High performing schools consistently have high performing boards.
The Sustaining Board understands that culture always trumps structure. Much of the discussion around boards is about committees, officers, the chain of command, etc. Those elements are important and should be wisely structured. You can have great structure with lousy culture, however, which will have a long-term negative impact on the institution.
The only sustainable competitive advantage that is 100% within the control of your leadership is the board’s culture.
Board Culture Traits
Below are the traits consistently identified among high performing boards:
- Communication - Top performing boards have adopted very specific practices of communication. They understand the boundaries of communication, as well as how to properly sequence it throughout the organization. They are not just using communication to just get the word out, focusing even more on building relationship and trust. Your communication will be different based on the motivation and purpose behind it. Effective boards also intentionally listen to the administration, faculty, parents, and students, and are able to process that information appropriately.
- Passion - Expect energy from board members! If you’re going to be a board member it isn’t the responsibility of the chief administrator or the board chair to motivate you. If your passion and intrinsic motivation aren’t there, that’s fine--out of respect for yourself and the organization, find another way to use your gifts to benefit others. Balance of course is needed, avoiding the extreme of one who is excessive with passion that overwhelms and stifles other board members. Look for someone who has passion but a great deal of emotional maturity as well. They bring a level of energy and devotion that helps the board and the organization perform better.
- Compliance - This is an important area for each board member to understand. The board does have obligations in terms of reporting, declaring conflicts of interest, etc. Top performing boards don’t have mavericks, doing their own thing and creating their own way of leadership. Board leaders should understand the impact of their legal and fiduciary obligations, and follow the appropriate rules and expectations.
- Professionalism - Expectations for professional behavior extend to the board room: Being on time for meetings, having respectful interactions with peers, and other such basics of professional habits. Successful boards are able to maintain a high level of respect in their interaction that allows them to move beyond personal agendas and priorities.
- Confidentiality - The board has access to sensitive information regarding finances, personnel, students, etc. Members must be able to handle this material in such a way that their peers have confidence they will protect a high level of confidentiality, and that conversations that are held in private are kept in private. Where confidentiality is low the leadership will begin having "meetings before (or after) the meetings" or because they’re want to work around a low level of trust for certain people.
- Preparation - The leadership of the board working with the administration should provide information well in advance of the board meeting so trustees have the ability to be well versed in the reports and agenda items. Proper preparation is needed from each committee, and board members should be expected to read through any reports in advance so they can participate in a healthy dialog about key issues. Board leaders need to allocate enough time in their schedules to devote full attention and be 100% present at board meetings.
- Contribution - Board members have made a commitment, and part of that commitment entails a responsibility to be generous toward the school. This includes investing time, one's social and professional network, and money at a significant level in order for the vision to have the provision to accomplish great things. The board sets the tone and the pace for everyone else when it comes to giving of themselves, including actively engaging others in the opportunity for contributing to the school. It’s hard to go out and ask others to support the school if the board hasn’t already made that investment. Being a board member entails not just giving nominally, but giving generously to the school.