Strategic Thinking for Small School Boards

board governance board planning small schools strategic thinking May 12, 2021
a drawing with the words strategy, goals, and plans

Board members who serve small independent schools have so much on their plates! With limited resources (both financial and human), they are often called upon to help out their schools in ways that most board members of larger schools are not. And the almost constant focus on managing the school’s finances can keep them feeling like they are “stuck in the weeds.” Of course, this past year, everyone has had to focus tactically: on surviving the pandemic, managing the balance of in-person and remote learning, and ensuring the safety of all community members. Yet the most effective boards are those that are able to think longer-term about the sustainability and thrivability of their school. How can small school board members lift up their gaze to consider how to best govern their school into the future? How can they ensure that rather than reacting to problems, they are proactively strategizing to meet their goals?  

The Governance as Leadership model of board governance, developed by Taylor, Chait, & Ryan (Governance as Leadership, Wiley, 2004) encourages a board to consider its governance responsibilities using three equally important mindsets: fiduciary, strategic, and generative, and leave the operations focus and decision-making to the head of school and administration. The fiduciary mindset is one of caretaker or overseer and includes the three legal duties of a board member: duty of care, duty of obedience, and duty of loyalty. The generative mindset is the big-picture thinking, meaning-making, brainstorming, issue-framing process that boards need to employ to be able to articulate their short and long term goals and should precede any strategic thinking and/or planning. And the strategic mindset is the one that uses data and carefully considers options when creating plans and action steps. This strategic mindset is the one that many small school boards struggle to utilize regularly and leaves them “caught in the weeds.” Strategic thinking is a process for planning how to achieve goals, gathering data to inform decisions, considering options and perspectives, and then deciding upon the best course of action. It is a process that can and should be embedded into every step of a board’s work and utilized at every meeting. Small school boards that want to become more strategic can work to enhance their focus and practice in the six areas below:

    1. Understand what governance is- and isn’t. This means understanding the difference between governance, leadership, and operations, how these three areas intersect, and then how to strategically navigate the lines between them. While the focus of governance will remain the same, how small school boards navigate these lines will likely be different than for larger schools. 
    2. Practice thinking strategically. Strategic thinking is intentional, uses data, and considers options when making decisions. You can think strategically about big issues such as setting tuition or articulating a financial aid policy and also about smaller issues such as how to craft your board agendas and the types of people who would be additive to your board. Effective boards strategize everything.
    3. Plan and set goals. Boards need to set aside time to think intentionally and strategically about where they are going, what they hope to accomplish, and how they plan to accomplish their goals. Boards need to set long-term goals, annual goals, committee goals, and individual meeting goals. The time spent in these planning activities is critical and can be considered one of the most important contributions a board can give to their school.  
    4. Facilitate effective meetings. A key place to be strategic is in planning meetings. Boards and board committees need to ensure that their meeting time is engaging, productive, outcome-focused, and inclusive. Skilled group facilitation is important to enabling all to feel welcomed, heard, and valued. Strategically planning meetings will enable board gatherings to be used to strategically plan other aspects of your board work. 
    5. Pay attention to culture and climate. A board is only as good as its individual members and will not be effective if they do not feel welcomed, heard, and valued. In addition to skilled meeting facilitation, boards need to consider culture and climate, equity, inclusion, access, and belonging within its own membership to ensure the full benefits of diversity of perspective and thought.
    6. Ensure a positive relationship with your head of school. The importance of a collaborative board-head relationship cannot be understated. In order for the head to be an effective leader, they need effective governance support. There is the responsibility on both sides for nurturing a communicative, collaborative relationship.

 When small school boards think and act strategically, on a regular, ongoing basis, and carefully plan each aspect of their responsibilities, they provide the most effective governance for their schools. Effective governance supports and facilitates effective leadership which together, enable successful schools.

Brooke Carroll of Acies Strategies is a consultant and coach for small schools. She provides board professional development, leadership coaching, and strategic thinking and planning consultation to support and sustain successful small schools. She is the author of the forthcoming book: Governing the Small School.

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