A sorely disappointed superintendent and I were talking a couple of months ago. She, her school board, and her senior administrators had gone through an intensive weekend retreat six weeks earlier. She explained that it’d been put together to address growing dysfunction on the board, including most recently an incredible amount of nit-picking micro-management during the budget preparation process. The retreat was designed as a “team building” event that involved participants getting to know each other better, identifying interpersonal issues, and brainstorming ways to build a more cohesive board culture – for example, by clarifying core values, surfacing hidden agendas, strengthening communication, and the like.
When I asked how it went, she said “really great.” Participants got to know each other at a deeper level, had “lots of fun” working together, and found the day together really “energizing.” When I asked what difference it’d made, a few weeks down the pike, she was silent for a minute, before telling me that things really hadn’t changed for the better, and the board was back to “business-as-usual.” As an example, this disappointed chief executive officer described a marathon board meeting the week before at which several board members had really torn into a proposed strategy to strengthen the district’s ties to the business community, getting bogged down in so many nitty gritty details that the meeting ended on a sour note – with no consensus and total exhaustion.
As my discouraged colleague described the lack of any significant progress since the touchy-feely session six weeks earlier, I recognized a classic – and all-too-familiar – case of concentrating on the “icing” in the form of a quick team building fix before the “cake” had actually been baked. When I shared this observation – very, very carefully so I didn’t’ appear hypercritical and throw my colleague on the defensive – she asked me what I meant by the “cake.”
I explained that, in my experience, the only way to make significant progress in developing a school board’s governing capacity is – as an indispensable first step – to put in place the board’s governing infra-structure: clarifying the board’s detailed governing role; establishing well-designed board standing committees; mapping out processes for engaging board members in such key governing functions as strategic and operational planning and performance monitoring, and the like. I went on to suggest that reaching consensus on the elements of this governing infrastructure would make for a high-powered retreat that would lay the foundation for enduring improvements in her board’s functioning.
With the infrastructure – the cake – firmly established, team building exercises – the icing – would be far more likely to make a difference in terms of improving board functioning. Prematurely mixing up a batch of icing – absent the cake – would inevitably be, as she’d just learned the hard way, an exercise in futility – at the cost of board under-performance and also reduced superintendent credibility and a frayed board-superintendent partnership.