Next week over 35 school leaders and board members will assemble in Chicago to discuss high performing boards. As suitcases are packed and boarding passes are printed, I offer the following three items for your carry-ons:
Pay Attention: These two words succinctly summarize one of the most significant functions of each board member and the collective board. If you see something that does not seem right, say something and ask questions. This is not a call for board members to micromanage or to needlessly rock the boat, rather a call to prudently and professionally fulfill your role and ensure that the school is making decisions, responding to opportunities, and positioning itself with policies and procedures that produce the conditions to advance each year. A board can best pay attention when the head of school has consistently and effectively educated the board about the mission and operations of the school and honestly informed the board and each board member about the circumstances and challenges ahead.
Paying attention is especially critical for many of our schools given our fragile nature as start-ups or maturing adolescents who are still establishing and solidifying their presence and position in the community. For our schools in operation for less than 15 years, many variables remain in flux and resources are still stabilizing. Even minor bumps in mission, education, personnel, facilities or finances can cause significant issues, whereas larger, more established organizations could easily attend to and absorb the distractions. In schools that have been in operation for more than 15 years, reckless neglect in any of these areas if even for one year can cause significant drift that will require more extensive time and resources to recover.
Plan Ahead: Of course, while any board should be paying attention to avoid immediate crisis; great boards are paying attention to the future. An effective board, whether they are engaged in an official strategic planning process or not, are planning ahead for at least the next three years for educational services, support and programs; leadership including board membership; staffing; finances; facilities; and technology. This planning needs to be much more than casual conversations on the side with selected individuals; this is scheduled time with a range of individuals that results in decisions, goals and a timeline.
In his Time Management quadrants, Steven Covey advises that any leader should spend most of his/her time focused on that which is “important but not urgent.” What does that mean? School leadership is engaged in thoughtful definition of identity, extensive education around mission, creative and innovative envisioning of what is next, building meaningful relationship with community and stakeholders, careful preparation of new initiatives, thorough evaluation of existing initiatives and strategic, informed decision making. All the things that most leaders and boards add to the “If we only had more time …” list because they are consumed by pressing problems, immediate deadlines, unforeseen circumstances and crisis both real and imagined, or worse yet non-pressing interruptions that did not need their attention or trivial tasks and irrelevant busywork.
For private, faith-based schools funded through a non-tuition driven model, we often devote so much time to raising the next dollar that we fail to properly give enough attention to maturing the organization. Taking the time to effectively plan ahead will stabilize the organization and allow a school leader and board to spend less time feeling overwhelmed in panic mode.
Systematize Relationships: Our schools depend immensely on people – the visionary founder, the strategic board member, the generous benefactor, the welcoming leader, the relentless volunteer, the heroic teacher. More so, these individuals form relationships with students, families, faculty and staff, partners, donors, and other key stakeholders that continuously give life to our schools. Yet the development and maturity of our schools are at risk if the work of these individuals and the value of their relationships do not become institutionalized. Thinking long term, the relationship is through the person to the school and ultimately driven by the school. We know the personal and emotional rub that this shift may require especially given the investment of committed individuals. Think of the contribution of any individual listed above – founder, board member, benefactor, leader, volunteer, teacher. It is critical that a system is in place that institutionalizes the impact so that it lasts beyond the individual. If effectively communicated, implementing proper systems that are aligned with the mission and vision of the school and driven by clear policies and straightforward procedures can still preserve that individual relationship.
Looking forward to seeing many of you in Chicago – safe travels!