“I thought it was just me…” I’ve heard this too many times from smart, dedicated, engaged new board members who sit in meetings and feel out of touch, unworthy, unintelligent. They don’t understand what is going on, why decisions are being made, and what their role is. They frequently end up leaving the board because they don’t believe they can make an impact.
It is not them- it is the board.
How can boards of any size, and especially small school boards that expect so much of their members, hope to be strategic if trustees don’t understand their roles, don’t have the information they need, and haven’t been properly oriented? One of the most critical responsibilities of any board is to enlist the right people and give them the necessary information to accomplish their responsibilities. And yet often, small school boards overlook this important focus.
Before we can expect board members to fully participate in the work of the board, we need to provide them with a significant amount of information about the school and about the board itself. This takes thought, planning, and time. To best orient new board members, there should first be careful planning regarding the what they need to know, when they need to know it, and how they will gain the information. Time for learning and discussion is needed rather than just handing over of documents. Consider orientation as a year-long activity with periodic check-ins for understanding and continuing discussion. Furthermore, don’t assume that because a new board member is a parent or a member of the faculty or staff that they have this information. Each new board member should be treated similarly and given the same information in the same way.
Information to share with new board members about the school:
Information to share with new board members about the board:
There is a lot to discuss with new board members. Therefore board orientation should start as early as possible, be thoughtfully planned and implemented, and be a year-long endeavor. Small schools especially need board members to roll up their sleeves and fulfill the many expectations placed on the board. New board members will be better and sooner able to engage and participate if they have comprehensive information, perspective, and context about the school and the board.
I’ve recently had several conversations with Heads of Schools that centered on the work of Board committees. Actually, the conversations were about how the committees were not working well. Given that Board members of small schools need to deeply understand their roles and responsibilities in order to accomplish all that their schools ask of them, effectively utilizing committee time and structure is critical.
To be effective, Board committees must have clear charges that support the strategic goals of the school. I’ve heard of boards that meet every month and engage in what I call “admiring the problem,” that is, discussing issues without moving forward towards resolution; and I’ve heard of committees that perhaps meet 3-4 times a year and then wonder why nothing gets accomplished. Neither is helpful.
Here are 6 guidelines for effective committees:
Ensure that your Bylaws establish the right committees for your school; those that forward the mission and strategic goals. There are only a few recommended “standing” Board committees- Finance, Committee on Trustees (or Governance), and Head Evaluation & Support Committee, and then others that may be needed such as Audit and Investment committees. Other committees such as Advancement, Marketing, Buildings & Grounds, etc. that deal with operational issues may also be needed on small school Boards to accomplish work that school staff does not have the capacity to complete. Then there are ad hoc committees that may need to be established for short periods of time such as a Strategic Planning Committee or a Bylaws Review Committee. Boards need to carefully consider what committees are needed to accomplish their work for the school at any given time. Having too many committees that are not focused and productive drains resources and energy.
Ensure that you have the right people on each committee. Do you have the diversity of experience, skills, and perspectives needed to do each committee’s work? Some committees benefit by non-Board members participate and this is also a strategy for cultivating new Board members.
Ensure that each committee has a clear charge and articulated, specific, annual goals. It is important that each committee’s charge focuses on the long-term, strategic needs of the school. It is in committee that the real “work” of the Board is accomplished. Committees need to understand and articulate why they are meeting and what the plan to accomplish.
Ensure that the Chair of each committee is committed to facilitating regular meetings and following up with detailed, timely reports. When and how do committees meet? Are you sensitive to all committee members’ time and circumstance? Can you utilize technology to enable more members to participate?
Ensure that there are established and consistent practices for committees to share their work with the Board as a whole. Developing standard forms for committee reports that effectively and concisely convey the needed information as well as timelines for submission will enable the entire Board to understand each committee’s work and be prepared to make decisions in Board meetings.
Ensure that there are methods for regularly evaluating the work and the goal achievement of each committee. If there are no specific, objective outcomes that can be attributed to committee work, then the committee is not effective.
Board committees are critical to the governance of small schools, and yet there is often little attention paid to their structure and success. The nature of governing small schools requires Board members to accomplish a lot! Effectively utilizing committees will help.
