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The Charter CEO’s Guide to Governing for Growth at Every Stage

An Interview with Caprice Young, Charter School Hall of Fame Inductee.

This is part two of our two-part story relaying Caprice’s lessons learned at every stage of charter growth.

As you read in part one of this two-part story, there’s hardly anyone better than Caprice Young to help introduce this concept of governing for growth.

With decades of experience, Caprice has done just about every kind of governing you can imagine — from founding the California Charter School Association to serving on the LA USD school board and then chairing that board.

As a CEO, she’s reported to a lot of boards. As a charter trustee, she’s served on both startup and more seasoned boards..

And, in her current role at Learn4Life, Caprice is leading a rapidly-scaling network of charters educating 45,000 kids across multiple states. With a big hairy goal of educating 1 million kids by 2030, it’s very likely that Learn4Life will grow from the 20 boards they have now, to 100 boards.

So, in our talk {you can view the webinar replay here}, we got a really far-reaching perspective on the topic of governing for growth, from multiple angles.

Today’s installment will focus on what the CEO needs to know — and mistakes to avoid — to effectively govern for growth at every stage of your organization’s evolution, from single-site charter start-up to rapidly-scaling, multi-site, multi-state CMO.

{MARCI} What are some common mistakes that you see as people are going through this growth mode at the board level?

{CAPRICE} …thinking that if you can’t do it alone, that you’re somehow incompetent as a board chair.

Really, sometimes the smartest thing that you can do as a board chair is to get help.

I’ve been on boards where we’ve said, ‘oh, we don’t want to get an outside facilitator because that’s going to cost $5,000, $3,000, $20,000,’ whatever it’s going to cost. And we want to keep that money for the kids.

And the truth is that if your governance process doesn’t work, you’re going to waste a whole lot more money than that — super, super fast.

I think another mistake is overloading your board with more information than they need.

It’s easy to get into that because board members will ask a thousand questions so that they really understand something before they vote on it. And so it’s easy to say, ‘okay, well I’m going to give them, you know, the 45 pages of information they wanted on the thing we voted on last week on this item two.’

And over time, you can go from having monthly board meetings with 12-to-15 page documents supporting them to having board meetings with — I kid you not — 600 pages supporting them. And that’s just a really mean thing to do to volunteers.

Find a happy medium, providing the deep documentation when it’s an issue, but not a lot of documentation when it’s something that is relatively easy.

[Another common mistake is when as the CEO] you think, ‘oh gosh, I just don’t want to deal with my board. I just want to focus on my schools.’

I think it’s really a 30% job in that, if you’re an executive director, you’re going to need to spend a good 30% of your time with your board.

And that’s not just briefing them on things, it’s also getting to know their talents and skill sets and finding out who they know.

It’s wonderful to discover that the pastor who’s on your board also has as one of his congregants, the mother of the congressmen that covers your area. And unless you get to know your board member, you won’t find that out.  

You’re going to discover their skill sets and learn to really use their skill sets, and their connections and their relationships in ways that are going to support your school. And that’s when board members can be the most helpful.

{MARCI} What if I’m a super busy CEO and I’m already doing my 80 hours and I just don’t have that kind of time for the board? Where, how, do I find that time?

{CAPRICE} You find that time by being really clear about what your goals are and who does what in your organization.

The odds are good that if you’re filling your full 80 hours a week, and you still haven’t made it for your one-third board time, that there are things that you’re doing that you shouldn’t be doing.

That’s going to mean trading training leaders in your organization to take on more responsibility — so that you’re not in a doing mode anymore, you’re in a coaching mode. That’s a hard transition to make.

In fact, an awful lot of charter school leaders came pretty much straight out of the classroom. They were brilliant teachers and decided they wanted to start a charter school and they started a charter school without any management experience at all.

And one of the big scary things is that everything that made you successful as an individual contributor, getting work done, heads down and just turning it out, all of those skills actually make you a bad manager. And that’s just such an illogical leap. But that’s what it comes down to.

Prioritizing your board members is something that you just have to force yourself to do. And track it so that you can see that you’ve done it.

{MARCI} Do you think it’s a skill people can learn?

{CAPRICE} Oh, absolutely. It’s definitely a skill people can learn.

The harder part is that if you are a leader of a school or a group of schools, where all of your people are used to having 80 hours of your time, 200% of your time, there are the ones that might have trouble learning it.

And then it’s training your people to take some responsibility themselves and not always look to you to get things done.

{MARCI} And what about the C suite? The CEO has other people to help them. What are your lessons learned there?

{CAPRICE} It’s really important as a C-suite to have an agreement about who’s talking to board members about what.

It’s super, super easy for board members to get overloaded if they’re getting calls from all of the C-suite members. And it’s not hard for that to happen.

If you’ve got a facilities issue with the facilities person’s calling, if you’ve got a financial issue and the financial person’s calling, you can really overload your board members.

Have a strategy for making sure that they get information in a streamlined way. And be really specific to your board.

So it might be that the CFO has the best relationship with the treasurer of the board or the secretary of the board and that person’s bond makes it especially effective for them to be the one that briefs that board member before a board meeting.

It’s important as a CEO to recognize you’re not always the best person to do that. It might be somebody who speaks the same native language as a board member.

I’ve been on boards and I’ve been CEO reporting to boards where we had board members who all had the common language of English but had five different languages actually spoken. And you have to take those kinds of things into consideration, especially when you’re dealing with the very nuanced issues that often come up with charter schools.

A BoardSavvy™ CEO is central to successfully governing for growth.

The board simply cannot be left to their own devices. While they shouldn’t take up the majority of the CEO’s busy day, they must be a priority.

By putting the right amount of time, effort, and practice into your relationship with your board, you can ensure that your charter will grow, sustainably.

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