Boards Behaving Badly

3bsThere is a lot of talk these days about independent school governance. And it’s not good. One executive director of a large regional independent school association receives over fifty requests for trustee workshops each year. Another executive director is looking to form a cadre of experienced heads to provide counsel to board chairs on “hot” governance issues. Stories abound of first-time independent school heads seeking advice on how to temper the expectations of their “get it done now” boards of trustees. And head of school turnover appears to be unusually high (Advanced Placement, Marc Levinson).

A typical response to the “Three B’s” (Boards Behaving Badly) is trustee training in the form of workshops, specifically the Trusteeship 101 retreat. The thinking behind trustee education is that if trustees know the Do’s and Don’ts of trusteeship, if they understand the proverbial line between administration and governance, and if they are knowledgeable about “best practices” in governance, then schools can avoid the problems of dysfunctional head-board relations.

But this thinking only addresses part of the problem.

I don’t discount the value of trustee education. Workshops about proper board behavior can be incredibly valuable, especially for novice trustees. But in my experience, trustee education is not enough. It provides a false comfort to heads of school that education is the answer to all trustee problems and assumes that if trustees understand the “how” of governance they will behave appropriately. But trustees need more than just a list of inappropriate behaviors; they need to derive meaning from their trustee experience. How is this done? By putting their expertise to work to make a difference.

For instance, early in my tenure as a head of school near Boston, MA, the chair of the facilities committee and I went to a town planning committee to seek approval for a curb cut required for a major construction project. Neighbors were up in arms, vilifying me in all the typical ways that neighbors attack schools planning physical expansion. These attacks went on for forty minutes. My blood was boiling, more because the facilities chair, a well known, highly respected developer in town, didn’t say a word. How could he not give me any support? When the meeting ended, multiple side conversations broke out full of continuous chatter and expressions of anger. At that point, the chair of the facilities committee ambled up to the town planning committee members and said, “Can you vote right now on the curb cut?” The chair of the planning board, responded, “Sure.” Then they quietly voted. After the vote, the chair of the facilities committee turned to me and, with a smile on his face said, “We got the approval for the curb cut.”

The point is that the trustee had deep expertise in dealing with neighbors and getting approvals from town planning boards. He knew not to engage and fight back during the uproar, but waited for the vote. In using his expertise, he helped advance the school and got results, helping to set the foundation for better facilities and expanded programs. In other words, his efforts mattered, and he felt good about making a difference.

So how, as a head of school, can you get your trustees on board?

First, have a strong orientation program in which you and the board chair review the basic tenants of proper trustee behavior with the new trustee. The board chair should make it clear that one of his/her most important jobs is to make sure that trustees are held accountable for improper behavior. Furthermore, it’s imperative that you and the board chair communicate to the new trustee that there will be times when her service and expertise will be acutely needed and other times when her service will be more routine and less intense. Both levels of service will depend on the strategic imperatives at the time. Most importantly, let the new trustee know that you will not fill her time with busy work.

Second, sell your vision to get everyone, including trustees, on the same page. And I mean everyone! Some will be enthusiastic; some will be skeptical. In the beginning, that’s okay. Their skepticism will only make you work harder to prove them wrong. The ones who refuse to buy in may need to move on. When trustees support your vision, then their respective roles in the achievement of the vision contribute to the dominant narrative, and the issues with the 2nd grade Spanish teacher, for example, recede in the background. Vision has the power to focus and align.

visionThird, no one gets on the board unless she can use her talent/expertise to help the school realize the vision. Trustees are like all of us; they want to know that they are making a positive difference. If the facilities committee chair is not channeling his efforts to obtain town approvals, will he be complaining about the upper school math program in an inappropriate effort to make a positive difference? Let me be very clear—it is the head’s job, along with the board chair, to help each trustee find meaning in his/her volunteer work for the school. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves—even trustees. It’s the responsibility of the board chair and the head to help each trustee be a part of that “bigger.”

Fourth, a trustee should rarely play a key role in deciding the direction the board will take on a critical strategic decision unless he or she has significant expertise in that area. Many heads have suffered through marketing meetings with committee members who know next to nothing about marketing, and yet because of their power as trustees, school administrators end up wasting time implementing ineffective solutions. Your board talent has to be deployed and utilized in ways that add value to the school (i.e. helping the school do a better job of living its mission).

In order to turn your board into an asset, you need to create an inspiring and unifying vision, persuade talented people to help you realize that vision, and organize them to do their best work in service to the vision.

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