With 2.5 million students across the United States enrolled in charter schools, a strong charter board infrastructure is a must.  The relationship and partnership between the Board Chair and CEO is one of the biggest indicators of success for a charter school.  Working to set up goals, structure, and proper governance, the Board-CEO partnership helps provide a way for the school to offer better educational opportunities to the ones that matter most – the children.

If you have questions about what a Board-CEO partnership should look like or how it should run, you’re not alone.  But don’t worry – our team at BoardOnTrack has interviewed Board Chairs and CEOs from charter schools across the country to give you some insight into how to best strengthen these relationships.

This week we spoke to John Eick and Hope Gawlick of Westlake Charter School. As a parent, educator, and Board President, Hope cares deeply about making sure that the board is running smoothly and that charter promises are being met.  John Eick, the Westlake Charter School Executive Director, has spent almost 20 years in the educational field. John worked as a teacher, vice principal, high school principal, and eventually the Director of Instructional Technology in the Natomas Unified School District before heading to Westlake.

Gina Fafard: So today we’re discussing what Board Chairs and CEOs do to maintain a strong partnership.  Since you both work together incredibly well, we’d love to know – if you were to name three things from a CEOs perspective, and from a Board Chair’s perspective, that make the partnership work, what would they be?

John Eick: Common vocabulary is the first.  You want to make sure that everyone in the room is speaking the same language, especially the Board Chair and CEO when communicating together.  Reading up and discussing pedagogical viewpoints, and choosing to use those in operation, is a way to get everybody on the same page. BoardOnTrack references and literature helps with that because it gives our board, as well as Hope and myself, something to read which we can then use at our next meeting.

Hope Gawlick:  Using similar resources definitely helps with the partnership.  I agree with John that common vocabulary and common resources, whether a certain book or the resources from BoardOnTrack, help everyone feel that they understand what is going on and how to continue bettering the board.  It also gives John and I something to talk about and figure out what is working and what needs to change.

JE:  The relationship between the Board Chair and CEO is founded on mutual respect and mutual admiration.  Hope and I have a mutual admiration for each other.  After discussing the board and direction using those common resources, we collaborate and work to attack problems together.  We make time for each other, even making time to follow up and create copies of the agenda between board meetings.  We respect each other’s roles and understand at what point we collaborate and at what point we handle problems specific to our role.

HG:  That’s absolutely true.  I’ve found that, as a Board Chair, if the CEO knows that you’re doing your part, the CEO will do his or her part as well.  Then we can work towards the charter mission.  We both know what the structure of the board should be, where it is, and where it should be going.  We know how to use our roles to grow both ourselves and the board.

JE: We have an expectation that we will continue to grow and succeed together.  It’s that investment in being wildly successful, both in our own positions and together, that helps us work so well together.

Jessica Lynn: Wow, it sounds like you are both on the same page in how to keep your partnership strong and move your organization forward.  In the past, have you experienced any issues?  What is the biggest struggle in keeping the Board-CEO partnership strong and how can that struggle be overcome?

HG: Well I’ve mentioned that John and I both have dreams and motivation for growth.  But different personalities can really hurt the partnership, especially if there’s stagnancy.  This partnership needs drive to move forward and a real willingness to learn from each other.  If you’re not willing to learn from the other person, it can be hurtful.  Collaboration, including that pedagogy and mission into plans to grow, helps openness.  If there is no openness or collaboration, or there is a CEO who just wants to be left alone, the organization suffers.  CEOs need to be held accountable for the mission and vision of the organization.

JE: I would love it if it was easier for the board to hold me accountable for the mission.  It would be great if the relationship were so transparent that at the end of the year, they could look across the table and say, “Man, you killed it this year” or “You blew it this year. You’re fired.” The board creates missions and it’s the job of the CEO to achieve that.  They should be in agreement about goals and what is more important.  A lot of boards struggle because they haven’t been educated in this field.  So creating tangible goals that people can point to and agree that they’re working on is very helpful.

HG: During my time on the Board, I cannot think of one time when we did an Executive Director evaluation.  But using BoardOnTrack modules have helped us set board goals, Executive Director goals, and expectations for the next year.  Being able to set these goals helps us move past issues we have had in the past.

GF: How do you help board members step up to the plate in terms of helping to set goals or with engagement?  How do you get the right people on the bus and into the right seats?

HG: Right now, this is still a work in progress.  I don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet.  It really helps to have board members who are willing to fit in fully, who understand the clear expectations and time commitments involved in being on a board.  We currently have an elective board to try and help with that.

JE: Committee work is also helpful. It helps to foster experts and experts are more willing to speak up and share their ideas.  Using committees can create more conversation at board level as well as deepen conversations on the organizational level. People in committees may also be more willing to speak amongst themselves rather than in front of the entire board.  We’ve noticed more board engagement around discussion items stemming from committee work at our board meetings.  But what it comes down to is that an organization needs to figure out what works best for their engagement.  Learning is more like biology than it is like robotics.  You can’t engineer human relationships, and you need to realize that you’re growing, not building, an organization.  That means that a board, as well as the Board-CEO partnership, need to create conditions for growth.