Boards of Trustees Need to Develop New Skills to Be Agile and Effective

Summer 2023

By Pat Budziak, Lou Scerra

on the horizonThis article appeared as "On the Horizon" in the Summer 2023 issue of Independent School.

Two independent school board members, a head of school, and a senior administrator meet in a virtual workspace to review saliva-testing proposals. A decade ago, that sentence would have read like the start of a bad joke at an NAIS conference or a never-to-be-published piece of science fiction. But, for countless independent school board members, leaders, and administrators, it was their lived experience starting in the spring of 2020.

Just as faculty members adapted to create and work in hybrid classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, boards of trustees pivoted from their regular forward-thinking strategic work and fiduciary responsibilities to meet the changing daily needs of their schools. And while the pandemic amplified the need for boards to shift, adapt, and respond quickly, the work of independent school boards and the environment in which they operate have been evolving for years. Strategic concerns have become broader and more nuanced over the past decade. Trustees have had to develop an even deeper understanding of topics such as diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB); access and affordability; and campus safety. “The principles of good governance haven’t changed, but the landscape is more complex,” says Donald M. Austin, head of school at Newark Academy (NJ). “Trustees must be conversant in a wider set of topics than they ever have before.” 

Amid a mental health crisis across the country, how should boards help school leadership promote wellness among students and employees? Given a growing disparity between socioeconomic strata in society, how should boards ensure independent schools remain affordable and accessible to a wide range of families? As new technologies transform teaching and learning, how should boards redefine their value proposition as school leadership adapts? 

As independent schools become more complicated organizations, boards of trustees need a new set of tools, processes, and approaches to become nimbler, more data-driven, and more effective. At Newark Academy, we’ve been reflecting on trends in governance and rethinking our operations and processes with a focus on how our board can continue to adapt to an ever-changing world and how to assess our work now and into the future.  

Skills Refresh

Boards today need broader perspectives and more specialized knowledge; boards must recruit and train trustees with a more diverse tool kit, a wider perspective, and a knack for solutions-oriented thinking. The 2023 McKinsey report, “The Skills Revolution and the Future of Learning and Earning,” which examines the skills required to succeed in an evolving global workplace, offers an important perspective that boards can leverage in search of good governance. Boards might still evaluate prospective trustees through the lens of “time, talent, and treasure,” but—based on the McKinsey report—they should also consider their “technological skills, social and emotional skills, and higher-level cognitive skills.” As boards set short- and long-term institutional strategy on issues such as sustainability, student health and well-being, and data security, they will benefit from trustees who possess these skills, can understand complex problems, and seek solutions in the best interest of the school and its various constituents.

At Newark Academy, the trusteeship committee is tasked with overseeing board effectiveness, ensuring good governance, and supporting the work of all 27 trustees. While the committee has existed for more than two decades, it has recently started focusing on developing the skills of all board members. Even as volunteers, trustees at Newark Academy benefit from tools typically reserved for employees: carefully curated professional development, goal-setting, and self-assessment. The committee also actively and regularly solicits broader board feedback through both personal interviews and an annual board survey. These assessment tools lead to changes in board processes and operations, creating a virtuous cycle of reflection and reinvention. 

For the past decade, the trusteeship committee has tracked the skill sets and backgrounds of individual board members on a matrix to better understand and balance the expertise and experiences seated around the boardroom. The spreadsheet, which captures professional experience, demographic information, and length of service, is an invaluable resource for the trusteeship committee as it seeks to identify and recruit new members to meet the needs of the board. Recently, two lifelong educators were added to the board to better inform discussions and decisions around issues like faculty hiring and retention. Over the past couple of years, the finance, properties, and strategic planning committees have each invited a nonboard member with specific expertise or experience to join their committees. Not only can these community members support discrete committee projects and fill a specific institutional need, but these short-term arrangements can also serve as an “audition” for full board service in the future.

While Newark Academy has always been committed to having a diverse board in terms of gender and ethnicity, the matrix also ensures that the board holds itself accountable in assuring that the composition of the board of trustees reflects the diversity of the broader school community. A diverse board (or group of any kind) not only better represents its organization, but it also makes better decisions.

The Board Meeting

When we think of the ways we shared information at Newark Academy a decade or two ago—three-ring binders housed in the head of school’s office—we have come a long way in how our board meets, shares information, and communicates. The pandemic helped boards understand what was essential for effective governance: shorter, more focused meetings; dashboards and other tools to facilitate efficient information sharing and promote data-driven decision-making; and technology to help promote geographic diversity.

The structure and focus of the five full board meetings of the year have been reimagined, with meetings generally lasting about 90 minutes and prioritizing education, engagement, and debate rather than routine information sharing. Most meetings feature an array of agenda items, including reports on strategic priorities from senior administrators, student presentations, and specific strategic questions for full board discussion and decision-making. The head of school and board chair curate the agenda after conversations with senior administrators and committee heads, sharing it with the full board a week before the meeting. To ensure discussions are fruitful, efficient, and inclusive, the agenda is often accompanied by brief pre-reading assignments containing articles of interest or PowerPoint presentations to seed the conversation.

