The last post at this blog talked about the all-too-common resistance among board members to change on the governance front, often the result of fear – of losing influence, experiencing discomfort, failing at doing something new, and the like. I was fortunate a couple of years ago to sit in on a fascinating special board work session at which the school board president and superintendent teamed up to make a powerful case for a daylong governance retreat involving all board members and the superintendent’s top lieutenants. With the aid of a professional facilitator, they explained, the retreat would focus on exploring issues related to the board’s role, structure, and processes and brainstorming possible solutions, and the facilitator would follow-up by developing a formal set of recommendations for board review six weeks or so after the retreat. Two things struck me forcefully as I observed the session. First, the board president took the lead in presenting and explaining the retreat recommendations. The superintendent played a backup role, answering occasional questions but not making any of the formal presentation. Second, the board president was obviously anything but a figurehead. He was clearly highly knowledgeable about advances in the field of K-12 governance and had given serious thought to the board’s performance as a governing body. He certainly got everyone’s attention at the very beginning by pointing out that in his opinion the board was “falling really short of its leadership potential” and dangerously close to becoming a “dysfunctional” governing body. Not only was he a passionate and well-informed advocate for the retreat, he’d also taken the trouble to become completely comfortable with the PowerPoint slides he used to illustrate his points, evincing none of the awkwardness resulting from an under-rehearsed presentation that can seriously reduce a presenter’s impact.
From the comments of three or four board members I chatted with after the work session, it was clear that the board president’s advocacy had sealed the deal, and I’m confident that if the superintendent had gone it alone, or had taken the lead, with the president playing a subordinate role, the odds of getting the board to commit to a full day would have been far less likely. I later learned from the very board-savvy superintendent who had backed up her board president in the work session that getting the president to take the lead hadn’t been a piece of cake. Indeed, it was the result of a carefully conceived strategy that had played out over the period of five months or so. A brilliant entrepreneur who’d built a highly successful software company, the board president had been little interested in the ins and outs of governing when he joined the board two years earlier; his passion was student achievement, and he intended to hold the superintendent’s – and her executives’ – feet to the fire on the issue. And when after his first year on the school board, he’d been elected president, he had made clear to the superintendent that, while he would do his best to lead orderly and productive board meetings, he had neither the time nor the interest to get involved in the nuts and bolts of governing.
So the board-savvy superintendent had her work cut out for her over the coming five months if she wanted her new president to take the lead in spearheading a concerted board development effort. Her commitment to the task of transforming her president into an effective advocate wasn’t solely the result an altruistic belief in strong board leadership; she also recognized that allowing her board to continue to under-perform for much longer and consequently to grow more frustrated, would very likely erode her partnership with the board and might even jeopardize her position as CEO. She began her stealth campaign with a low-keyed educational strategy over a period of two months or so, sharing a couple of books and several articles on school governance with her chair and making a point of discussing them over a series of breakfasts. They also drove together to a governance workshop sponsored by the state school board association, spending a couple of hours discussing governance issues each way.
The foundation now laid, the superintendent’s next step in transforming her president into an owner of, and advocate for, board capacity building took her into ego territory. In a nutshell, over another series of breakfast meetings she convinced her president that the most powerful possible imprint of his leadership, and the most enduring legacy he could leave, would be a fully developed board that was capable of governing at a high level. Over and over again, she hammered home the point that student achievement wasn’t just a matter of what happened in the classroom; it was also dependent on decisions made in the boardroom – about district strategic goals, educational strategies, and budget allocations. She also made sure her president understood that building the board’s governing capacity by updating its role and structure couldn’t be accomplished by simply putting the board through some kind of training program or by the superintendent’s merely telling the board what it needed to do to become more effective. With her president now firmly bought into the idea of spearheading the board development effort, the two of them met with the board secretary and treasurer to share their thinking about board development and ask for their support of the retreat recommendation at the upcoming special board work session that had been scheduled. These other two board officers weren’t asked to share in the presentation – that would have been unrealistic – but to be vocally supportive during the discussion. They were, and it almost certainly made a difference.
This article is adapted from my book Governing at the Top (Roman & Littlefield, 2014: https://rowman.com/ISBN /9781475807158)