Creating and Maintaining a Culture of Communication

One of my favorite expressions is “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.

The idea of trust may not often be talked about it when it involves deeply personal things, 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.

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. You have 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. These stakeholders and different constituencies exert influence over the governance and leadership of the school and must place trust that the school is fulfilling its mission.

What could go possibly wrong when so many are involved? Quite a bit! Trust is vital to a school, to not just run smoothly, but to be successful in achieving its mission. 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.

At the top of the list of relationships where trust matters most is the one between the head of school and the board chair. It’s a single relationship, but one that forecasts success and failure to a much larger group of stakeholders. Trust doesn’t mean that accountability isn’t present. However, it empowers the head to hold his or her team accountable, lead the school, and manage expectations; all in order to achieve both strategic and tactical goals.

There are a number of troubling actions present that can indicate an erosion of trust in this relationship. One factor (among many possibilities) emerges when a school is experiencing organizational or operational issues. It occurs when the board chair takes it on themselves to discuss the head of school with the school’s staff or faculty. This invites inappropriate communication that leads to distrust and a lack of support for the head of school. A board chair may have malevolent motivations, or even completely ignorant of best practices. Also, there is a difference between asking tough questions and second-guessing those who are responsible. Regardless, the staff member is in an incredibly awkward situation. Backchannel communications reveal a culture in need of attention. The head of school is left to guess as to who else is involved, what else has been said, and by whom. If unchecked, the end is often in sight for the school leader’s tenure. Respect is severely compromised, and the path to dysfunction is all too clear!

Communicating, “I trust you,” or another way of expressing it is saying, “I believe in you.” The statement and actions 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. This, in conjunction with consistent communication between the head of school and board chair, a commitment to board training, best practices, and embracing a culture of mutual respect and understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities is critical to the school’s future.

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