Jessica Lynn: Hello, Clint! Thank you so much for taking the time today to speak with me.  First off, congratulations on winning the Excellence in Governance Award for BoardSavvy CEO! I am very excited to speak with you today.  To start out, tell me a little bit about yourself!

Clint Riley: I have been with Texas Center for Arts + Academics for 4.5 years now.  My background is arts-focused; I have a BFA in Printmaking with an art history minor, and an MBA and MA from Southern Methodist University. I started my career in marketing and general business management before I moved into the nonprofit sector.  I was really excited to come on board with Texas Center.  It had a really solid founding program and had opened two charter schools.  I was brought in because they were growing and looking for someone with a business background to bring that experience.  It’s a really unique organization; it’s a non-profit and we operate two charter schools as well as two conservatory programs and other community art classes.  We aim to be an art-based institution with a solid academic program that also offers broad artistic training.

JL: It definitely sounds very unique! As CEO, how do you work with the board to develop the right CEO goals to help your organization succeed?

CR: In general, it is incredibly important that everyone works towards the same mission. In my organization, the board and the organization have infused our mission and values into everything we do, particularly in regards to excellence.  We work together towards the ultimate goal of excellence in whatever is pursued.  The focus of the two charter schools, as well as the rest of the organization, is in the arts and education. Achieving excellence takes work.  We want continuous improvement and to achieve that there needs to be training and staff development.  People need to look at what is in place and ask, “How can we make this better?”  When my organization does this, we also evaluate whether or not we’re able to meet the needs at that level of excellence that we strive for. That excellence is what we need to be able to provide the best opportunities and programs to our students.

JL: So what goals have you set in the past year and how are you and your board working to accomplish those?

CR: We actually go through strategic planning every 3 years, and this last year we completed one and started a new plan phase. We were focused on “internal housekeeping,” or increasing capacity, increasing admin functions, and putting policies and procedures into place. Now, our goal for the next few years is growth.  We would like to replicate our successful charter school model to create more schools.  We’re also focused on growing our high school because there is a strong program in place there for kids who want to pursue the arts. Another big program we’ve been working on is enhancing the choral program. We’ve added choral ensembles for a more diverse experience in vocal training, additional courses to bulk up music history and composition knowledge, and 60 new spots to one of our campuses.

JL: Those sound like some great goals. What challenges have you faced while trying to accomplish those goals or just in general, and how have you worked to overcome those?

CR: I’d say that the biggest challenge is transition.  We’re trying to change culture, change minds, establish a shared vision, and work to make sure that everyone is moving in the same direction.  In our new strategic plan, we’ve noted that shared vision is really critical. We need to create, communicate, and share our vision so that everybody holds it regardless of whether they’re on the board, school administrators, teachers, parents, or even students.  Another challenge we’ve faced is a lack of resources, facilities, and funds. To try and better that, we’re working on increasing engagement and thoroughly engaging with other stakeholders to establish that shared vision.  Communication is key and when we communicate, we can make plans for success, like increasing our fundraising capacity to drive more resources.

JL: I noticed you mentioned engagement. Strong engagement can be very beneficial to the effectiveness of overall governance. In what ways do you think that the CEO can help the board succeed and vice versa?

CR: The relationship between the board and CEO is like a great marriage. You need communication between both partners.  In a lot of ways, the Board-CEO relationship is very interesting. The board is the CEO’s boss but the CEO helps to manage the board. The relationship must be strong and has to be cultivated on both sides.  The CEO needs to know that they have to go the extra mile, so to speak.  They are the navigators, the paid professionals with expertise. This isn’t a criticism towards CEOs, but when you’re in that role, you must be invested and immersed.  You have to remember to communicate that back to the board and help them feel engaged.  When they feel like they are part of the process, they are empowered to support the CEO. Some board members may have other experience serving on boards or backgrounds in this field, but sometimes they don’t.  It is the responsibility of the CEO to provide access to best practices, resources, and training opportunities so that the board has skills and expertise to govern effectively.

JL: How have you and your board been able to effectively manage the governance-management line?

CR: Generally, if you’re fortunate like me, you have smart, capable people on your board who are there to be helpful and lend expertise. A lack of understanding and engagement are what lead to a disconnect between governance and management. If they aren’t engaged or involved in the process of governing, there’s a void.  They want to help and feel useful. They’ll either disconnect or try to get involved in day-to-day operations, which aren’t their responsibility. It is important for the board to know this and govern themselves but also important for the CEO to understand those needs.  Board members volunteer time and personal resources so helping them to be successful and sustainable is important.

JL: How have you established that sort of engagement in your role as Executive Director? What has made you an effective leader?

CR: I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get people to the table to talk, and willing to see beyond just my perspective so that other people are invited to share theirs.  We can say all day long that what we’re doing is the best for everybody but if myself or my board does not work to communicate to everybody, they might not understand it.  For example, a parent might ask, “Why would I support the growth of this school or network of schools?” So we must be able to explain how growth benefits their child as well as other children in our community.  I’m also willing to find the right training and resources for my board that I think would be helpful for them. Again, it’s all about communication and collaboration. If I’m not doing those things, I’m not doing my job.

JL: In what ways have the tools and training provided by BoardOnTrack helped you and your board?

CR: BoardOnTrack has been really great in a few different ways.  First, the tools that are provided, like our portal, allow us to be more effective in sharing information and running our board meetings.  Next, the resources that BoardOnTrack provides are really wonderful.  There are best practices, white papers, and other resources that are available.  I’ve found them to be helpful whether we use them 100% as is or modify them to fit our needs.  Finally, the staff and personnel are helpful.  Gina, our Governance Coach, has been great.  She provides coaching when we need things, training in the system, or even insight into trends in other schools across the nation.

JL: Thank you so much for speaking to me. Do you have any last thoughts on your position, leadership, or anything else?

CR: It’s really all about communication and collaboration. Those are so critical. Communication isn’t just one way; it’s multiple ways. Learn to listen as well as gather information. Working in a structure of a school is different than a traditional non-profit so it’s important to understand the requirements of the state and Federal government, to know the right practices, to understand Open Meeting Law, and to know what is legal.  BoardOnTrack’s resources have also helped there.