A sorely disappointed superintendent and I were talking a few days ago. She, her school board, and her senior administrators had gone through an intensive weekend retreat a couple of months 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, two months 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 two months 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.