David Brooks’ column in the January 1 issue of the New York Times, “We Just Saw How Minds Aren’t Changed,” reminded me of a superintendent coaching session I conducted several weeks ago. Brooks, observing that 2020 was a year that “called into question the very processes by which our society supposedly makes progress,” goes on to point out that as a society we’ve pinned a lot of hope on the idea that “the key to change is education.” ‘According to Brooks, “our training model of ‘teaching people to be good’ is based the illusion that you can change people’s minds and behaviors by presenting them with new information and new thoughts. Brooks’ column is about the “flawed model” of diversity training, but long experience has taught me that training is just as weak a tool for achieving significant, enduring change in the field of K-12 governance.
My client opened our coaching session by sharing a horror story that I’ve heard more than once over the years. In a nutshell, her board president had talked her into joining him in recommending that the board spend a Friday afternoon in a training workshop focusing on turning the board into a more cohesive governing team. There wasn’t any question about the need. The board’s internal culture had turned really sour over several months. Board meetings, which often lasted three or even four hours, were characterized by un-civil discourse consisting of sniping, bickering, and even hurling insults. Reaching consensus on complex issues, mostly relating to dealing with Covid-19, had become an excruciatingly painful process.
The trainer/facilitator they retained, who’d conducted several team building sessions for the board president’s company, opened the workshop with a PowerPoint presentation on the key characteristics of effective teams and facilitated a number of exercises, for example, brainstorming guidelines for board members’ communication with each other and identifying communication issues calling for attention. The workshop was interesting and enjoyable, according to my client, but as it turned out, had failed to make a dent in the board’s dysfunctional culture by the time of our coaching session a couple of months later.
I responded by sharing two things I’ve learned about building effective board governing teams. First, training – an alluring solution because it’s quick and relatively cheap – never has and never will transform a board’s culture. Quick fixes like training, in my experience, don’t – alone – ever produce important, enduring outcomes, primarily because teaching and preaching don’t foster the kind of ownership that fuels a strong commitment to change. Second, concrete board structure is more than any other factor key to getting significant governance change implemented. I shared with my client how I’ve seen a board standing committee – typically called governance or board operations – spearhead enduring governance change: for example, by refining communication guidelines brainstormed in a workshop or retreat, securing formal board approval of the guidelines, monitoring their implementation, and red-flagging deviations from the guidelines.
The bottom line? While training might be a useful starting point for board improvement, without a structure for following through, the change will more often than not be written in sand.