On My Mind: What Effective Board Work Looks Like

Spring 2020

By Donna Orem

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard remarked that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.” Certainly, anyone trying to plan for the future and thrive through changing circumstances can relate to this sentiment, but it is a lesser known quote by Kierkegaard that gives us some insight into how he approached the unknowable: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”

I think these two quotes sum up the tension between stability and change that most independent school boards face as they consider how their school will thrive into the future. Too often what prevails is either complacency, as fear of change rules the day, or a rush to an undisciplined “silver bullet” approach to change, which can put the school’s future at risk. To ensure that schools are sustainable, trustees must wrestle with what is at the very heart of who they are (the mission) and how that mission is translated in light of the circumstances of tomorrow (the vision). Staying on the upside of both stability and change is tricky but doable with the right processes in place.

Behaviors and Traits

In 2016, BoardSource published “6 Characteristics of Effective Boards,” an insightful study conducted by governance gurus and researchers Thomas Holland, Barbara Taylor, and Richard Chait. They sought to identify: the characteristics that define and describe effective boards of trustees; the behaviors of effective and ineffective boards and whether they differ systematically; and what relationship, if any, there is between board effectiveness and institutional performance. They found that the most effective boards  
  • are contextual. The board understands the culture and norms of the organization and the vision, mission, and values that guide it. 
  • are educational in their approach. Every trustee has a deep knowledge of the organization and its programs, as well as a robust understanding of the board’s roles and responsibilities. They make time for professional development and pause to assess their performance. 
  • consider the importance of interpersonal relationships. Boards understand fundamentally that they are learning, growing organizations that attend to their collective welfare and the growth and development of individual members. They also ensure that board structures and operating procedures are diverse and inclusive.
  • are strategic in their outlook. They focus their time on envisioning the organization’s direction for the future and shaping a strategy to get there.
  • are analytical in their processes. The board views challenges and opportunities through a wide lens and then narrows to understand the complexities and nuances of issues. 
  • are political in understanding who they serve. The board is clear on who it serves and takes the time to gather continual feedback from and develop healthy relationships with constituents. Trustees seek to minimize conflict and win-lose situations.

Walk the Talk

These characteristics, and how they are translated into structure and process, can serve as important guides for any independent school board as it approaches a strategy process. NAIS and the board of trustees recently used these insights to guide its strategic work in considering NAIS’s vision and mission for an unknowable future—and demonstrated these characteristics in the process.

The board process began with the contextual. Trustees reviewed and explored NAIS’s historical vision, mission, and value statements—how these served the organization and industry in the past and what parts might not be adequate for the future. This demonstrated the board’s embrace of stability/change polarity thinking—holding on to what is fundamental for NAIS while questioning those elements that may no longer serve the organization in tomorrow’s context—to drive the conversation.

Trustees then moved into educational mode, familiarizing themselves with the appropriate role for the board and the staff in the process of developing a new vision, mission, and set of values for the organization. Board members were intentional about spelling out boundaries so that they would stay at 35,000 feet and not dictate the day-to-day operations for the organization. For example, the board agreed on the concepts for the new vision, mission, and values and left the wordsmithing and communications plan for membership rollout to the staff.

The board’s journey then shifted to the strategic and analytical by gathering and analyzing information about the external and internal forces impacting schools today and tomorrow. The board engaged strategy consultancy Entangled Solutions to try to make the unknown more knowable, by researching how predicted change could impact independent schools.

Throughout, the process was driven by the interpersonal and political. To best use the skills and abilities of the various trustees, Chair Bernie Noe, head of Lakeside School (WA), appointed a Task Force on the Future, led by Vice Chair Randall Dunn, head of the Latin School of Chicago (IL). This task force further probed the data and, working with Entangled Solutions, conducted a study with the membership, which resulted in the report, “Defining the Roles of Independent Schools in the 21st Century Economy.” The distribution of this report among the board and to the entire NAIS membership midway through the process was an essential step in keeping members informed of the board’s journey and for the board to gain continual member input.

Stephanie Rogen of Greenwich Leadership Partners assisted the task force throughout, designing processes to keep members on track while involving the rest of the board along the way to ensure all voices were heard. The NAIS Board did not shy away from difficult conversations; the board understood that they must bring divergent thoughts into the conversation if they were to make the best decisions on behalf of the organization and the industry.

The Results

By modeling all the characteristics of effective boards, the NAIS Board was able to envision the role of NAIS in best serving its members in the decade ahead. At its meeting in June 2019, the board adopted the following statements for the organization.
  • Vision: All learners find pathways to success through the independence, innovation, and diversity of our schools, creating a more equitable world. 
  • Mission: As the largest association of independent schools, NAIS co-creates the future of education by uniting and empowering our community. We do this through thought leadership, research, creation and curation of resources, and direct collaboration with education leaders. 
  • Values: 
    • Thinking independently  We believe in independence and its power to inspire excellence.
    • Leading change  We imagine possibilities and innovate to strengthen the education landscape.
    • Embracing diversity  We welcome and encourage diverse identities and perspectives.
    • Championing inclusivity  We affirm the rights of every individual to belong and flourish.
    • Empowering community  We address complex issues through collaboration and advocacy.
The board is now completing this process by examining how its structure, operations, and goals will change with a new vision, mission, and values. They are again flexing the various muscles of effective boards to ensure they are most successful in this changed context.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.