One of the presentation/discussion modules in my four-hour workshop for participants in the Aspiring Superintendents Academy of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators on September 23 addressed a critical superintendent role: Board Developer-in-Chief. After discussing the key elements of board capacity building, such as updating the board’s role and structure, we focused in on two tried and true vehicles for developing board governing capacity. Both the daylong retreat and the task force that holds five or six work sessions have proved to be highly reliable vehicles when provided with strong executive support. However, as we discussed at the MASA workshop, building board members’ commitment to undertaking a systematic development effort can be a real challenge for a number of reasons. In the first place, board members are typically exceedingly busy volunteers who have enough trouble keeping up with their current governing responsibilities, much less tackling the complex job of strengthening their governing capacity. It’s also important to keep in mind that once many board members have learned the ropes of governing on particular boards, no matter how inadequate the governing structure and processes might be in terms of the resulting impacts and products or how boring and frustrating participating in governing the district might be at times, these board members are at least familiar with the ropes. If they have a high-enough pain threshold and have been around long enough, as we discussed, they are likely to have built influential roles for themselves on the “old” board, hence becoming the “old guard” that resists reform.
I shared with workshop participants that experience has taught me that turning key board members into forceful champions for board development is a sure-fire way to overcome these formidable barriers to launching a board development initiative. The reason is simple: people tend to pay more attention to colleagues and peers than to administrators, much less outsiders, especially when they are being asked to do something that might take significant time and cause more than a little discomfort. As I observed at the workshop, no board-savvy superintendent or experienced consultant would ever agree to appear before a board to make a case for undertaking a capacity building effort unless – and it is a big condition – the groundwork had been laid by this hard core of advocates for change.
The board president or chair is an obvious candidate for preeminent champion of a capacity building effort, by virtue of the chair’s role as “chief executive officer” of the board (but certainly not of the district, of course!), in this capacity formally responsible for leading the board in doing its governing work. As we discussed on September 23, a board-savvy superintendent should turn first to the chair, aiming to turn him or her into an ardent board capacity building champion and, with the superintendent, co-leader of the capacity building process. If the board chair already conceives of his or her role as including the development of the board’s governing capacity, then securing the commitment to play the leading role in updating the board’s governing role and structure will be easier. However, in my experience, as I shared with participants, many board chairs have only the vaguest understanding of their role and have given little thought to board development. So the superintendent will likely need to engage in educating the board chair on the chair’s role and on the subject of board capacity building as a first step, after which the superintendent can concentrate on getting the chair to own the champion’s role. In this regard, as we discussed, describing systematic development of the board as a governing body as the board chair’s leadership “legacy,” or “imprint,” is likely to appeal to the typical chair’s sincere desire to have a positive impact on the governing process.
We also identified various devices the board chair, superintendent, and other board development champions can employ to whet their colleagues’ appetite for engaging in board capacity building. For example, pertinent books and articles that describe developments in the field of K-12 governance might be circulated, as a means to get board members thinking about governing as a serious subject and to recognize that boards can be consciously, systematically developed rather than merely inherited. A higher-impact approach is to provide opportunities for board members to participate in workshops that deal with capacity building approaches. For example, AASA and NSBA conferences typically include one or more sessions on governance.
We also agreed that, although it may sound a bit trivial and more than a trifle manipulative, being positive and focusing on the concrete benefits resulting from systematic board capability building tends to be more of a magnet in attracting development champions than bringing the news to your board that, no matter how hard its members are working, it is badly underperforming as a governing body and needs to be fixed. As I shared with workshop participants, I have never met a person who, after investing hundreds of hours in an endeavor, welcomed learning that he or she was not succeeding. Therefore, effective board development champions know enough to describe the process of updating their board’s governing model as “getting more out of life as a board member,” “taking a top-notch board to the natural next leadership level,” “making a good board even better,” and the like.