Trustees: Long on Passion - Short on Time
Good governance has never been more important - or more challenging to achieve - but there are ways of shifting the thinking around it that can help us all move forward.
The role of the board of trustees and governance has been on my mind recently. It was quite a surprise to me how much time as a head of school I ended up spending thinking about - or rather, puzzling out - the role of the trustees and governance. I felt as if I were on some kind of recursive loop because while I felt as if I was able to come to clarity on many issues facing my school, the purpose and way forward to optimal functionality of governance in the 21st century in independent schools seemed to be like nailing Jell-O to the wall. There are many good resources out there, chief among them Greenwich Leadership Partners’ “The Adaptive Board” white paper by Stephanie Rogen - eloquent, extremely insightful, and thorough. (Link at the bottom) And of course, Governance as Leadership by Barbara E. Taylor, Richard Chait and William P Ryan is the gold standard and frequently still referred to.
However, I found that what makes complete and total sense in a training can feel difficult to execute on in real life.
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When I became a head, I think there was one session on working with the Board at the NAIS Institute for New Heads and in my dim memory I came away feeling that I needed to use my board reports to get into a defensive crouch. I had sat in a ton of board meetings throughout my tenure at Walnut Hill and they were at their best great learning opportunities and at their worst, dull. They were never unproductive. The committee structure was generally clear and functioned well. Governance and operation lanes seemed very clear. And there were always, always terrific dinner parties the senior admins and other faculty were invited to as part of the meeting. I think this was not a small part of the well functioning board - the fact we all had relationships beyond our work and shared passion for the school and we genuinely enjoyed these events. It built rapport and respect.
However, as much credit as I give the Walnut Hill board and the succession of gifted board chairs I saw operate there, it feels to me that in the early to mid 2010s, the complexity in front of all schools accelerated quickly.
And now - imagine being a new board member. You are engaged with, and deeply believe in, the institution. You give regularly. You have a child at the school and you are invested in your student having the best experience and you want it for other kids as well. Or you are a loyal alum and the school changed your life - many years ago. You want it to continue to do the same for kids now. You have some time available for philanthropic work or you’ve always been curious what it would be like to serve a school in this capacity. You want to give back. You’re told about the meeting requirements and it all seems very orderly and manageable.
However, once you join the board, you begin to realize all the things you don’t know. The senior team puts together lots of documents and they are thorough but it’s still hard to put it all in context. Often the administrators use references or terminology with which you are only passingly familiar. You have questions, but you don’t know where to start and you don’t want to look uninformed or dopey.
You’re told your lane is governance but don’t you have to understand the full complexity of school operations in order to think about the future? The CFO is quite competent but it’s hard to form an opinion on budget priorities because there are so many demands. You’re not sure who to talk to. It’s easier to not ask and do what is asked of you - besides, you only have a certain amount of time you can allocate to this work. That’s just a reality.
Then COVID hits and there seem to be a lot of zoom meetings, often conflicting with your work day or extending it far longer than you would like. And then there are extra trainings on important topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion and impromptu public health webinars but again - you wonder, if you don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the program, how can you begin to understand how the board and the head decide together on what needs to be a strategic priority when everything feels like its a priority. And while the diversity on the board was one of the things that attracted you initially, there are finance people, educators, philanthropists, attorneys, etc. - all used to different ways of operating. All folks from vastly different professional cultures and used to different communication norms.
Even for a person very engaged and committed to an institution, this is a LOT. They signed up for a few hours a month, which is already a significant gig in a busy world. The majority of board members often have very little fluency with the context and operations of schools in general, or insight into day-to-day pulse of campus - including how to make sense of schools today and how education has changed significantly since the early 2010s. Most of all, I truly believe most trustees are motivated by the strong desire to make a positive impact on an institution and are excited about their service. But depending on where you’re coming from, this can look many, many different ways and in the board recruitment and on-boarding process, I would imagine a conversation about this rarely comes to the surface. There is an assumption everyone wants the same thing - what’s best for the school. But what was best for the school even two years ago may be outdated and dusty by now. And with extremely limited time dedicated to board meetings in the scheme of things, how do you quickly develop a common language and understanding between board members as the makeup changes every year?
No wonder so many board/head relationships in 2022 are complicated and time consuming.
