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Charter Board Partners

What is a Legacy?

July 20, 2018 | by Kate Essex

Think of a great school—maybe it’s where you work, send your kids every day, or serve on the board. Now, imagine that school represented as a Jenga game, a tower of blocks balanced intricately on top of one another. The leader of your school is one of those blocks, a critical component of the foundation. What would happen if you were forced to remove that block today? Would the structure hold?

Kate Essex

When a strong leader leaves, there is high risk for watching the results that leader achieved walk out the door as well. Without a central office with a staff focused on creating, monitoring, and institutionalizing organizational systems and processes, charter schools too often over-emphasize the leadership of one or two dynamic individuals instead of focusing on whether or not the results they are yielding can be replicated and sustained through inevitable challenges and changes.

I would wager that if you asked any charter leader right now whether or not they would like to see all of their hard work crumble if they win the lottery and retire tomorrow, you would not find anyone who would answer “yes.” However, that same leader is already over-stretched in her job, managing the myriad high-stakes demands of running a school and a 501(c)-3 nonprofit organization operating outside the traditional public school system.

This is where the board can and must step up to help. It is not enough for charter school board members to feel confident in the leader they have hired. They must also feel confident that if that leader had to go, immediately or with some notice, they would know what steps to take in order to ensure the kids and teachers experience as little disruption as possible to the place they love to call their school. They should be certain that what makes the school successful is embedded in the institution, not just in that leader.

Board members and school leaders juggle many responsibilities, but one function we see too often neglected is succession planning. If you are a leader or a board member, I encourage you to fight the urge to put this work under the category of “we’ll get to that later—there’s no urgency,” or “we just can’t bear to think about it,” allowing that pebble to be pushed further down the road until suddenly the pebble becomes a rock, which becomes a boulder blocking the path completely.

It’s time to commit to having the crucial conversations now around what you are doing to protect the future from the present. Ask critical questions to make sure you have the information you need, such as:

  • What does our leadership bench look like today?
  • What resources does our school leader need to keep, retain, and continue to develop the best talent in the city?
  • Does our school have an emergency plan? If something unexpected happens, do we know who would step in as interim, and where to find the passwords, extra keys, and account numbers?
  • Where does our school leader see herself in five years? What are her personal and professional goals? If she is nearing a transition, do we have a line item in our budget for a search firm in case we need it? (It can cost upwards of $25,000 to conduct a national leader search)
  • Do we know who we would call or which stakeholders to engage in the selection process?
  • Do we have the right people around the board table to manage both the tactical and emotional components of a leader transition?

It takes a true team effort to pull this off, but that’s how it should be. After all, a legacy is not about one person’s moment in time. It’s about a lasting impact that will carry on for generations. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton defines it as “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” In edu-speak, it’s multi-generational, systemic change. I had a school founder tell me once: “I need my board to understand that I am not the school.” I told her I wished I could put that on a t-shirt. Lasting success does not not hinge on an individual.

So, the great news is that the future is yours to define and create. And because we know creating from scratch is daunting, we made this planning tool to get you started. Don’t wait until you have to pull that Jenga block to know whether or not your school will still be standing. Take a deep breath, have an honest conversation, use our tool, play some tunes from Hamilton for inspiration, and work together build something that will outlive you.

Kate Essex is CBP’s Chief Governance and Business Strategy Officer. She recently presented on this topic at the National Charter Schools Conference in Austin, Texas, along with Soenda Howell from Charter School Growth Fund and Makiyah Moody of La Piana Consulting. She is very grateful to both of them for lending their practical, tactical brilliance to this topic.

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