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Dr. Grauer's Column - Our Governing Board Getting a New Chair

Our Governing Board Getting a New Chair

Eight years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a sabbatical and, upon my return, after a few days back in the saddle, knew exactly what I’d be doing for “the next wave:” I have spent these past 8 years intensely focused on creating durable, sustainable, self-renewing systems.

Grauer students playing sports on the beach during Fall Expeditions week - September 21, 2020

We had a great school before, but now, after these 8 years, I can say we also have a deep school: organizational depth and sustainability has been my mantra. How do you do that! Well, I’m not going anywhere, but I have characteristically operated on the “hit by a train scenario,” i.e., what would happen to the school if I were hit by a train? On that basis, I am never satisfied until I think a program can run just fine without me. Granted, I have my own unique imagination and brand—there is nowhere on earth I feel more inspired than right on our campus;  but we are developing great people, the right people, who also have pretty cool visions and passions …so we can endure. Here are just a few, key durability features of Grauer:

  • Almost all our systems are “three deep,” meaning 3 people can do almost anything.
  • Leadership team: our leadership team is a rock—I don’t “manage” the school, it is co-managed by that amazing team. I have trained so many of these leaders myself, and our leaders are training leaders …all of whom are training me back, all the time!
  • Audits and Finance Committee:  We are not required to get annual audits, but we do. Plus, for the past many years, we pretty much call our finance chair, “the Maytag Repairman.” Our finances just keep looking good (not that being finance chair is easy—it’s a lot of work …thanks Debi Heiskala!) Plus, I’m always finding little ways to shave dollars without sacrificing quality (read: I’m a bit tight-fisted).
  • Annual Report: We have creative programs all over the school and each of them has to file a data-based report at the end of each year accounting for their achievements and progress. With these, we publish our Annual Report (including our “bottom line”). High accountability in just the right places results in reliable results.
  • Succession Planning: When I got back from Sabbatical, I also realized we needed a more thorough succession plan. Since then, the Succession Plan at Grauer has been updated regularly (thanks to board member Julie Dunne, who did the last edit of it, in 2019). Succession does not mean we find another chief executive. Not at all. It means we build a robust culture that people love. Succession at Grauer does not look like succession at McDonald's! Industry relies upon hard systems and controls: on replicability (not that we don’t have any controls, e.g. audits and accreditations). But at Grauer, we know we cannot replicate our leaders or mass produce our work. Grauer relies upon disciplined, empowered leadership: this is how we “make the leap from oppressive mediocrity to great results” even in “uncertain, unforgiving and chaotic environments". [1]  Blending passionate innovation with passionate discipline is the path to sustaining our beautiful place. We know we cannot “program” our way into succession at Grauer—that would create something unrecognizable. Succession is the perpetual building of a strong, loving community that people will fight for.
  • Board Chair: My relationship with the board chair is key, it’s huge. It’s like the corpus collosum of the brain: where the two sides, governance and operations, meet and information flows from one side to the other. Our trustees are not allowed to engage in the operations of the school (that’s called “overreaching”), so my weekly meetings with the board chair are where we reconcile. Bob Buie, David Meyer, Diego Espinosa, and Craig Gertz have all been very much partners who have helped empower me to lead and to exercise creative imagination in a way that has helped change education and enabled us to provide the enormous stability that you can bank on. Just imagine: stability AND creativity. That’s magic.
  • Mission Calendar: Every month, our board focuses on one essential aspect of our mission so that every year, all of our agreed-upon purposes are reviewed and goals can be set.
  • Accreditation: Our accreditors gave us an extremely rare full 6-year term and, frankly, spent more time taking notes on us to bring home to their schools than writing things for us to use—we took them to school, you might say. We are masters of accreditation.
  • Many more checks and balances

These “rocks” enable us to have a solid platform to lay down almost endless creativity. The balance between controls and creativity is the key to making a masterpiece of a school.

