From l to r: Penny, her husband Rossi, me, my wife Dana, and our daughter Bella

From l to r: Penny, her husband Rossi, me, my wife Dana, and our daughter Bella

When searching for a high school for my daughter, my wife and I found a small charter school that we thought she would thrive in. Bella has some particular needs and we felt that the intimate, one-on-one environment would be a great fit. We quickly discovered that she had a different plan, and wanted to go to our large neighborhood school with over 2000 kids in it. Over six long months of needling, cajoling, and arguing… she wore us down.

During freshman orientation, I bristled as I sat in the large auditorium with hundreds of other parents; I got worked up over the fact that her locker was on the first floor and most of her classes on the fourth; I nearly had a nervous breakdown when I had to take a number to talk to her guidance counselor. The last stop of the day was the school social worker. As Bella and I knocked on his door, he immediately turned to her and said… “Hi Bella, I’m Stephen. I’m your guardian angel.” All of a sudden, my whole perspective of the school changed.

As a young executive director, my guardian angel was Penny Snipper. When I was up for the job she advocated for me, when my wife and I moved to the Twin Cities she helped us get settled, and when things got really challenging at work she stood up for my vision. She was not only my guardian angel, she was a member of my board.

An executive director needs a guardian angel on her or his board. These are unique relationships that create, at a surface level, a sense of safety and connection that provides a pathway for good communication between the board and its executive leader. On a deeper level, it’s a relationship that gives way to a deeper collaboration helping the executive director to see and understand the board’s perspective and vise versa. What was unique about my relationship with Penny was that I was sometimes scared of her. She was tough on me, took me to task on things she didn’t agree with, and pushed back when she felt I did not fully recognize the importance of a particular situation. At the same time, she supported me when it counted and served as my champion to the rest of the board when I needed their engagement. In short, she demanded the leadership she knew I was capable of providing while leading as well.

There are no secrets for how to develop this kind of relationship with a board member other than to keep your eyes open for this person, welcome the opportunity to create a relationship, and don’t try to force it. People like Penny know how to be guardian angels. That is to say that not everyone has the ability to have these kind of wings. At a recent event held in her and her husband’s honor, I marveled at all the people in the room who she has served in the same capacity for. Being a guardian angel is one of her many gifts.

Since school has started my daughter has had some ups and downs. Stephen has sat down with her and he has worked with both my wife and I to learn how to make her experience better. He doesn’t have a bunch of pat answers or quick solutions. Instead, when she needs it the most he stands with her and up for her.