10 Habits of Highly Effective Boards

A few years ago, NAIS’s leadership team participated in a team-building retreat led by the Center for Creative Leadership. As part of this experience, we each took an assessment that measured our individual attitudes about change. On one end of the spectrum were those who advocated preserving tradition, and on the other end were those who advocated change. At first, we approached the results of the assessment as if there was one ideal response to change. However, after going through the exercise, which entailed lining up by the intensity of one’s score and talking through the various change roles, it became clear that each person played an important role in building a team that approaches change in healthy ways.

This exercise represented what I believe is an important tenet for good governance: Boards need to represent the past, the present, and the future. In practice, I would translate that as boards should include trustees who understand the values and traditions that must continue to serve as a foundation and those who understand what changes must be made for the school to thrive in a different future. This is one hallmark of an exceptional board. What are some others? Here’s my take on the top 10 habits of exceptional boards:
  1. Exceptional boards develop goals to guide their work. School boards often arrange their work by projects — approving the budget, developing policies, creating a strategic plan, etc. — instead of creating goals to guide their work. This project work must get done, but boards are most effective when goals are the driver. Goals are essential in taking board work from tactical to strategic and for unifying committee and full-board work. For example, a board could select “ensuring the school’s long-term financial sustainability” as its main goal for the year, with each committee probing this goal from its unique lens.
  2. Exceptional boards create an assessment protocol to inform progress and identify strengths and weaknesses. Goals also give you a target against which to assess progress. By assessing that progress, a board knows when to change course and when to double down on efforts. Also, assessments can provide insight into areas for overall improvements in board structure and operations.
  3. Exceptional boards build a board that, first and foremost, supports the mission of the school. Too often, the guiding force in selecting trustees is their ability to “give or get.” This can certainly be one criterion, but it should not be the most important one, in my opinion. Trustees should be recruited primarily because they understand and support the mission of the school and have demonstrated that support in some way.
    If a board is built with an over-emphasis on fundraising, particularly if that is manifested by populating the board with only major donors, it can inadvertently send the message that only the well-to-do have a voice in the school’s future. In the worst-case scenario, a major donor can use a board position as leverage to move forward a personal agenda. The financial sustainability of the school is an important role for trustees and fundraising is a part of that, but it should be balanced by other needs.
  4. Exceptional boards ensure that trustees represent the past, the present, and the future. I provided an example of why this is important in my introduction, but I would like to offer a few thoughts on how I see this playing out in independent schools. Most boards strive to have this representation, but my experience shows that they are overrepresented in the past and present and underrepresented in the future. Here is why that can be unproductive. If any one cohort on the board is too small relative to the others, a divergent opinion can easily be silenced before allowing for lively discussion that embraces different visions. Today, when the education landscape is shifting dramatically, an over-emphasis on the past in board make-up can leave a board reticent to support new and different approaches.
  5. Exceptional boards understand that diversity makes a board more effective. They strive for diversity in every way, and welcome open dissent. Research confirms that diverse groups make better decisions because diversity of thought and experience helps a group consider and evaluate divergent ideas more effectively. High-performing boards also nurture a culture of trust so that trustees feel comfortable putting forward different opinions. One way for boards to achieve diversity is to develop a succession plan that serves as a guide for how they will cultivate potential trustees who represent all types of diversity.
  6. Exceptional boards are driven by data rather than anecdote. Like not having goals, not using data to inform strategic decisions can lead boards to wander in directions that are not productive or even harmful to the school. Data also can help a board focus on those issues that are most crucial to the school’s success.
  7. Exceptional boards set term limits and actively recruit trustees who are not “insiders.” Many board bylaws do not call for term limits on boards. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a hotly debated issue. I come down on the side of term limits for the same reason that diversity is so important. Effective boards are constantly bringing new viewpoints to the table. Also, needs of boards change over time and the make-up of the board should reflect those changing needs.
  8. Exceptional boards operate using a consent agenda model. Board meetings devoted primarily to hearing committee reports is not a productive use of time. Reports can be read in advance. Board time needs to be spent in strategy sessions to address the short-term needs of the school, generative discussions to probe the questions that will unlock the path for future school sustainability, and professional development to ensure board members understand the context in which they govern.
  9. Exceptional boards orient new trustees and make professional development for all trustees an essential part of board operations. Boards sometimes skip a formal trustee orientation thinking that incoming trustees know the school, particularly if they are alums or current parents. This is a huge mistake, as orientation can make or break a trustee’s ability to function well on the board. A good orientation provides needed information on the context in which the school operates today, the operating processes and culture of the board, the roles and responsibilities of a trustee and the committees on which they serve, and so much more.
  10. Exceptional boards demonstrate restraint and pause to ask the bigger questions first. Boards like getting things done. Of course, this is a very positive trait if those actions are well informed by data and include a thorough airing of the issue through a variety of lenses. However, boards can also have too much bias toward action, not taking the time to ask the bigger questions or to probe a challenge or opportunity. In the book Governance as Leadership, the authors describe this as the generative work of the board. One of the authors, Dick Chait, writes:
    Generative thinking is getting to the question before the question. It's not about narrow technical expertise. Generative work is almost always about questions of values, beliefs, assumptions, and organizational cultures. That's what makes it interesting, but also what makes it important is to have people in those conversations who understand the institution, but have some degree of distance.
Being a trustee today is hard work, but it can be very rewarding if you serve on a board that operates effectively. Every board should ask itself, “How are we making a difference?” If that answer cannot be discerned in very concrete ways, then it is time to ask what needs to change. I have seen boards go through this exercise and emerge on the other side so much stronger.
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.