Teamwork in the abstract is neither here nor there for school boards. The only serious reason for developing your board’s teamwork is to help it function as a more effective governing body that gets its governing work done more effectively and efficiently. The acid test of an effective team is its productivity in accomplishing its assigned tasks. Productive teams are also generally characterized by a high level of cooperation and coordination in getting their work done, harmonious relations among team members, the absence of debilitating conflicts, and the capacity to withstand considerable stress and strain without falling apart. You probably won’t have any problem finding where your board belongs on the teamwork spectrum, between “herd of cats” at one end and “made in heaven” at the other.
Although it makes sense for your district’s board to pay focused attention to becoming a more effective governing team, you wouldn’t want to carry teamwork too far. You obviously wouldn’t want to attempt to eliminate all tension or even occasional conflict from your board’s governing process. In today’s changing, challenging world, which places a premium on your board’s dealing with highly complex governing issues, the last thing you would want is a board of “good little boys and girls” who placidly go along with staff recommendations, without asking the really tough questions.
Turning a diverse group of 5 or more people with varied backgrounds, experience, expertise, and affiliations into a cohesive governing team can be a daunting task, especially in the K-12 world, where board members are typically elected. Elected school boards tend to fall victim to a constituency representation mind-set, creating a centrifugal force that works against team building. Imagine if the members of the Cleveland Indians thought of themselves as primarily accountable to particular groups of fans (e.g., those living west of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland), rather than to each other as a team. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, as a game-winning strategy? But I have over the years come across many school board members who feel far more attached to the constituency that elected them than to their colleagues on the governing team.
In my experience, three strategies have proved really useful in building cohesive board governing teams:
- Focusing on ultimate governing goals
- Adopting board governing performance targets and interaction guidelines
- Building emotional bonds among board members.
I’ll deal with the first strategy in this post and the second and third in part 2.
Experience has probably taught you, as it has me, that members of a team tend to be more committed to their team’s work when they clearly understand the ultimate purposes the team is intended to serve. There’s no reason to believe that school boards are any exception, and, in fact, the ones I’ve observed that do have a handle on their governing “bottom line” really do function as stronger governing teams. Many school boards have taken the approach of adopting a “board governing mission” spelling out the board’s major responsibilities. The first step is often developing a preliminary governing mission statement in a retreat, then using a committee to refine the version that is ultimately adopted by resolution. This governing mission typically becomes a key component in the orientation program for new board members.
For example, elements that have appeared in school board governing missions include: periodically updating core values, vision for the future, and mission; playing a leading, proactive role in strategic decision-making; ensuring that the annual operating plan includes measurable performance targets and that the annual budget document reflects those targets and addresses the most important operational issues; carefully reviewing and adopting the annual budget; ensuring that the district’s public image is positive and that its relationships with key stakeholders are productive; monitoring the district’s educational and financial performance; etc.
The point is not that any board could carry out these responsibilities by itself, but that board members should be guided by the governing mission in carrying out their governing work, in close collaboration with the superintendent and her executive team.