Have you ever turned off your sound and video during a Zoom meeting to take a break from a conversation that seems to be going nowhere? Or found your mind wandering when someone starts to bring up the same complaint again? Or scheduled a dentist appointment so you could avoid a staff meeting?
Boring, unproductive meetings are far too common and not only waste people’s time, they can harm a group’s productivity, engagement, effort, and culture. It is not that group leaders are intentionally setting out to facilitate boring meetings- I know for myself there have been many times where I realized upon reflection that I fell short in engaging my constituents in a productive gathering. As I considered the glazed eyes, slow responses to my questions, and quick departures at the end, I knew I could have done more to be a better facilitator. Group meetings are important for a variety of reasons such as developing shared understandings, considering new ideas, crafting solutions to problems, and building community and culture. Yet when organizational leaders plan regular meetings (staff meetings, board meetings, committee meetings, etc.) we tend to go on auto-pilot, focusing only on the content of the meeting without considering the process. We don’t devote the time necessary to consider and plan for the context and structure that will fully engage group members and enable our meeting to be truly productive.
We know a lot about how people learn: what helps improve the application of learning and what dynamics hinder learning. We know about group dynamics and how people can engage effectively with one another. We know about motivation: what conditions and circumstances increase motivation, and what can be demotivating. We know about decision-making and the factors that improve decision-making outcomes. And yet leaders who plan regular meetings rarely apply these sets of knowledge when they invite participants to their weekly or monthly gatherings. Often agendas are loosely put together and are carbon-copies of previous agendas. There are few if any prompts to prepare participants for the meeting and if there are required readings (i.e. reports) they are not sent enough in advance so that participants can fully digest them. There is often little attention paid to how the group engages with the meeting material during the meeting. Rather, topics are considered in a big group and those folks who are quick processors and comfortable, confident group speakers dominate the conversation. The end result can be that some participants are left out, discussions devolve into off-topic ramblings or arguments, too much time is spent on some topics and not enough on others, and meetings finish without deciding or accomplishing anything.
Yet, with a little bit of time and thought, regular meetings can be planned that will be more engaging for participants, result in achieving desired, articulated outcomes, and ultimately, create a team that is more cohesive and productive.
In Priya Parker’s beautifully written book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (Penguin Business, 2018), she describes in detail the different phases of planning for meetings and how to consider the participants’ experiences at each step of the way. She begins: “The way we gather matters. Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in, in both our intimate and public realms. Gathering- the conscious bringing together of people for a reason- shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of the world….And yet most of us spend very little time thinking about the actual ways in which we gather.” (pg ix).
In my work with small school leaders (heads of schools, boards, board chairs) I have found Ms. Parker’s last statement to be true. And I believe that if school leaders want to maximize the brainpower of their constituents (or said another way: if heads of schools and board chairs want to ensure that they are effectively using the skills and abilities of their board members), then they need to facilitate better, more effective meetings. They need to take themselves off auto-pilot and consider why they are facilitating a meeting, what their goals are, and how best to manage and utilize the strengths of the meeting participants to achieve their goals. Based on Parker’s thinking, and incorporating learning from education, psychology, and sociology, here are 5 places to “take yourself off auto-pilot.”
1: Meeting Planning- Why am I calling this meeting?
Consider your goals and motivation for calling this particular meeting. What do you expect and want to happen, to achieve, to feel at the end of the meeting? Consider if there are ways other than gathering a group together to achieve your goals and address your motivations.
2: Participant prep- How can I best prepare participants to be ready to engage in this meeting?
Consider how you can motivate participants to be engaged. Consider what materials they will need and provide prompts, activities, or readings to “prime the pump” for their thinking. Consider when and where you schedule the meeting to enable your participants to fully participate.
3: Transition to the gathering- How can I set the stage at the beginning to start a successful meeting?