Instead of allocating meeting time for traditional information sharing, Newark Academy leverages technology to provide individual trustees with the data they need. Last year, Newark Academy built an institutional dashboard on Google Data Studio that contains essential data about the health of the school (i.e., enrollment, finances, giving, and more). The dashboard updates in real time and features elegant data visualization to better highlight trends and patterns over time. This year, the board has added a dedicated portal to the school’s learning management system where trustees can easily and securely access past meeting minutes and reports. All of these tools and practices have been designed to engage individual trustees and promote data-driven decision-making. Like classes with well-crafted homework assignments, board meetings have become more engaging, more efficient, and more likely to transcend the “what” and instead focus on the “why” and the “how.” The restructuring of Newark Academy’s board meetings and information sharing has helped make the board more responsive, more adaptive, and more effective.

Finally, while geographic distance used to be an obstacle to board service, technology now allows trustees who are traveling or live outside of New Jersey to attend meetings via Zoom. This development has opened trusteeship to a wider range of candidates who can serve as institutional stewards and ambassadors across the country. Newark Academy’s board now includes trustees who reside in California, Florida, and Massachusetts. 

The Power of Committees

Conventional wisdom suggests that effective boards should distinguish the strategic from the operational, but—in these changing and challenging times—boards must also create linkages between the school’s strategic initiatives and its day-to-day operations. During regular school operations, the board’s standing committees frequently become this bridge. While committees have always been a practical way to coordinate board work, they have grown in importance given the complexity of the challenges independent schools are confronting. (Read more about board committees here.) 

At Newark Academy, committees like access and affordability, properties, and advancement benefit from having board members with relevant skills or experiences and administrators familiar with day-to-day operations. The access and affordability committee has spent the past couple of years grappling with challenging topics: how to combat the “barbell effect” impacting many independent schools, how to better understand the gap between a family’s “ability to pay” and their “willingness to pay,” and how to shift the school from a “costs beyond tuition” model to a “cost to attend” model. Tackling these nuanced topics requires both deep, specialized knowledge from board members as well as trust and collaboration between both administrators and trustees. As carefully curated and agile teams, committees can harness the unique skills and perspectives of individual members while producing high-level strategic recommendations to challenging problems. 

This was never more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the outset of the pandemic, many independent schools quickly formed an administrative task force to create school policy, protect community health, and generally respond to the ever-changing COVID landscape. Newark Academy did the same and also created an ad-hoc board task force to ensure the administrative task force had the requisite resources to adapt quickly. The two task forces had a couple of common members to promote communication between the groups as well as a guiding principle: “deliberate in planning but adaptable in approach.” This vertical integration contributed to the school’s early adoption of both a screening testing program and a vaccination requirement. Collaboration between the board and the administration during this uncertain time enabled the school to communicate with all constituents and offer a clear, shared vision. 

Relationship Matters

The past few years have been a clear reminder of the power and value of human interaction. Boards build trust across the community through transparency, proactive communication, and forging relationships with school leaders and each other. 

To do this effectively, we designed a board retreat that focuses on fostering deep connections. Rather than leaping headfirst into issues and opportunities, the board’s first gathering of the year features appetizers rather than an agenda. The Friday evening dinner at small tables helps new trustees feel welcome and allows returning trustees to reconnect. On Saturday morning, the board reconvenes in small groups for two 90-minute deep-dives into strategic priorities. These working sessions offer dedicated time to carefully consider topics like financial planning, hiring and retention, and institutional identity. At the end of each session, we have identified short- and long-term action items. 

In the afternoon, the first official board meeting is called to order, but the interpersonal and strategic work has been well underway for hours. By Saturday afternoon, trustees will have interacted in some way with most of their colleagues. The board retreat sets the tone and direction for the year and ensures that every member feels engaged, heard, connected, and energized.

Boards, above all, must recommit to their charge of upholding a school’s mission and ensuring its success. To do so, boards must commit to continuous self-evaluation and improvement, therefore becoming what BoardSource describes as “exceptional … energized by a deep commitment to the work of their organizations … [these boards] constantly search for solutions and seek to add value.”

By reflecting on their composition, structure, and processes, boards can identify lessons learned from the pandemic and opportunities to adapt to an increasingly complex world. Like our students, boards must adopt a growth mindset and recognize that challenges are opportunities to learn and grow. In the words of Newark Academy’s Board Chair Sam Croll, “Every year, we’re a better board, and that’s exactly as it should be.”

Go Deeper: Trustees' Guide

Thoughtful governance structures and practices are the foundation for high-performing independent school boards. When designed and used well, they make basic board functions more efficient and effective, allowing trustees to focus time and energy on the most important strategic and generative issues at hand rather than operational details and processes. 

Read more in the NAIS Trustees’ Guide, Section 5: Create the Right Board Structures and Practices.
Pat Budziak

Pat Budziak has served on the board of trustees at Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey, for nearly 20 years and is currently chair of the strategic planning and access and affordability committees.

Lou Scerra

Lou Scerra is senior director of external affairs and strategy at Newark Academy. He serves as a liaison to the board and sits on the strategic planning, access and affordability, and trusteeship committees.