Grauer Athletic Director Trevor Olson teaches students how to fish during Fall Expeditions week - September 21, 2020

These past eight years paid off. Lately, when a global pandemic hit, the world was able to get a close-up case study in amazing organizational durability and stability at Grauer: Everything was threatened, chaos was everywhere, and Grauer did not miss a single beat. 

All the above and a lot more checks and balances are in place. As noted above, one key “check” is our board chair. Craig Gertz, alumni dad and loyal servant of three years, unfortunately had to resign and so now we are finding a new chair. I want to thank Craig for being a wise collaborator and friend. (The head and the chair better be friends, because they go through a lot together.) Craig sacrificed greatly as Chair, giving time, treasure and talent, and I will forever be grateful. It has been fascinating to hear how our school leadership team weighs in. You can weigh in, too.

Parents, Alumni and Teachers: We care about what you think. Write to me or a board member if you want to offer your thoughts on the ideal Grauer Board Chair or Trustee.

NAIS research and practice state the obvious that, together, the head and the chair must present a united front on all positions to the board, the school, and the larger community.

“When the relationship is solid and positive, the entire board feeds off of that energy, which impacts the school in palpable ways.”

NAIS research is very clear that the strong or very strong positive relationship between the head and the chair is critical to the well-being of the school. Great board chairs know that ensuring the school’s financial well-being and instilling the climate and values of the school are a head’s primary and daily responsibilities. 

Think about that! A close Chair-Head of School relationship is tied to the school’s financial health. Pretty big dots to connect. The school relies heavily upon a trusted collaborator on the board who will understand the constant drive to find creative possibility in new places.

Overwhelming leadership research [1] supports an “empowerment model“, when the leader can be as creative and resourceful as possible, even in the "Stuart is hit by a train" scenario—this is why some organizations are great and others are not. I hope every Grauer parent experiences that kind of empowered leadership.

Head of school has been called the most difficult job in the world, because a head is in the middle of so many forces so closely held to its stakeholders: parents, trustees, faculty and staff, students, alumni, and many other groups are all in this web, and sometimes they don’t always work naturally in synch. That’s where the head of school and school leadership team come in. Even in our little school community, an astounding array of stakeholders and agendas all are spun into a whole, and this is called: leadership. Over time, we have come to call this whole “the Grauer School Way.” This way is healing and connecting. It is friends. 

Grauer students prepare to make their own Adirondack chairs during Fall Expeditions week - September 21, 2020

Actually, it was Cliff Pia, board member for eight years, and Doug Katz, our marketer and graphic artist, who asked me to write a book called, “The Grauer School Way.” I even have a draft of it, which I wrote 2 years ago. If we are going to have The Grauer School Way for years to come, we will have to have synchronicity between our school day-to-day operations and our overseeing board governance. 

Even in these hard times, when some of us are getting tired and the workload has been intense, Grauer has been rock solid. The school is obviously not in appreciable trouble: curriculum, finance, governance, admissions, and on and on all are playing into a beautiful web of organizational life: sometimes one of them can be too tight, sometimes too loose. What are your thoughts? Let us know what kind of board you think Grauer needs:

    —High trust and creativity?
    —Support and fundraising?
    —Stricter controls and higher accountability?
    —Less controls and rules?
    —More corporate? Less corporate?
    —More like a traditional tribal council?
    —More like a big private school?

Thanks to our nine board member trustees for your passion and service! You can see the list of our current trustees on the "Board of Trustees" webpage on the school's website.

If you believe you have a special understanding of “The Grauer School Way,” and an abiding interest in supporting and sustaining it, I heartily invite you to come in and talk to me about board service. If you want to express an opinion about what we want in a trustee, you can write to me at stuart@grauerschool.com or you can send me a message to forward to any of our trustees.

[1] Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen.

Dr. Grauer wants to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Grauer students playing sports on the beach during Fall Expeditions week - September 21, 2020

Grauer students prepare to make their own Adirondack chairs during Fall Expeditions week - September 21, 2020

Grauer Athletic Director Trevor Olson teaches students how to fish during Fall Expeditions week - September 21, 2020

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