When I was a new Head of School, it never occurred to me to consider engaging with an Executive or Leadership Coach. I didn't know anyone who did that kind of work and no one offered to connect me with a coach. Looking back on my experience "jumping into the deep end of the pool" at my new school with little support, I would have benefited tremendously from having a coach - and my school, in turn, would have benefited as well.
When I started my consulting business over three years ago, I engaged a coach to help me think through my process. He helped me identify my strengths and pinpoint areas where I could develop my skills. The insight I gained from talking with him was tremendous. Over the past several years I have served as a Leadership Coach for many school leaders, both Heads of Schools and middle-level managers. I am sold on the benefits of having a trained, objective third party provide a sounding board, feedback, and encouragement for anyone, and especially for leaders.
Joan Garry recently wrote a article that I think beautifully articulates the benefits of coaching. She focuses on nonprofit leaders and her points translate directly to small school leaders. You can read it HERE.
I welcome the opportunity to engage in Leadership Coaching with more school leaders! Find out more about my coaching practice HERE.
Small school board members are often called upon to help with operational issues in order to best support the Head and administration of their school. Boards get involved in discussions (and sometimes the actual work) regarding fundraising, enrollment management, finances, building care, etc. While it is sometimes necessary in a small school for trustees to “cross the line” from governance into operations, board members need to understand that line and stay in the governance realm as much as possible.
The governance realm involves thinking and planning strategically and generatively regarding the sustainability and thrivability of the school. This is one of the primary responsibilities of any nonprofit or independent school board. Strategic thinking is focused on developing data-informed strategies to achieve goals for long-term, financial success. Generative thinking is used to analyze problems and develop creative solutions. If the board isn’t engaged in these types of thinking and planning, who is? Nonetheless, some boards struggle to identify how they can effectively engage in strategic, generative thinking.
The first place to start is by setting up your board meetings so that there is time, space, and focus on strategic and generative thinking. Too often boards spend their precious meeting time reading committee reports or "admiring problems" (discussing issues without considering solutions). Board meetings should be designed to be as efficient as possible so that there is enough time for the most important conversations.
Here are four steps to establish effective, efficient meetings:
1. Start and end meetings on time. Do not wait for latecomers.
2. Use a consent agenda to quickly approve those items that do not need any further discussion (prior minutes, time changes, etc.).
3. Expect Board members to have read reports before the meeting and behave as if everyone has done so. Do not read or summarize reports!
4. On the agenda, clarify the items for discussion, the items for approval, and the expected next steps or tasks for each agenda item in order to diminish misunderstanding and the need to ask clarifying questions.
By reducing the amount of time needed for information-sharing and routine business, boards can spend time on strategic and generative conversations. On your board agenda, place these types of discussion at the beginning of each meeting, rather than the end, to ensure that you will not run out of time. Make time for strategic and/or generative thinking and planning at each meeting and consider a range of topics. Boards can use the strategic or generative thinking time to consider broad goals, thrivability, threats, opportunities, etc. for the school. Allow a significant amount of time for these discussions, 30 minutes or more, to allow deep consideration.
Ensuring that there is ample, protected time on each board meeting agenda for the board to consider big-picture, strategic topics and to develop creative, meaningful solutions will enable boards to fulfill their responsibility of overseeing the long-term viability of their organization.
One of the unique aspects of leading a small school is that, due to limited resources (both monetary and human), the administration is typically very lean. In other words, there are not very many people to get all of the work done. While the same things need to be accomplished in a small school as in a large school (admissions, development, business management, curriculum oversight, faculty management, student management, building management, etc.), there are fewer people to accomplish the work. And ultimately, it is the Head's responsibility to make sure everything gets done.
When I was the Head of a small school, I used to joke that in another school, a task might be given to the assistant to the Associate Admissions Director. At times, I wore all three of those hats- Admissions Director, Associate Director, and Assistant! While this can certainly be seen as a challenge, I also see this as a benefit. As Head of School, I learned about and was aware of every aspect of our school. When we finally were able to get a part-time Admissions Director, I worked closely with that person and still was able to be involved with every step in the process.
However, being responsible for so many aspects of a small school’s operations does create a significant challenge for small school leaders- time and focus management. Most of the Heads of small schools that I know say that there just isn’t enough time to accomplish all that needs to be done. Many Heads express frustration over having to spend so much time “in the weeds” and lament that because they need to focus on budgeting, student behavior management, fundraising, plunging toilets, etc. they have little time for strategic thinking. Others said they don't even know where to start with addressing the bigger picture and more visionary thinking. While it is true that Heads of small schools need to spend more of their time responding to operational needs, they serve their schools best when they can engage in leadership activities such as strategic thinking and setting and working towards a vision.