Consider the climate of the group to ensure it is a positive, equitable, and inclusive one (i.e. feelings of being valued, included, and heard; emotional safety and trust; feelings that the meeting content is relevant and meaningful; etc.). Consider how to transition the group from what they were doing to focus them on the planned group work/goal. Consider if there are outside issues or contexts (national, regional, or within the school) that need to be acknowledged before you can address the planned group work/goal.
4: Engaging with the content- How can I maximize the group's participation?
Consider how to make desired outcomes explicit for each topic covered in the meeting. Consider how to utilize various meeting processes and techniques to ensure that everyone is engaged and all have the opportunity to participate (i.e. small group discussion, brainstorming, world café, scenarios, design-thinking, etc.). Consider how to facilitate decision-making processes that utilize effective strategies and protect against cognitive and social biases. Consider how you will respond when participants don’t behave and interact as you expect.
5: Transition from the gathering- How do I end the meeting?
Consider how to summarize what you have accomplished and how participants will know what their tasks or assignments will be following the meeting. Consider how to enable each member of the group to transition smoothly from this meeting. Consider how when you will assess the efficacy of this meeting and plan for future meeting success.
But wait!- you say. Thinking about all of those steps will take WAY too much time from my job! Planning like that is unrealistic- who can spend that much time?
My response is two-fold. First, this type of thinking and planning will become more streamlined the more you do it. As you understand your meeting’s participants, as you create culture and climate, and as you set boundaries and expectations, you will not have to spend as much time and thought on those aspects. However, they should not go back to being ignored and on auto-pilot. The second response is: what is the cost, in time, productivity, and revenue, of regularly unproductive meetings? Can you afford not to plan for effective meetings?
I’m the kind of person who likes to plan ahead and prepare. And that is exactly what independent school boards need to do for their schools: plan ahead and prepare.
And while I would never suggest that I have a silver bullet that will make boards supremely effective, there is one thing that I have noticed in my time working with lots of boards that seems to hold them back. It is a relatively simple thing, that when remedied can make a big difference in how focused and strategic your board can be.
If I could recommend one thing your board could do now that would positively impact their effectiveness it would be:
Improve the board meeting agenda.
Sound too simple? Consider this:
I’ve observed that when boards carefully craft strategically designed agendas, that are topic-focused, time-limited, and action-oriented, they are able to accomplish an astonishing amount! Wouldn’t you like that for your board?
Note: If you would like to learn more about developing effective agendas, I’ve targeted board meeting planning as one of the 3 Keys to a Strategic Board in my upcoming FREE board workshop.
In this free workshop, I’ll teach board members:
Save your spot here for the 3 Keys to a Strategic Board Workshop
Thursday, January 21st at 3 pm EST (2 pm Central, noon Pacific)
January is the time when many independent school boards begin to think about their slate of board members and filling seats for the upcoming year. You will begin to hear at the end of board meetings: “Does anyone know of someone who would be willing to be on our board?” And your governance committee will be wracking their brains to think of folks they can ask to join.
And although you know you need a diverse board, and want board members from outside of your school, frequently boards will resort to only looking for new members from the same group: current parents.
While having current parents on your board is not a bad thing, and actually can be a very good thing, having an ALL parent board can be problematic. For starters, whenever you have ALL of any constituent group, it means you do not have a diverse board. And we know from research that having diversity in your group leads to better thinking, decision making, and organizational outcomes.
So how do you find people who will be interested and willing to serve on your board? The answer is to be strategic.
But many boards are not strategic at all when it comes to board member recruitment- not because they don’t want to be, but because they don’t know how to be. They resort to the same tactics they have used in the past: ask the people they know.
And, not surprisingly, they end up with the same results: a board comprised of similarly-minded people from similar backgrounds with similar skills and abilities.
Instead, boards need to strategically consider who they have on the board currently in terms of perspective, constituent group, skills, and abilities and who they need. Then boards need a plan with clearly articulated steps for recruiting the needed people from the wider community.
