Creating and Sustaining the Best Possible Governing Board

My last blog had to do with how to deal with a “problem board member.” This topic ranks #1 in the list of concerns coming to me from independent schools across the country and is the basis for chapter nineteen in my book, Healthy Boards – Successful Schools. While you may occasionally have to solve these sorts of problems, it’s far more fulfilling to build an effective board than to heal a dysfunctional one.

Rather than submit a simple “how-to” process (that’s in my book already), I thought I would build a list of mythological people that would be outstanding board members.

Excellent board candidates have some of the same attributes. They include:

  • Company executives
  • Successful in their own business
  • Connected in the community
  • Knowledgeable regarding financial matters
  • Expertise and experience in a range of skills from legal to marketing=

But I’ve seen individuals fulfill their roles as board members admirably that didn’t fit the standard mold. Now, in my “wiser years,” I seek these attributes. They may not be listed. But they’re at the front of my thinking as I begin the board recruitment search process. Here’s what I’m looking for:

A respectful attitude toward those in leadership. A board member must appreciate the leadership roles of those in your school. The head of school isn’t the only leader being held accountable and holding others accountable. Board members must put the success of the school first, and that requires your school’s leadership being supported and encouraged.

A calm and even-tempered demeanor in the midst of conflict or debate. On occasion, topics of an unpleasant or controversial nature present themselves in a board meeting or worse, in a public gathering. A board may yet have developed the talking points or even fleshed out all the facts. In these moments, if passions overcome the school’s leaders and voices are raised, faces become red, and people make comments of a personal nature; the damage to the school can be significant and long-lasting. On the other hand, if leaders are calmly listening to others, measured in their comments, and not defensive or attacking; they can be invaluable in resolving conflicts and avoiding them before they erupt onto the scene.

Never seeks credit for themselves or their family. Board members that seek out a legacy for themselves court resentment from others on the board, as well as families. Genuine humility when serving in a leadership position speaks for itself – the value of servant leadership. These individuals can be a valuable source of honest feedback. Chances are they’re already known for this quality, and their very presence on the board carries meaning.

Seeks first to understand things before pushing their solution. Some people instinctively know what questions to ask. They know the value of a decision that’s been weighed with the facts…and more than just the facts. By that, I mean the people, the environment, and all that adds up to the context of problems and solutions. Whether you’re hiring a head of school, approving the annual budget, or carrying out the strategic plan; these board members are saving you untold misery.

Listens to others (as opposed to constantly articulating their agenda) carefully and closely. It’s impossible for one person to listen and take note of everything and everybody. People who know what to watch and listen for will give you insights that are impossible to gain through surveys and questionnaires. They see the behavior and attitudes that drive the numbers. They aren’t easily influenced and swayed, because they’ve come to trust what they have seen and heard. It’s good to have this person on your team!

Naturally articulates important issues and goals extraordinarily well. I’ve discussed this in my book, and I’ll say it here. Board members are priceless “evangelists” when it comes to disseminating information – especially the vision found in the strategic plan. They’re seen as insiders, and when combined with excellent verbal communication skills, they can bring resolution and clarity to a room with confidence and ease. The challenge is knowing what to communicate and what to defer to the school’s leadership. Don’t pretend to be knowledgeable about personnel decisions but rather indicate that you trust the school’s leadership.

Appreciates and embraces today’s diverse culture. This board member is constantly reaching out to others that many times may find themselves on the periphery. Tragically, some families find they are not welcome at a school due to their economic strata, church, race, etc. This can be devastating to a school’s reputation. Is the school’s leadership determined to make strides in this area? Is this a strategic priority? If so, then having this quality in all of your board members is essential. Any attempt at diversity, without a board that embraces it, is doomed to fail and possibly with long-lasting consequences.

There are numerous factors that help determine what constitutes a board that is going to have the most positive impact on the school. The board and head of school working together, embracing the value of the strength found in unity, and acting on a shared vision will result in an exceptional experience for our students. Let’s seek out these board members who want to be a part of this exciting, forward-thinking independent school.

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