I always appreciate the invitation to attend a board meeting at one of our schools and observe how the school leader and board members interact as a group and as individuals when presented with the immediate and long-term opportunities and challenges ahead. Even if practices, structures, and systems were standard in terms of agenda, review of minutes, committee reporting, facilitation of discussion, process of decision-making, and follow up communication, the board is a living entity that often reflects the non-standard personality of its collective membership. Similar to a leadership team or to a faculty and staff, the effectiveness of a board relies on a “cohesive chemistry” as much as implementation of appropriate operational procedures. This “cohesive chemistry” is present in a board in several ways:
Skill-sets: Board members represent and contribute necessary and critical skill-sets. Skill-sets in demand for our boards typically include education, finances, law, facilities, faith, community, and fundraising. In high-functioning boards, all skill-sets are represented, clearly linked to specific board members and communicated to all. This should not be a secret known to a chosen few or buried deep in a document somewhere. Board members know that their expertise will be relied upon as needed in particular areas and will influence the direction of the school.
One Team: A respected school leader once started the year urging those with the most substantial responsibilities in the school to realize that the school does not succeed because of them alone, and for those with less extensive responsibility to recognize that a school’s success depends on the commitment of everyone involved. This is a meaningful perspective for a school leader to apply to the cohesive chemistry of the board as well, being careful not to overestimate or underestimate a board member’s contribution. If left unchecked, some board members will exploit a green light to monopolize discussion and influence decisions, and others will believe they are secondary when it comes to the more significant issues of the board.
Investment: This is especially critical for a NativityMiguel school as the Board of Directors is typically the “owner” of the school rather than serving in an advisory or consultative role. Even in member schools with a two-tiered board structure, the Board of Directors is typically responsible for overseeing the mission while the Members may have certain reserved powers of jurisdiction that are exercised in extreme or rare situations. Our Boards of Directors are responsible for upholding the integrity of the school according to its mission and ensuring that the school is taking the right steps to exist in 1, 5, 10, 25, 50 years. There will not be another entity that will come swooping in to save the school if the Board can not collectively fulfill its responsibility. This necessitates Board-wide investment and each Board member must be fully invested in ownership of the school. As I meet with school boards, I am often struck by conversations with new board members who are beginning to fully realize the demands of this great responsibility.
To be effective, the school leader and board chair, first and foremost, see this as opportunity rather than obstacle. A cohesive chemistry of skill-sets, team dynamics and investment can directly and immediately educate students, lift up families, and transform communities in our most impoverished, underserved areas. There are likely no external forces that could for irrational, nonsensical reasons bring this to a screeching halt; there is nothing stopping us other than ourselves.
Of course, that is also the risk, and there are examples of break-downs that can paralyze a board. I had an opportunity to attend a workshop last week sponsored by the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College as part of their Emmaus Leadership Series. Heather Gossart, a respected school leader at Bishop McNamara High School in Washington, DC and now a consultant for school boards through the NCEA, presented on Leading Effective School Boards. [Our school leaders may remember Heather from one of the NativityMiguel Network’s Leadership Conferences when it was held at the Phoenix Hotel in Washington, DC.]
Heather mentioned five reasons that Board Members decide to leave a board and limit a board’s effectiveness:
- Mission and vision of school not clearly articulated
- No direction given as to what the Board should be doing
- Board meetings poorly run with no real leadership
- Serving on the Board was a waste of time
- Not given real work as a Board Member
Board formation, development, management and assessment needs to be an on-going priority for school leaders. The school leader and board chair are working on two fronts: building a board with “Cohesive Chemistry,” and at the same time, monitoring and ensuring that the board has what it needs to be effective. Proper attention to either front can be stifling, something that a small, complex school can not afford if it is to remain accessible to students from impoverished families and excellent in the education it delivers to these students and families.
Please note: There are many resources, experts and organizations that focus specifically on what a board needs to be effective. Over the next few weeks and culminating in our Leadership Conference in Chicago in October, we will examine more closely the unique demands on the board of a member school in the NativityMiguel Coalition.