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Communication Habits that Impact Board Culture

Posted by Grace Lee on Oct 28, 2013 6:40:00 AM

Effective communication is crucial at every level of the organization, especially within and from the school board.

The ability to communicate effectively isn't natural to many people, but it is a skill that can and should be improved by everyone. The way each board member communicates with peers, the chief administrator, the faculty and staff, parents and students, and the community sets the tone for the culture of the board and the entire organization.

Conducting a frequent peer review is an effective way to measure the culture of the board, providing anonymous and confidential feedback regarding specific habits of leadership. Too often the "elephant in the room" is ignored, allowing unexpressed issues to damage the unity and the purpose of the trustees. Data from the regular peer review enables the chair and executive committee of the board to prepare appropriate professional development opportunities and facilitate discussions that can support a healthy board culture.

To assess the culture of your board and your capacity for trust with regard to communication habits, consider the peer review questions below:

Does this person stay on message: consistently, clearly and concisely?

Debate and dialogue happens in the board room not in the general public. Once the board has made a decision, even if that involves sharp disagreement, all board trustees should be expected to speak with one voice. Any private or public conversation should reflect this commitment. The message shared from one trustee should be the same from any other. To facilitate unity of communication following an important decision, the board should specify the content that will be communicated with key points, the sequence of the message, and the media that will be used. Communication habits should also be considered as part of the prospective trustee screening process--it's highly unlikely they will change once given the duties of board leadership.

Does he/she assume the best of others with high expectations?The Art of Possibility

Attitude is critical for building a healthy board culture, especially one that sets high expectations for self and others. We've seen too many board leaders who think this position requires constant criticism, micro-management, and making blunt comments that sometimes humiliate peers or the chief administrator. People will respond to the expectations that are set by the board as a whole and each trustee. (for further reading: The Pygmalian Effect) You certainly want teachers who expect the best from their students on a daily basis, and the board should model this habit of behavior. A book that we highly recommend to facilitate dialog regarding high expectations is, The Art of Possibility. Leaders who expect the best in others get the best results.

Does this person use body language that is appropriate and constructive?

Body language is an important part of communication, especially at board meetings. Most desired is a person who physically is demonstrating interest and engagement with each topic, is able to express responses in a professional, respectful manner, and listens attentively to others. Board meetings can be obstructed by board trustees who use their body language to communicate defensiveness, intimidation, or disinterest.

Does he/she genuinely listen and seek clarification?

Active listening is a great way to build healthy board relationships and culture. All of the senses get involved when actively listening, giving full attention to the person speaking. Genuine interest is conveyed through both verbal and non-verbal responses that include eye contact, head movement, hand or arm positions, facial expressions, and stating agreement and/or encouragement to continue. Clarifying what has been said through asking questions or summarizing reassures the speaker that mutual understanding is the goal.

Is praise given publicly by this person, and rebuke shared privately?

Appropriate use of praise and rebuke is very important for the board leadership. Ideally, praise is given publicly to build up and encourage, while critical rebuke is delivered privately for reflection and correction. Where public board meetings are required, this can be more difficult to achieve but the seat at the board table is less effectively used when seen as a "bully pulpit." Humiliation should not be the goal of the board trustee, but rather productive leadership, coaching, and management.

Does he/she share information in a manner that is consistent with the organization's policies and practices?

Mavericks are generally not highly desired as board trustees. Consistency is fundamental to growing trust throughout the stakeholder community. Once the message, sequence, and media are agreed upon, the board should be expected to adhere to the plan--which means not using social conversations or media tools to bypass the planned flow of the message.

Does this person collaborate well in board meetings, on phone calls, and in email dialog?

Cooperative, collaborative people make really good board trustees. Accomplishing the work of the school board requires a larger set of people, processes, and systems. The scope of this work includes finance, legal, HR, curriculum, learning design, technology, marketing, enrollment, etc. With so many moving parts required to lead a school, collaborative leadership is absolutely critical.

The Board Index is a web-based dashboard tool we developed to facilitate board culture and growth. For information, Click Here.

Topics: Communication, Board Culture

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