priority, the Committee on Trustees (COT, the school’s governance committee) advocated that this committee’s chair would be a smart pick for incoming board president. This garnered great support from the board at large. Under the leadership of this new president, CJDS identified a property with ample interior and green space that could be remodeled to enhance the school’s academic and social- emotional learning objectives.
The board’s next priority was to conduct a capital campaign so that CJDS could complete the move to its new home, which would enable the school to more effectively fulfill its mission and vision. During this period, the school was a rapidly expanding institution contending with financial stress, and the development committee played a crucial role in confronting the accompanying growing pains. Thus, the COT looked to the chair of the development committee, Anat, to lead the board, and in 2015, she was selected to be the school’s next president.
As soon as Anat ascended to the role, the process of transitioning to the next leadership began. Through deliberate and thoughtful discussion within the school’s COT, it was determined that development would remain the board’s top priority. Stacy, who had extensive development experience, was groomed to become the next president by leading the development committee. She had been identified by the COT as a strategic thinker who worked to advance the board’s objectives. Stacy also had a good working relationship with the head of school.
Under Anat’s leadership of the board, the school was set to embark on the creation of its next strategic plan, and it was critical to have a leader in place who would later have the skills to oversee the plan’s implementation. By spotlighting forthcoming needs, the COT was able to consider what specific knowledge, experience and professional expertise would be required of the next board leader. Indeed, it is not so much the board that selects the next president; rather, it is the board’s priorities and objectives, as determined by its strategic plan, that reveal who the best president will be. The hardest part in the process should be convincing the identified person to take on the responsibility that comes with the position.
A year before Stacy was set to begin her term as board president, Anat invited Stacy to begin shadowing her. With a 12-month lead time, there were opportunities for Stacy to begin attending select meetings and discussions, and to begin learning the ways in which sitting at the head of the boardroom table is different than being in a seat at the table. Attending regularly occurring meetings with Anat, as well as with other committee chairs, gave Stacy insight into the decision-making process, and the leadership required, at the president level.
Stacy also saw in action the ways in which a board leader must invest time to create a culture of trust and confidence within the board. Throughout this year, the two presidents had ample time to brainstorm future strategy and compare visions. Critical to this process, Anat shared with Stacy self-reflections of her own perceived strengths and relative weaknesses as board president. Being vulnerable created space for improved leadership under Stacy’s direction.
The transition process did not end at the moment when Stacy officially became board president. Even after, Stacy remained dedicated to continuing to learn about her new role, and Anat continued to engage and devote energy to support Stacy’s successes. Indeed, Anat and Stacy continued to view themselves as partners during the early months of Stacy’s leadership. Even today, Stacy does not hesitate to reach out to Anat if she is seeking counsel. In a formal sense, Anat remained on the board, returned to committee work, and joined a committee made up of former presidents that provides support to the board president and head of school.
Much of Stacy’s time as board president has been under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the school emerges from this very difficult period, Stacy is looking ahead and considering how the board can help lead the school during an unprecedented time and emerge stronger and more strategic than ever. This is, of course, made tougher by the social isolation and weariness of board and community members as a result of the pandemic.
The COT now faces its next challenge in board leadership: how to identify a board member who is uniquely qualified to lead during this upcoming period of recovery. At the center of this process is a determination to build off of the strengths of the past and strengthen board leadership for unanticipated challenges that will undoubtedly come tomorrow.