Passing on the Board Leadership Baton
It’s All About the Exchange ◊
by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
Every track coach will tell you that the most important part of a relay race is the baton pass. In fact, the success or failures of all relay teams depend on a proper exchange. If the receiving runner has not started running before the exchange, valuable time and momentum will be lost. If the runner lets go of the baton before it is firmly in the hands of the next runner, the baton will fumble or fall and again cost valuable time and momentum. If the passing runner does not let go of the baton after it’s firmly in the hands of the receiving runner, they will drag the receiving runner and prevent them from freely carrying the baton on the next leg. Coaches continually tell their relay runners, “Remember, it’s all about the baton exchange!”
Scripture has many references to “running the race”. Hebrews 12:1b challenges us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Board leadership has often been likened to a relay race. The current board is entrusted with carrying the vision and direction of the school – the board leadership baton – on a carefully chosen path. Yet eventually they need to pass the baton to new board members. How this exchange takes place is crucial. In fact, the success or failure of the school board’s leadership may depend on it.
If new board members have not started to run in preparation to receiving the leadership baton, valuable time, experience, and momentum will be lost during the exchange. Board leadership should not stop, fumble, or change direction with the annual turnover of board members. Appropriate training and coaching of new board members needs to occur before the leadership baton is passed to them.
It would be unfathomable for a relay team member to randomly pick someone from the crowd of spectators to carry their baton; they only trust another team member who has been trained to carry it further in the same direction. Yet in some schools, retiring school board members simply throw the leadership baton to anyone who might be willing to catch it, hoping and praying that person is ready and able to run with it.
If retiring board members let go of their leadership baton without preparing someone else for the exchange – coaching them in the direction the school ought to be going – the leadership baton may fall to the ground. Untrained new board members end up retrieving the baton from the ground or in mid-air and start running again, possibly in the wrong lane or in a different direction.
Sometimes retiring board members forget to let go. They hang on to the leadership baton too long. Eventually weariness, fatigue or burn-out causes the baton to slip out of their hands before it has been properly passed on to new leadership.
Has your board ever stopped to evaluate the level of success of the most recent leadership baton exchange among your school board and committee members? Will the next leadership exchange be better?
Has your board identified and prepared new board members to run alongside you, in training, so the leadership baton will not be fumbled or dropped? Has your board nominating committee selected new team members that will carry the leadership baton in the direction outlined in the school’s strategic plan? Or will a new board member want to take the leadership baton and run in a different direction?
Will new board members understand their responsibility as trustees of the school’s vision and direction, maintaining a big picture view? Will new board members understand and see the obstacles that may lie ahead in their journey? Will they be prepared for leadership decisions they will have to make?
One Christian school board wisely adopted the following two motions to ensure an effective transition between incoming and outgoing board and committee members. The motions were designed to ensure adequate continuity during the transition, mentoring of new board members by current board members, information sharing on current and ongoing issues and annual training for all new or potential board members.
Motion: that the school board implement a three-month overlap period for retiring and incoming board members (new board members begin in June; retiring board members voluntarily continue in a non-voting, advisory capacity until September)
Motion: that all current and new board members attend the annual SCSBC Board Leadership Conference each November, with costs to be included in the school’s annual professional development budge
The following rationale was provided to adopt these motions:
- It provides needed continuity for the board and committees during their annual transition time.
- New board and committee members will benefit from the discussion and insights of retiring board members on issues they may otherwise be ill-equipped to deal with.
- New board and committee members will be able to ask questions and seek council and training from retiring board members on a variety of current and ongoing issues that the board is dealing with.
- All current and potential board members will receive some annual training to further equip them for their leadership responsibilities.
Remember the words of the track coach, “It’s all about the baton exchange!” Boards, plan now for your next leadership baton exchange. How well your school runs its race and stays on track will depend on it.
This article is adapted from Lessons from a Track Coach by Henry Contant, which was originally printed in The Link in May, 2006.
Orientation for New Board Members
At an orientation meeting before new board or committee members are seated, take some time to:
Talk about the board’s or committee’s task (mandate)
Present and explain the school’s vision statement
Review significant issues addressed during the past year and those being carried forward
Present new board members with the school’s policy handbook
Present new members with the Board Handbook (or appropriate committee handbook)
Invite new members to share their personal dreams for the school
Explain general board and committee procedures
Discuss the appropriate handling of complaints
Discuss the matter of confidentiality and openness
Explain the matter of evaluating staff
Discuss the need for the board or committee to speak
as one voice—or it doesn’t speak at all
Commit to a regular five-minute timeout for the board or committee to reflect on the way it does business
- Outline other issues that will help to bring new members up to speed