Having the right board members who are fully engaged and bring a diversity of perspectives and thought is the foundation to having an effective board. Boards need to carefully consider their recruitment strategies in order to identify and onboard new board members who will enable their school to thrive.
P.S. I have a FREE webinar for board members coming up where part of the focus will be on strategic board member recruitment.
3 Keys to a Strategic Board
Thursday, January 21st at 3 pm EST (2 pm Central, noon Pacific)
Learn more here.
My December wish for each of you is self-care! You have been extraordinary this year and I know how exhausted you are. I think the word extraordinary is particularly fitting here- extra-ordinary -because although you have done a lot of new things in 2020 (hello remote teaching!) you have mainly done more of what you always do: show up for kids and colleagues with open hearts and minds, focus first on the needs of students and families, embrace learning and jump into new experiences with both feet, go above and beyond because you love what you do... the list goes on and on. You are amazing every year; in 2020 you were even more amazing.
Research tells us that prolonged stress has negative effects on the brain, impacts our memory, learning, and creativity, and can lead us to withdraw and avoid social interactions. I would say that 2020 constitutes as prolonged stress! So please take winter break to de-stress in whatever way works best for you. Whatever you do, un-plug, relax, and care for yourself- it is time to put your own oxygen mask on!
I look forward to re-engaging with you in 2021- with restored energy, optimism, and creativity to continue to support the wonderful work you do of educating our students.
As the possibility of a Covid-19 vaccine comes ever more into focus, we can tentatively start thinking about life after the pandemic. Around the world, across our country, and within our schools, we will all need to figure out and adjust to what our “next normal” will be. Those organizations who have taken this time of disruption and change to self-examine as well as think to the future will likely fare the best in the new circumstances. This is particularly true for independent school boards.
Heads of schools have been put through the ringer these past 9 to 10 months; all educators have. Everyone is tired and some are dispirited. There is speculation that over the next few years we will see a widespread shake-up in school leadership and that many educators will chose to leave the field. Some have already departed. Given what we know about how disruptive leadership change can be in schools, it behooves boards to start thinking about and preparing for the possibility that they may need to find a new head sometime in the next several years. Hopefully, board members have been working diligently to support their heads during this crazy time, and your current head has no plans to leave in the near future. Nonetheless, you never know when you may be faced with the unexpected, and being prepared is always the best course of action.
Here are three areas where boards can focus to prepare for a head transition, whether it is imminent or planned for the future. Paying attention to these areas will set a school up to be as ready as possible for a head transition, whenever it comes.
Head transitions are challenging for a school community and require a great deal of time, attention, and effort by a board. Significant planning is required. The most prepared boards will be those who have started the preparation process well in advance of a new head search. There is no time like the present to begin setting the stage for the success of your school and the transition to a new head, whenever that may be.
2020 has been a whopper! Heads of schools have worked harder and have been under more stress over the past nine months than ever before, with less time to rest, recover, and recharge. They didn’t take much of a vacation this past summer, not just because of travel restrictions, but because there was so much work to do to plan for the beginning of the school year. The fortunate ones have boards and others who are effectively supporting them in a variety of ways. Yet even the fortunate ones are tired and fraying. Some of them may be considering whether they want to continue doing the job.
When I first talk with board members about conducting a head search, many of them are surprised at how early I suggest starting the process. Finding the right next leader for a school is critical, and can even be the difference between a school’s ultimate success or failure. Therefore, head search takes time and attention. Head searches for independent schools consist of much more than posting a job opening and interviewing candidates. Board members and search committees need to spend time carefully considering where the school is and where it is going, listening to the feelings and opinions of the community, clearly articulating the desired characteristics of the next head, and carefully vetting potential candidates. These activities result in the best outcomes when they are not rushed.
Head searches for independent schools typically fall into three time frames. The earliest ones start about 20-22 months before the beginning of the head’s tenure. That means they are starting now for heads who will begin at their new school in July 2022. The next wave of schools begin their head searches about 14 to 16 months in advance. Those schools will begin the process next spring for a July 2022 start. And the third wave begins in the summer or fall before the start date. Those schools have just begun their search now for a new head to begin in July 2021.
