A little over six years ago I was guilty of an error of judgment that taught me a couple of valuable lessons. I’d been retained by a mid-size Midwestern school district to assist in planning, facilitating, and following up on a daylong board “governance improvement work session.” During my first meeting with the steering committee overseeing my work – the board president and vice president, two other board members and the superintendent – I advised my colleagues to include all of the superintendent’s cabinet members in our work session, explaining that this had become standard practice for a number of very sound reasons. Based on my experience, this was one of those “no brainer” decisions that didn’t call for a searching discussion, so I was really surprised by the board president’s opposition. In short, she made the familiar traditional argument that by that time I seldom encountered: that she and her board colleagues wouldn’t be comfortable discussing board development issues (e.g., a dysfunctional structure of old-time silo committees like curriculum and instruction and building and grounds) in front of administrators. She was so adamant that I took the path of least resistance and merely acquiesced without much pushback, only pointing out that our session would be far less productive without administrators’ involvement. This was definitely an error of judgment on my part.
As it turned out, “less productive” didn’t begin to describe the price we ultimately paid for making an obviously poor decision. Predictably, being left out of the deliberations that resulted in the decision to replace the dysfunctional silo committees with a contemporary structure, the majority of cabinet members didn’t understand the rationale behind the proposed new structure. And being normal human beings, they only grudgingly participated in implementing the new committees. By the way, the new structure was ultimately put in place, but only months later than planned and only after hours of exhausting, highly emotional debate in cabinet meetings. What a waste of precious time and energy that might better have been devoted to getting the new committees firmly established!
So what did I learn from this experience? First, it reaffirmed the importance of the rule that senior administrators reporting to the superintendent should always be at the table when important governing decisions and judgments are shaped and made. Effective governance is without question a team sport involving intensive board-executive interaction. The old fashioned “we-they” syndrome has died a deserved death. In the true story opening this post, if the superintendent’s cabinet had participated in our work session, we would have had the benefit of their substantial knowledge and expertise. And equally important, their engagement in the process of coming up with governance improvements such as the updated committee structure would have reduced their resistance to the change, and would most likely have turned several of these senior administrators into change champions.
My second lesson was more emotionally painful. I realized that in going with the flow (the board president’s opposition to cabinet involvement in the upcoming work session) and not more vigorously making the case for cabinet involvement, I had abdicated my professional responsibility. In fact, I wonder if I should have withdrawn from the project rather than being willing to make an exception to a high-stakes, well-reasoned and widely accepted rule. I’ll be very interested in what our readers think.