Operational issues related to staff, students, building, money, etc. are very visible, and it is easy for Heads to become solely focused on them, to the exclusion of the larger strategic issues that need their attention. While the Head may be particularly good at managing the daily operations, they are the only one who is uniquely informed and qualified to perform the leadership duties needed by schools. I propose that there are six areas that Heads of School need to address and sustain regularly: 1) themselves and their leadership, 2) overall fiscal and programmatic stability, 3) managing the Board, 4) thinking strategically about the operations of the school, 5) setting the vision and managing the “brand” of the school, and 6) managing the culture and climate of all constituent groups. There is no one else who can influence each of these areas to the extent that a Head of School can. And if any one of these areas has problems, flounders, or otherwise runs amok, it can have a significant negative impact on the rest of the school’s functioning.
None of this is to say that Heads of small schools shouldn’t be closely involved in the day to day operations of their school; given the small administration that is characteristic of a small school, they need to be involved. However, Heads of small schools need to recognize that they will have the greatest influence over the long run if they stay "above the operations line" and lead, rather than do.
The graphic below depicts the “above the line” and “below the line” focuses. I’ve also developed a summer reflection form- both a short, free Worksheet and a longer, more comprehensive Workbook version to help Heads of small schools consider their performance and goals in each of these areas.
“We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey
Have you heard the “joke” that goes- What is the best thing about teaching? June, July, and August! I don’t take such a cynical view of education- I actually think September is one of the best months- so full of hope, promise, and opportunity. Yet in order to get to that place of optimism in September, it is helpful for school leaders (administrators and teachers) to spend time over the summer preparing by reflecting and planning.
Research and practice tell us that when we stop and reflect on our learning it synthesizes and solidifies our experiences into understanding and knowledge. We ask our students to reflect on their learning; yet do we as adults acknowledge and value reflection as an important part of our own professional growth? While it is important to weave reflection time into our schedules during the year, the summer months are an ideal time to take a big picture look at our performance, learning, successes, and challenges in order to plan for the upcoming year.
There are many benefits to spending time in self-reflection:
Emotional intelligence- Reflection leads to self-awareness, a key element in emotional intelligence. This, in turn, leads to the ability to practice self-regulation, another element. Without intentional self-reflection, it is difficult to develop self-awareness.
Recognize progress- We all need to feel like we have agency and impact in our work. While positive feedback and praise from others are important; acknowledging our own progress and success to ourselves is also beneficial.
Clarity- When we are “in the moment” in our work, we often lose sight of what we are doing, our impact, our mindsets, and the big picture. Self-reflection, both on an ongoing basis and in the summer, helps us to step back and gain clarity on the entire context of our work.
Increased confidence- When you have assessed your performance, you can move forward with the confidence that you know what you are good at as well as your “growth edges.”
Integrity- When you are aware of your patterns and habits of behavior, as well as your attitudes and mindsets, you can consider if they are in alignment with your values. After consideration, you can decide how you might alter your patterns moving forward.
Ability to plan- With the clarity and confidence gained through self-reflection you can establish aspirations and goals based on clear information and understanding.
Basic reflection includes looking back to think about and articulate what went well and what didn’t go as planned. We can also reflect upon specific details within our work. Writing down reflections and subsequent plans for moving forward helps to organize thoughts and can be a resource to look back on in the future. In addition, talking through reflections with a trusted colleague can help to further clarify thoughts.
By taking the time this summer to engage in intentional, comprehensive self-reflection, you will set yourself up for a productive school year.
I’ve developed both a brief reflection Worksheet for Heads of Small Schools and a more detailed Complete Workbook. Click here for a free copy of the Summer Reflection for Heads of Small Schools Worksheet.
“The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning.” (Jennifer Porter HBR 3.21.17)
Parents choose independent schools for their children for a variety of reasons. One thing all parents share is a desire for their children to be cared for and supported in school. And I think it is safe to say that all independent schools aspire to care for and support all of their students. Each child matters in every school. Yet in small schools, each individual student has the potential to make an significant impact on the functioning of the organization in ways that are not seen in larger schools.