What I have learned over the past several years of facilitating both head and interim head searches is that regardless of when a school starts, there are strong, experienced candidates out there who will be a good match for the school’s needs. Head candidates have their own sets of circumstances that result in their looking for a position at various times. I have also found that when schools take their time to go through the process, to ensure that the board is prepared and aligned, the community feels fully included, and there is ample opportunity to collect and vet a wide diversity of candidates, they feel better and more confident about the outcome.
One factor in determining the start of a start a head search is when the current head indicates to the board that he or she is considering leaving the position, or, when a board decides they will not renew a head’s contract. Ideally, heads give their boards 15 to 24 months’ notice. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why a head might be leaving and this kind of timeframe is not always feasible. Boards will need to respond whenever they learn of a potential transition. The best scenario is when a head and board chair have a close, honest, and open relationship where the head’s goals and plans are clearly articulated throughout their tenure; there are no surprises.
Head searches are time-consuming and can be emotionally draining for a school community. Hopefully, your head is feeling well-supported, particularly through this incredible time of change, uncertainty, and stress, and is not planning on leaving anytime soon. If you are a board member- have you checked recently how your head is doing? What support might you be able to provide or facilitate? And are they thinking they will be able to stay in their position- or are they thinking of leaving in the next year or two? Straightforward conversations now will enable the board to fulfill their responsibility to support the current head and plan for the next.
If you think there is a possibility that you will need to conduct a head search in the next 2-3 years, it behooves you to start thinking and planning now. There are many board and school processes that should be strengthened before a head transition. Boards should be reminded of the famous Bobby Knight quote “The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.”
Acies Strategies provides head of school search consultation for small schools. We have slots left for the 2021-2022 season. For more information see: www.AciesStrategies.com/head-search.
Independent school Boards have SO much to consider right now as we begin the 2020-2021 school year. Annual retreats and beginning of the year Board meetings will certainly include time to discuss ongoing responses to the pandemic as well as consideration of topics such as social justice, equity and inclusivity, financial sustainability, etc. In addition to focusing on responses to these immediate needs, it is also important to engage Board members in reflection about your processes and practices to ensure that you are working together in the most effective ways. An annual Board retreat is an ideal time to engage in such reflections. Asking well-crafted questions will lead to fruitful conversations. Here are four broad topics that can be considered through small and large group activities to develop shared understandings and allow your Board to more effectively and efficiently work toward annual goals.
A. Are we using effective processes to make the best decisions?
Rationale: While Boards may consider the method of making decisions (Roberts Rules, consensus, etc.), they rarely consider the process for making decisions. This typically leads to bias and ultimately, poor decisions. Questions you could consider include:
B. Are our meetings as effective as they can be?
Rationale: The effectiveness of many Boards is hindered by their own practices. Meetings that are insufficiently organized and prepared for, poorly facilitated, and/or do not result in actionable outcomes are unfortunately common. Establishing thoughtful, researched, and disciplined practices enables Boards to do their best work, engage in meaningful and generative conversations, and arrive at productive decisions.
C. Do we regularly engage in generative thinking to establish and test where we need to go as an organization- before we engage in strategic thinking?
Rationale: Boards typically only spend time on “visioning” during major endeavors (accreditation, strategic planning, Head transition). Regular consideration of factors that impact your vision will not only clarify the strategies you need to take to achieve that vision, it will help all members of your Board understand, “get on the same page,” and support the vision.
D. Are we serving our Head of School as a proactive, supportive, and transparent employer?
Rationale: The Head-Board relationship in independent schools is unique and unusual, in that the Head (employee) has considerable influence on the Board and typically knows far more about the “business” of the organization than the Board. The relationship between the Board and the Head is a critical one, and needs to be open, honest, transparent, and collaborative. The Board needs to consider how it fulfills its role as “employer” as well as collaborator with the Head to ensure the Head can be as effective as possible.
