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.