Antidote to a disengaged school board

Do you feel your board merely rubber stamps the motions that are put before it?  Do board meetings feel more like a “show-and-tell” session than a genuine, robust exploration of ideas, initiatives and alternatives?  Do you hear nothing but silence from board members between meetings?

If any of these scenarios rings true for you, it may be that you are working with a disengaged board, or at least a board whose members don’t appreciate how important their input is for the health of the school.

The answer is not to sack the board (or those disengaged members), or to give up on them or ignore them.  Board chairs and Heads of Schools should begin with the assumption that board members love the school, they believe in its mission (its enduring purpose), and they want it to flourish.  You should almost certainly also assume that they want to make a meaningful contribution.

Disengaged board member yawning

A change of mindset may be an important foundation for re-engaging board members who appear to be disengaged.  

Proceeding from this assumption that board members love the school and believe in its mission, a four-step approach can often be an effective way to re-engage them in the board’s work.

STEP 1: Reiterate the school’s mission and identify the priority strategic consequences.  The school’s mission is its foundational philosophy – why the school was established and why its continued existence is worthwhile.  The mission should provide a strong sense of purpose for everyone in the school community, especially the board.  The board should be constantly aware of its current priorities in achieving the mission, although this will be most acute when starting its regular strategic planning process. These priorities should give an automatic sense of urgency and purpose to the board’s work that will focus the attention and the imagination of every board member.

STEP 2: Target the input required.  Once the strategic priorities have been identified and agreed by the Board, the Board Chair and the Head of School should work as a team to present the operational consequences to board members.  This discussion should allocate board members to individual positions of responsibility to monitor or guide the implementation of these priorities, such as chairing a committee, monitoring specific areas of interest, and so on.  The delegation of these tasks must not leave any room for inaction, precluding a mediocre outcome such as “That was a great conversation and your input was really valuable”.

STEP 3: Complete the circle.  This critically important step is often neglected, which weakens the effectiveness of the board’s work.  Every board member should be asked to provide regular reports on progress and identify any barriers to achieving the goals.  Reporting back provides the idea (and important) opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of board members, to highlight the value they bring to the school, and to thank them meaningfully for their ongoing service.  For most board members, this simple step will lead to deeper engagement with the significant challenges being addressed by the board.

STEP 4: Share stories.  This should be an ongoing, perpetual process.  The real value of a board’s work isn’t shown in statistics or financial metrics – these are just means to a greater end.  The purpose of any school is to make a real and significant difference as it educates its students to the highest possible standard in accordance with the school’s mission, or enduring purpose.  It follows from this that one of the most encouraging things a board can do is allow time at every meeting for the Head and any board member to share real stories of recent examples where the school is making a transformative difference in the lives of its students.

The famous educator Kurt Hahn once observed: “There are three ways of trying to win the young.  You can preach at them — that is a hook without a worm.  You can say, "You must volunteer" — that is of the devil.  And you can tell them, "You are needed" — that appeal hardly ever fails.” 

I suggest that in this sense, board members are not unlike adolescents; they need to be reminded from time to time that the school needs them if they are to be expected to rise to the challenges of board engagement.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Learn more about effective board dynamics in workshops such as OSG-S1 Board Operations

Learn more about the ways we can help you with whole board and individual board member performance reviews HERE.

Detailed advice on board evaluations and performance reviews is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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