Building Governance Leadership: Your Board’s Role – The Orchestra Conductor

By Joy Coates


Until the moment of authorization, you, the Lead Founder, were both the master composer and the conductor of your orchestra, your team. Now you must entrust your board chair with a crucial new role: to be a conductor him or herself, ensuring that all governing team members are, like an orchestra, aligned behind and fully supporting your management and the school’s performance.

In addition to guaranteeing that your board chair has the right skills and resources, you must also empower that person to drive the board in the same way you drive the school team. Building an effective board chair is the first and most critical step in building an effective board. With rigorous support from BES during the early years of school design and operation, your team should be well on its way to achieving the goal of starting strong on day one.


Four distinct phases mark the progress toward the goal of building true governance leadership:


Phase I. Clarify Roles and Expectations

As the Lead Founder, leadership of the founding team rested squarely on your shoulders prior to authorization. Every detail – from designing community engagement strategies to arranging information sessions, developing the initial brand to scouting the facility – was owned by you. While the team certainly received communication around all of these projects, and you sought out their help, your singular responsibility defined clear and necessary accountability.

Now, it is imperative that the team’s duties shift quickly and smoothly: the faster the new governance structure is put in place, with strong leadership of the board chair, the better able you are to focus on starting your fully enrolled school strong on day one. Holding a high bar for students and teachers means holding an even higher bar for your board team’s newly assumed work. To ensure the transition of roles is successful, clearly define which duties should transfer from the school leader to the board chair. These decisions should be informed through honest and intentional assessment of the strengths and weakness of both leaders, and the responsibilities of each role.


Phase II. Create a Plan for Clarifying and Getting Buy-In on the Leadership Structure from the Rest of the Board

The board chair and the full board require strong, goal-oriented committees. Therefore, Committee Action Planning is an essential facet of post-authorization board meetings. The goal of well-designed committee meetings is for each committee to:

  1. Clarify the scope and goals of their work
  2. Outline concrete action steps for the next 30-90 days, and
  3. Establish clear benchmarks and communication protocols for the board chair to provide support during the committee’s work processes.

In conducting these meetings, your board chair will assume responsibility for ensuring that each committee chair reflects and embodies the leadership values of the school and team. Standardizing these leadership qualities builds a culture of shared responsibility throughout the organization, reinforcing the value of every team member’s contributions.


Phase III. Coach and Support Your Board Chair

Once you have defined the roles transitioning from school leader to board chair clearly, it will still likely take some time for your board chair to grasp the full extent of his/her responsibility in practice. Open a dialogue between yourself and your board chair in which you can openly and regularly unpack each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and tend formally to this vital professional relationship. Remember, you two are the leaders of the organization – governance and management must achieve deep trust and clarity in order to drive the success of a school. Together, maximize the impact of what is working well, and build capacity where it is needed.


Phase IV. Be Mutually Accountable

In this last phase, it is critically important that you help your board chair understand how you plan to deliver on what is laid out in the charter. Only then will your chair be able to drive the governance team in assessing and maintaining performance outcomes for the school, as well as designing and executing a complete, transparent evaluation of your performance as the school leader. To build and sustain the success and health of a school, these vital measurement processes must be robust enough to ensure that the necessary action steps for each team member are readily apparent.



Your school’s success depends on how effectively you coordinate and communicate with your board chair to ensure that all plans are not only strong and well defined, but also feasible and actionable. A board’s greatest strength is its capacity to match any given challenge with the person best able to handle it. There must exist widespread clarity on an instinctual level around which roles fall to whom.

And, much like the very stage beneath the orchestra’s feet, the board chair provides the essential structure upon which the school leader’s work lies.