How Boards Can Use “Visible Work” To Better Partner With The Head | Simon Holzapfel | 5 Min Read

February 20, 2024

I was lucky to get a gift that took four years to fully open. By virtue of spending four years on the NYSAIS Commission on Accreditation, I was fortunate enough to see and hear about dozens and dozens of different schools on different development paths in different markets, pursuing different strategies and serving different student populations. Over that time and in the following years a few basic patterns emerged about how governance works, or doesn’t, in the independent school world. What follows is a summary of how a Board or even an admin team can use what is called ‘visible work’ to improve how they work together across and within reporting lines.

Background and Governance 101

Even in good times Governance isn’t easy, to say nothing of times that are uneasy. The vital roles schools play in the lives and wellbeing of young people relies on each layer of a school working as intended.  The function of governance in independent schools is enacted by The Board of Trustees, who are tasked with fiduciary responsibility for the school and with the hiring of one employee, its leader. Fiduciary responsibility includes the development of a business strategy for the school within the market it serves. 

The Board delegates to the Head responsibility for the tactical execution of the school’s market strategy. Ideally the Board and the head collaborate on strategy. When a board doesn’t contain members who are strong on strategy, the head needs to take more of a role, and vice versa. 

With this in mind, we can see Rule #1 of good governance: know and stay in your lane. Like with driving, use your signals if you plan to safely move into a different lane at any time. Sounds simple, but such is often not the case. 

Current Condition

As I hear stories from various parts of the independent school world I am often amazed at what schools can achieve. Leaders and Boards who are in sync on strategy and tactics create institutions that are healthy, safe and vibrant. When things go wrong there are usually two primary causes: role creep or disengagement. 

Board members often leave their lane to offer tactical advice to a Head, sometimes without knowing that they are breaking the rules and sometimes without asking permission. The vast majority of Board members I’ve met are well intentioned and professionally successful people who genuinely want to be helpful. They instinctively support in the ways that are familiar to them, even if it means breaking the barrier between strategy and tactics. 

Especially since COVID-19 I hear less encouraging news more and more often. Churn and burnout of heads and leaders is a significant risk and is running at elevated levels: costing schools time, energy and money. According to Don Grace, a retired head with over three decades of leadership experience, “Over the last several years, a combination of dynamics (Covid, ineffective governance committees, parental demands) made that parallel leadership model increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly around the schools’ strategic plans.” 

Too many Boards get into tactical matters and create significant energy loss, morale degradation and time suck by solving problems they weren’t brought on the board to address. Having personally experienced and witnessed fellow heads work through such blurring of boundaries, it is easy to have this happen even when you know your Board is there for you and the school. 

The other primary anti-pattern I hear about is Board disengagement. Some Board members simply can’t find a way to feel helpful and thus just shelter in place or withdraw. Some heads might prefer this to a Board that gets out of its lane, but the strength of the board suffers in this case. 

What is a Head to do to help manage the Board’s occasional swerving into tactical matters or disengagement? The answer is two words that sound funny together. Or at least they did when I first heard them ten years ago: visible work. I was introduced to two ways of working that use this term: Lean and Agile. 

Happily, creating Visible Work is becoming easier and easier thanks to collaboration platforms and to action frameworks like L-EAF and EduScrum


Drawing from work across several sectors and areas of research, the goal of the head and the Board should be twofold in terms of the working relationship: create a Community of Trust and sustain Unity of Purpose. When these two conditions are met across the Head-Board interface, the working environment is primed for action and progress. 

Unit of Purpose

Another goal is keeping the responsibility lanes open and clear, so everyone knows who belongs in which domain, strategic or tactical. This is facilitated by good communication- communication that is timely, accurate and clear. The flow of information and its quality is a hallmark of functional board-head partnerships. Finally, when the system is working as designed there is integrated coordination moving from strategy to tactics on an ongoing basis, ideally in one place accessible to all stakeholders. 

Community of Trust


Drawing on a wide literature from many domains the best way to improve the current condition of a board-head partnership is to make the work ‘visible’ as literally as possible. There are many digital platforms that allow this, including Miro, KanbanZone, Monday, Asana and others. Visible work resolves alignment problems and communication flows and many other issues that can crop up between heads and boards. 

At a tactical level, the best thing to do is for a board and head to both commit to improvements in small, short cycles where feedback can be created and responded to quickly. Big pushes and initiatives are hard to start and even harder to sustain in most school communities that are strapped for time or funds or both. 

Action Plan

So if you are a head or a board member, the low hanging fruit will often look like finding ways to make your work visible. There are many ways to do this that are not expensive. It will however take some time and getting any part of the board-head system to change their way of working requires energy. The energy investment is worth it however: lower blood pressure, more trust and alignment, better communication on key issues, and simply better work flow from strategy to tactics. If all else fails, consider getting a team coach to help you set up your systems.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Simon Holzapfel for Intrepid Ed News.

Simon Holzapfel

Simon Holzapfel is an award-winning educator, thought leader, innovator, and writer. He is a co-founder and CEO of the L-eaf Lab, as well as a former Head of School, former Director of Studies, and current Board Chair of The Montessori School of the Berkshires. Simon was in the initial cohort of leaders trained at NAIS’ Innovation Strategy Lab and spent time on the Executive Board of Boston University’s Agile Innovation Lab. Simon is a certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified ImprovementKATA (LIK) & WorkFLOW (LWF) and a member of the Berkshire Innovation Center. Applying four years of experience on the New York State Association of Independent Schools [NYSAIS] Commission on Accreditation, Simon has spent years helping organizations and their teams improve their outcomes by applying lean system thinking and the agile mindset. He lives in Williamstown, MA, and spends as much time as he responsibly can each day on his skis or mountain bike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *