"Habits of a Sustaining Board" is the theme of the School Growth Webinar Series for November and December. Seven habits will be featured based on our research and years of working with school boards. For those school boards that do not require general election, we have identified specific traits of boards that lead high performing schools and are able to sustain their legacy over multiple decades. A Great School (and school system) has a Great Board--one that has progressed through the Stages of Growth to develop the utmost in effective governance.
What is a Sustaining Board?
What do we mean by a Sustaining Board? The School Growth Stages of Board Development include Organizing, Managing, Governing, and Sustaining. (Additional information is available in other blog posts here on SchoolGrowth.com) The unique characteristics of a Sustaining Board include its time horizon: They're not just concerned with what's happening this quarter or even this year, but looking twenty, fifty, even one hundred years into the future. Providing for both organizational and financial stability, this Sustaining Board is prepared to leave a lasting legacy of which they can be proud well after their time on this earth is complete.
Though less than 5% reach this level of quality leadership, it is an attainable goal for any board with diligent focus. The journey begins by developing a trustee cultivation process that populates the board with right talent. Sustaining Boards don’t happen by accident--they happen by leadership!
Trustee cultivation includes the selection of trustees who are outlandishly committed to the mission of the school and building a board of excellence, using these three simple steps:
What you are looking for in a trustee? The best place to start is by asking, What are the characteristics of your current board members who have been most effective in leading your board? Every school is different--what’s true for one may not be for another in terms of the trustee profile, so this is something your board must determine for itself. Using a board profile is one of the ten School Health Indicators to ensure long-term viability. The Sustaining Board is intentional about identifying people who are fully aligned with the mission and vision.
Using a spreadsheet, you can easily start building a profile of your current board members. If you’ve had a few "rock stars" on your board in the past, profile them too. What made them so effective? What data could you collect about them in order to find other people like that? You can create relationships with people just like your best trustees and start cultivating them for your board. Having this information clearly laid out in a document helps you strategically evaluate prospective trustees.
Four categories that could useful for your trustee profile include:
Requirements - These would generally be outlined in the bylaws of your school. They may have to be a member of another organization, have given in the past, and/or have been associated with the school for a certain period of time. This is the starting point in considering candidates. As you work through the requirements, you may end up reconsidering some because of changes within your organization.
Traits - What kind of traits do you look for in a trustee? Leadership traits? Family traits? Genersity traits? What traits stand out on your existing board that you would want to see in future trustees? A good reputation is helpful to the board in building a network of influence. When you are evaluating the traits of a prospective trustee, consider whether the person could be a candidate for the board chair. If everyone you added to the board had that level of capability, skills and leadership, imagine the difference in the quality of trusteeship!
Skills - Communication is obviously an important skill for a trustee, including effective speaking and listening. Board leaders also need to be well prepared for board meetings, as well as have a high degree of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Use the spreadsheet to see where you have skills gaps that could be filled by new trustees. For example, you may have strong skills in finance and accounting but be lacking in project management. Be specific and intentional in order to build a well-rounded set of strong skills on your board.
Attitude - Having a servant’s heart is an important factor in board leadership. Anyone who is overly eager to be on the board probably shouldn’t be on the board! Someone trying to campaign for this role may not be a good candidate with the traits and motivation for which you are looking. Heavily desired are trustees with a positive attitude who are able to stand strong and support their chief administrator during times of difficulty, responding rather than reacting to those situations. Remember that past results are the best indicator of future performance.
So much change is happening to and around schools, so they need leaders who have the traits, skills and attitude necessary to take on the challenges and opportunities in today's educonomy.
Alignment becomes an extremely important factor during the board leader selection process. Look for people who closely align in these four areas:
Mission - Is the candidate an enthusiastic, passionate, raving fan of the mission. Not mission tolerant, not willing to just work with it, but evangelical about it. If this commitment is lacking, compromises are more likely in other decisions as they influence the board.
Culture - If collaboration, commitment, and friendliness are important features of your culture, then board candidates should be reflect these characteristics. Diversity in demographics, skills, and perspective is desired, but consistency in culture is also important.
Strategies - Your school's strategy may include classical curriculum, blended learning, student-centered instruction, etc. Whatever the business and academic strategies, board candidates are expected to fully embrace those strategies. It's difficult to convince them after the fact.
Role - Set clear expectation of the roles and responsibilities of a trustee, with meaningful quantitative and qualitative key performance indicators.
Screening of board candidates can follow this simple process:
Invite - Using the board profile actively create a pool of candidates who are noted for their commitment to the mission, culture, and strategies. Invite each to apply, but be careful about managing this process among your trustees. For example, it can create a problem if they go to a prospective trustee before approval from the board. It is important to move the candidate through the process respectfully and intentionally.
Data - Once the prospective trustee has been invited, he/she will submit an application. Some schools have this automated through an online form while others have a printed application form. This provides valuable data about previous history as well as references. It is important to check references before you move them forward in the screening process. We recommend 2nd and 3rd degree reference checking--asking references for more references. You’re not looking for generic reference questions about whether or not the candidate is a nice person--looking for the specific traits, attitude, and skills in your profile. Structure your questions in a way that makes it easy for them to communicate those to you. Looking for stellar recommendations!
Align - An intentional interviewing process will help you assess the candidates alignment with your mission, culture, strategies and role. Panel interviews with the entire board are not recommended as reliable nor useful. Individual and/or tandem interviewing is preferred. Of course you want to have people on the board that you like, but if they don’t have that full commitment and alignment, be prepared to not advance them in the screening process. Be diligent about alignment!
Verify - The information and data you have collected should be consolidated and validated, making sure that you have agreement regarding alignment from everyone involved. With approval from the board an offer of trusteeship can be made, making sure they understand the expectations that go with that role.
On-Boarding - On-the-job training may work in some scenarios, but it can take a full year for a trustee to get up to speed if you’re relying solely on trial and error. Effective board leadership requires a great commitment of time to understand the different responsibilities of the board as well as what’s happening in education in the context of the school being served. On-boarding includes the training and relationship building that will help the new trustee be most successful.
While this process for board leadership cultivation cannot be directly applied for generally elected school boards, it can be used in a process of accountability and training for such institutions.