One of the more egregious errors I made early in my career as a K-12 governance consultant and coach was allowing myself to be pressured into facilitating a daylong board capacity building work session involving all board members and the superintendent of a mid-sized urban district, but not the executive team members making up the superintendent’s cabinet. My contract stipulated that I would work with a steering committee consisting of the school board president and vice president and the superintendent in designing the session: determining its objectives, structure (the location and breakout groups that would be employed), and the blow-by-blow agenda for the day together.
At the first meeting of the committee, I recommended that all cabinet members participate in the upcoming work session, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t put up much of a fight when the board president and vice president passionately argued that the board needed to spend the day together without district executives other than the superintendent since they and their board colleagues felt they were being “led by the nose” and in danger of being a “rubber stamp” governing body. The superintendent, who’d told me before the meeting that she agreed with me that her cabinet members should participate in the upcoming work session, just sat there mute and didn’t challenge her president and vice president, no doubt because she had been at the helm less than a year.
I could have emphatically made the point that, as a strong facilitator, I was quite capable of preventing Cabinet members from dominating discussion in the upcoming daylong session, ensuring that board members would have ample opportunity to discuss their concerns and issues. And I now realize how derelict I’d been in not spelling out very clearly the likely cost of excluding the district executives reporting to the superintendent from this critical milestone in the district’s ongoing governance journey. Boards can authorize the implementation of significant changes on the governance front, but getting new governance structure and process firmly established is essentially the job of the superintendent and senior executives, whose strong support is essential for successful implementation.
What I could and should have strongly warned against is what happened. Cabinet members, not having been present at the governance work session, didn’t fully grasp the rationale for – and felt little ownership of – the recommendations that emerged, including a major re-design of the processes for engaging board members in shaping such critical planning “products” as the district’s annual operating plan and budget, and of the board’s standing committee structure. They also, very naturally, were offended by being treated like second-class members of the district family. The quite predictable result: an excruciating implementation process characterized by tremendous emotional resistance, exhausting debate, and considerable foot-dragging.