A light bulb went off while I was sitting in on a board-superintendent-executive team work session early in my consulting career. The superintendent, assisted by her associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction and the district’s chief financial officer, was presenting a number of “innovation initiatives” that the superintendent was recommending be added to the upcoming year’s operating budget. The initiatives – essentially innovation projects – had been meticulously developed by an executive task force with the assistance of a planning consultant (not I!). Each initiative consisted of a needs statement, detailed project goals, an implementation plan, and budget. For example, one of the initiatives to launch a significantly-upgraded community advisory committee with heavy business CEO involvement. Not long into the presentation, board members began to pepper the superintendent and her co-presenters with questions, many of them quite nit-picky. Observing the discussion, I was struck by the increasingly we-they feel of the session. Far from being members of a “strategic governing team” along with their superintendent and top executives, board members clearly saw themselves as external critics. Half-way through the meeting, I realized that board members weren’t anywhere close to buying into the recommended innovations, and as I expected, the session ended on a sour note with no decisions having been made.
The light bulb that went off during this dispiriting session? I realized that the superintendent – bright, dedicated, and otherwise quite “board-savvy “ – had failed to engage board members in a meaningful way in shaping the innovation initiatives, and had consequently failed to transform them into owners and change champions. Rather, they functioned as an audience for finished staff work. As my readers no doubt know, owners make for reliable partners; audience members don’t.
I was thinking about this real-life experience as I was preparing for the “Hit the Ground Running With Your New Board” workshop that I’ll be presenting/facilitating a week from now for participants in AASA’s Aspiring Superintendents Academy. How fortunate I was to learn such a valuable lesson early in my career! It’s a lesson that we – the Academy’s Lead Teacher, David Schuler, its Program Lead, Helen Morris, and I – agree should come across loudly and clearly in the workshop. So one of our four workshop modules will be “strong board member ownership of their governing role and work.” One of the key points we intend to make is that ownership is a feeling that is fostered by, above all else, meaningful engagement. And serious engagement doesn’t happen by accident; it requires well-designed process. That’s why we’ll be exploring one of the key “hats” that really board-savvy superintendents must wear: Chief Governing Process Designer. In practice, this means that the superintendent, along with her top executives, works with standing committees of the board (e.g., planning and development) in mapping out practical ways to engage board members in shaping such governing “products” as a set of innovation initiatives, an updated strategic plan, the annual budget, etc.
I’m looking forward to sharing highlights of our workshop discussion with you in a future post at this blog.