In times of crisis, it is very easy to focus solely on the immediate situation. Nonetheless, independent school Boards need to continuously remember their responsibility for the long-term viability of their school, even as they respond to current needs. Ensuring that the Board operates at its most effective and efficient will enable it to best fulfill both immediate and long-term responsibilities.
A recent email from a Head of School included the line “I haven’t had much of a summer.” I’ve heard from many Heads of their long days, working weekends, and sleepless nights- worrying about so many issues confronting their communities as we all get ready to begin the school year. It has been a strange and uncomfortable experience- and not the restful, rejuvenating summertime that Heads desperately need!
So I’ve been thinking about what Heads of Schools can do to maintain wellness, preserve their sanity, and move through the fall with mental and physical health. With their reality being packed schedules and all kinds of interruptions, Heads need wellness strategies that are quick, flexible, and adaptable.
Boards members also need to be focused on Head well-being to ensure their Head can be the most effective leader as possible. Board members should talk with their Head of School about what they need, and when possible, and can support by paying for these strategies! When I was a Head of School, one of the most thoughtful gifts my Board gave to me was a gift certificate for a day at the spa. It recognized my need for stress reduction and self-care and was something I could fit into my own schedule. Boards need to be thinking about what would be most beneficial for their own school leaders.
Here are five wellness practices that have been shown to be effective-I welcome ideas for others!!
2. Maintain your exercise routine! This one is up to you to determine- as exercise is so individualized.
3. Become even more organized. Heads have to be organized to accomplish even half of what is on their to-do lists. In my experience, everyone can learn and use new strategies for daily time, work, and energy organization.
4. Work with a leadership coach. Being a Head of School can be lonely, overwhelming, and isolating (even as you are surrounded by people!). Engaging with an unbiased and experienced person who can help you 1) examine your school’s situation from a different perspective, 2) clarify your personal and professional goals, and 3) strategize problems and solutions, can lead to clarity and peace of mind.
5. Take time for more extensive self-care. This is also very individualized. What feels caring and rejuvenating to you? Research is very clear that when we disconnect from our daily issues, rest our brains, and engage in non-work pursuits, we return more energized and clear-thinking. This is not indulgence, this is what will enable you to be a better Head of School. Board members- what can you offer to your Head of School? Here are some ideas (some of which will need to wait until we are no longer physically distancing- some of which can be done now!):
Heads of Schools have even more on their plates than usual right now. In order to be the most effective leader for their community, Heads need to ensure that they are physically healthy and emotionally well. This takes time and attention. Health and wellness for the Head of School needs to be a priority for both the Head and their supporting Boards.
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.
I’ve had the privilege of talking with almost 100 Heads and Board Chairs of small schools over the past 3 weeks through workshops I co-led (with the amazing Dr. Valaida Wise) on reentry and recovery for small school heads and Board chairs. I am always so energized by learning with such intelligent and creative folks! These school leaders are confronting the need to plan and strategize this summer in dramatically different ways than normal in order to be ready for school in the fall. Along with just about every other school leader in the world, they are thinking about health and safety while physically distancing, how to effectively implement a robust, mission-aligned curriculum from a distance, and how to support the social and emotional well-being of all of their constituents- students, faculty and staff, parents; while respecting and responding to their diversity. These school leaders are unique, however, in that they lead small schools and this context provides both distinct challenges and significant benefits and opportunities.
From the myriad of discussion topics we engaged in (over 2 sessions each, with schools in 3 different associations), here are five things that emerged as themes that all schools should be considering:
By gathering small school heads and board members together to share information, ask questions, and (sometimes) commiserate, we affirm the strength, value, and need for our small schools. The wisdom of these school leaders is vast and important. Together, they have weathered the pandemic-required emergency at-home learning this spring, and together they will reenter school and recover from this unprecedented time by sharing insights and support. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from them!
Is your Board leading your school using the most 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