The Three Most Effective Ways to Resolve Your Number One Problem: Trust

One of the most enduring challenges for independent and faith-based schools is the issue of trust between the head of school, the board chair, and the entire board.

How do these leaders earn it, model it, and sustain it in times of challenge and uncertainty – not just during a pandemic, but the ongoing burdens that schools encounter throughout the yea? I believe that there are three areas that can inform our work, chart the course, and help leaders navigate this essential trait within the leadership of the school.

  1. Build trust around the idea that best practices are to be honored, lived out, and upheld under all circumstances.

These school leaders have specific and defined roles and responsibilities that have been tried and tested over time and found to be worthy of being upheld because they ensure sustainability, viability, and foster an environment that is healthy for all school constituencies. Trust holds a team together when encountering the speed bumps and storms that almost certainly lay in wait for independent schools. Schools are unique in the world of nonprofit organizations. Few organizations have the multifaceted layers of independent or faith-based schools. There is a board, a head of school, professional staff, instructional staff, a student body, parents who expect to contribute their skills and finances, grandparents, and alumni.

The board’s fundamental responsibilities are to ensure adherence to the mission, accept fiscal responsibility for the sustainability of the school, and hire the head of school. The head of school is their only employee and the head has the executive responsibility to lead, manage, and administer all aspects of the operation of the school. Other stakeholders and different constituencies exert influence over the governance and leadership of the school and must trust that the school is fulfilling its mission. However, the board and head that follow the path of best practices will be the schools that thrive and flourish.

With numerous constituent groups, challenges are inevitable. All constituencies must believe that the leadership possesses the experience and expertise to lead the school. In Patrick Lencioni’s excellent book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he describes the lack of trust as the first and most fundamental barrier to organizational effectiveness. If we can’t get beyond this issue, then it will be almost impossible to achieve much of anything significant.

  1. Embrace the concept that these leaders must form a bond and a shared vision of where the school is going and how it will get there.

Trust continually holds to the belief in the mission, vision, and strategic direction of the school. This bond regarding shared vision is central to trust. The head, board chair, and board members must be of one mind, one voice, and one vision regarding direction. Shared vision and unity strengthen board culture. Working together in this manner will have amazing consequences. Inflexibility is not the answer but rather a commitment to what we know works and a belief that what we do as leaders is forever in the best interest of the school – that is our responsibility, our focus, and our profound belief as to what makes us different.

The idea of trust may not often be talked about it when it involves deeply personal matters, but it is ever-present or lacking, in all of our relationships. Even in our family lives, what would our marriages and close friendships be without trust? It would be a challenge to describe a child’s healthy relationship with his or her parents without mentioning trust.

In a recent meeting with colleagues, one person said to the other, “I trust you to make the right decision.” A professional working environment elevates the performance of its team members because of trust. Take away the trust, and you take away the most important factor that holds a team together. Trust keeps us focused on critical objectives and living out the school’s mission.

  1. Value ongoing education of the board.

Trust must never be assumed, taken for granted, or ignored as a vital trait with the head, chair, and trustees. All too often this leadership discounts the value of education and training. Ongoing education is critical to board culture and therefore critical to the school’s health and effectiveness.

Continuing board education and lifelong learning are central to a healthy board. Such training can take many forms and can truly be meaningful even if addressed only periodically and in small doses during a trustee’s tenure. But it must be there. Board orientation sessions, retreats, workshops, webinars, readings, materials and information provided during a board meeting, and much more all contribute to the knowledge, experience, and wisdom if every board member. It is the investment in people that pays the very best dividends.

We often hear the expression, “Trust the process.” What this means, in part, is to trust the people who have responsibility for developing and maintaining the process. Trust is what makes things work as they should and protects against influences that would disrupt and destroy despite the best of intentions. With trust, so much is possible, and optimism is plentiful. Without trust, we become suspicious and exhibit an unhealthy belief that dysfunction and chaos are in control. In such an environment, a shared vision and the bond that could hold leaders together is broken and difficult to repair.

Communicating, “I trust you,” or another way of expressing it is saying, “I believe in you,” have a profound impact on school effectiveness. The confidence to lead in such an environment is critical to a healthy board culture. Of course, none of this precludes mistakes from happening. However, the occasional misstep is not justification for abandoning leadership.

Best practices (roles and responsibilities), shared vision, and board education is an unbeatable combination of behaviors and activities that will result in a healthy, trusting environment and therefore, a successful school. There’s not much at stake – only the future of your students and the impact they and your school will have now and for years into the future!

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