Heads of schools have A LOT on their plates right now! They are determining how and when to bring students and faculty back into buildings, how to train teachers to effectively teach from a distance, how to better address equity, inclusion, and social justice, and how to respond to parents’ fears and concerns about health and safety and knowledge loss- all on top of the other “normal” planning they need to do over the summer. If there was ever a time the Heads of Schools need an effective, responsive Board, it is NOW.
Unfortunately, I come across many Boards that are not effective nor responsive. Most Board members want to be helpful and supportive, and yet they don’t have the knowledge or consistently engage in the practices that allow them to fully fulfill their responsibilities. I’ve talked with many Heads of Schools who like and respect their Board members, yet A) wish they were more proactive and didn’t rely so heavily on the Head to guide them, B) wish they focused less on identified problems and more on researching and developing specific strategies and scenarios to support the school, or C) wish they engaged more actively in creative and productive development activities. These Heads feel stuck because they know their Board members are working hard, and yet the school is struggling.
There is considerable evidence that good governance has a significant and positive impact on the overall success of a school. When Boards fully fulfill their governance responsibilities, schools thrive. The most effective Boards have both a high level of knowledge about Board practices and a culture of implementing those practices. Their knowledge is not based on “what they think” or what works in corporate Board rooms, but what has been demonstrated through research and practice in nonprofits and schools. Boards with high knowledge of effective practices have taken the time to learn about governance from trusted sources and hold one another accountable for consistently practicing good governance.
Here is a matrix of what I have seen regarding Board practices.
I most commonly see Boards that operate in the bottom right or top left quadrants. Boards in the bottom right quadrant have some knowledge of effective Board practices and yet don’t have a culture of implementing them. These Boards are ineffective in their ability to accomplish their responsibilities because they are not consistent and/or active. Boards in the top left quadrant are more active, yet don’t implement what is most needed. These Boards often spend time “in the weeds,” engaging in operations and don’t have the knowledge on how to effectively govern.
In order to consistently operate in the top left quadrant, strategically and productively, Boards need to know what their responsibilities are and how best to accomplish them. This takes time, effort, and practice. It requires a clear understanding of Board responsibilities and “the line” between governance and operations.
So how can Board best support Heads in times of uncertainty? Be better at governance. Here are 5 things Boards can do that will both directly support Heads and free them up to focus on operations.
We know that governance has a significant impact on the ability of organizations to operate successfully. Especially now during these uncertain times, independent schools need engaged and productive governors. The schools with the most sustainable operations have Boards that take responsibility for their own professional development and ensure that they are consistently engaging in effective governance practices.
The Building Better School Boards Professional Development Program enables independent school Boards and Heads to improve their governance practices so they can ensure the sustainability of their schools without wasting time or money.
Writes about small school leadership and governance