Derek Thompson wrote an article in the Atlantic last week about our weird economy and he mentions the circumstances contributing to lower productivity:
“Let’s say you own a restaurant. Every month during the Great Resignation, one-seventh of your workers quit. Now you’ve got almost all-new kitchen staff and waitstaff, and you can’t train them fast enough. The new chefs keep messing up your nightly specials. The new waiters keep dropping plates. Every week, somebody seems to get COVID. Yes, your restaurant is fully staffed. But are you working at full capacity? Not a chance!"
To me, this feels like the challenge facing a board of trustees and a head of school every year. And to add to this analogy, you may have board members who come into the restaurant thinking it really should, for example, stop being so casual and become a fine dining establishment - except they never share this thought and they assume everyone else shares this opinion, even though the owner herself knows full well there’s no clientele out there for fine dining at this location.
So here I am, heaving all of this mess up right on to the table. I am looking at it and it is - yes, a lot. But I do think there are some potential big solutions and some potential small areas to make the mess more orderly and begin to create conditions for governance training to be effective.
Control the controllables and get really intentional - about how many board members are needed, what their backgrounds are and the roles you need them to play, and depending on their backgrounds, what they specifically might have gaps in, in terms of school operations. Anticipate their questions and road blocks. Figure out who is going to be doing the hands-on, one on one guidance. A mentor system? The board chair? The governance chair? The head of school? Is everyone clear on how this is going to work and what the expectations are - and how whoever is responsible is going to be equipped to meet them. So many times in schools in general I have seen some kind of mentor or buddy system where after matching the new folks and the buddies.
Surface expectations, all around. This is harder than it sounds but it can happen with persistence and investing in the relationships. And it needs to happen over time, at an in depth level, or you will get stuck in the “we all want the best for the school.” (Whatever that means - and I guarantee there are wildly different unspoken expectations out there.) It’s amazing what happens when you just surface the most obvious questions and ask. I think ideally, all this was supposed to get surfaced during strategic planning but in my experience, the process of strategic planning sometimes obscured more than it revealed about the hopes and dreams of individual trustees.
There needs to be a school employee whose main job is the care and feeding of the board of trustees, and it can’t be the head, an executive assistant or the director of development. It needs to be someone who can support the board chair and trustees, who has the ear of the head and enough governance expertise to help guide board leadership and pose good questions as they plan committee meetings and full board meetings, and perhaps most importantly, has the gravitas to earn trustee respect. I hate saying a solution is adding resources to schools already overburdened budgets but I don’t see a good way around this at most schools. Board chairs need all the partners they can get at this complicated time and the Board liaison type position I am talking about would be an experienced, at least director level position.
Finally, to follow up on my post from several weeks ago - I think so much about moving schools forward has to do with putting in the time and expertise to develop and fine tune communications. I spent seven years trying to figure out what reports to give the board and I felt as if I never was able to quite get it right in terms of what I wanted to convey. It also almost always felt like an extra burden on top of actually running the school rather than a fantastic opportunity to sit back, synthesize, and think strategically. That was always my goal and it rarely manifested.
The communications area of board/school relations would take a fair amount of investment up front, but then could contribute exponentially to a well functioning board/head of school - senior team partnership. How is board communications part of your overall communications strategy? How are you strategically communicating with this important constituency? How is it indicative of your mission and your brand? How is it authentic and helpful? How often? How much? In what form? Because really, other than “talk to your board chair regularly” I did not get much insight from anyone on this front and board members themselves have a hard time figuring out what will be helpful.
And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of investing in a highly skilled advancement communications director - this cannot be the well meaning, enthusiastic person who knows the school, is reasonably articulate, has strong basic writing skills, and is learning on the job.. This profile of a person can perhaps get to the highly skilled place, but that is going to take time and investment on the part of the school to train someone. Meanwhile, you have customers sitting at the tables, waiting for their dinners.
We’re in a complicated world where we need professionals to do these jobs. I can’t emphasize that enough. Otherwise, the needle is just too hard to move.
Board chairs, and board chairs and heads - those are topics for another day. I think many schools are discovering it’s hard to find trustees at this point who are even open to a discussion about being board chairs and I have great, great empathy for anyone who takes on this crucially important and incredibly difficult job. Board chairs, you deserve a post of your very own! To come. :)
It is great to find that Talking Out of School has struck a chord and people continue to individually reach out to me - I encourage it. I hope to do more around the morale issue as well. If any of you have seen the McKinsey report circulating about the Great Resignation, lack of meaning comes in as the #2 reason for people leaving jobs, behind lack of opportunities for advancement - another issue that I think is a problem schools grapple with continually.
The Adaptive Board
The Great Renegotiation and the Talent Pool
The Three Biggest Mysteries of the US Economy
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