Improve Board Performance -- Major Service or Jiffy-Lube?

Great independent school boards are focused on the performance and direction of their schools, how well they are running and where they are going. They pay attention to the dashboard gauges (not idiot lights... it's too late when they come on!) that provide solid data on the measurable operations. They also frequently consult their map to ensure the institution is going where it needs to go, thinking and acting strategically and generating the resources required to keep moving forward.

Such focus on the institution is appropriate and necessary, but it frequently means that in focusing so intently on the school — or often, more pointedly, the performance of the head of school — boards too infrequently ask the question "How are we doing"? Not just how is our school doing, or how is our head doing, but how are we doing as a board? Are we adding value to this enterprise, and if not, why not, and if yes, how could we add even greater value?

A number of years back I came across the observation that "the most effective board is the most reflective board." My work with boards over the past 25 years has proven its truth again and again. A board willing to reflect on its performance is a board that understands that only it can do its work, and rightly asks, "What should we do, and what are the resources?" Listed below are some suggestions:

The Major Service Approach
All boards should use the NAIS Board Online Assessment Tool (BOAT) to establish a baseline on their performance. Very thorough and user friendly, it provides not only a self-assessment, but also introduces users to the full range of trustee roles and responsibilities, as well as generating an overview of individual trustee opinions about what work is most important for their particular board to be doing. Followed up with a workshop to review the results and plan accordingly, it is the most comprehensive way to assess and improve board performance. Testimonials from satisfied users of the instrument are available from Tina Wood at NAIS ([email protected]).

Since this is a major servicing, it need not be done annually. Rather, in the year following the full assessment, the board need only review those areas requiring attention as revealed by the previous year's assessment, and see what progress has been made. The evaluation tool, found on the NAIS website, may help a school focus its evaluation efforts on those particular areas, as well as provide a general review.

The Jiffy-Lube Approach
Listed below are a few simple ways to improve board performance. Like Jiffy-Lube, they are quick, easy, and inexpensive... perhaps preventing future breakdowns.

  1. Focus on Governance. Add a governance item to the agenda of all board meetings. This can take one (or both) of two forms:

    In the first, use one of the many NAIS governance case studies to explore the principles of good practice for boards and trustees. A discussion on an issue in the abstract can often lead to a better understanding of the principles in actual practice. Time permitting, it's a good idea for the board chair and head to discuss the case ahead of time to better facilitate discussion. Time involved? Fifteen to twenty minutes should suffice.

    A second form puts the session at the end of the meeting and involves a brief evaluation of the meeting just ended. What worked, what didn't? Concerns could range from room temperature and food to a candid assessment of the quality and quantity of discussion. This is not a time for the dysfunctional politeness that plagues too many boards. Depending on circumstance, it might even be appropriate to excuse the head, so a trustee would perhaps be more forthcoming.

    A variation on this latter suggestion is to provide each trustee with a 3x5 card and ask him or her ;for observations about the meeting, listing concerns about the meeting just ended as well as suggestions for improving future meetings. The chair can then report back at the next meeting and/or implement some suggested improvements.

  2. Train for Good Governance. Make sure that every trustee has a copy of NAIS's The Trustee Handbook, Chait, Ryan, and Taylor's Governance as Leadership, and Jim Collins' monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors. Take a few minutes at a board meeting (or simply forward a number of links) to show trustees how to access governance and leadership resources on the NAIS website. Engage the board members on the topics raised in these publications, particularly as they relate to the board helping the school move forward. As a board chair, don’t be reluctant to try an occasional pop-quiz!
  3. Add a governance page to your school's website. On it you can include information about your own board and its work, but you can also provide the school community with information about independent school governance. Share the NAIS Principles of Good Practice, as well as a listing of trustee roles and responsibilities. The latter can come directly from the NAIS board assessment tool, a sample of which is available on the website. The purpose is to teach your community about governance, so that your pool of potential trustees is better informed about what is, and what is not, good trusteeship. This addition also serves to educate your parent body as to what is and is not acceptable in terms of asking for board intervention in school decisions.
Major overhaul or quick tune-up, either or both can make a big difference to a board that wants to be the best it can be for the school it holds in trust. Note that the suggestions above have two characteristics that put them at the heart of a great educational enterprise: The first is rigorous self-assessment, and the second is taking personal responsibility for one's own education. A board that does both is a great role model for a school community.