I have been fortunate over the course of my career to have worked with a wide variety of Boards in both the independent school and public education sectors. Without exception, the members of each and every one of those Boards were honourable and conscientious people who had a genuine interest in improving the quality of education for the students in the school or school system that they served.
Were they all effective Board members? No. Did they all rise above petty issues and self-interest to work in the best interests of the long-term health of the institution? Not always. Did the Boards on which they served consistently make effective decisions to ensure the sustainable growth of their schools? Not necessarily.
What then prevented these well-meaning people from exercising effective strategic leadership and oversight? For the most part, it was a basic lack of understanding of the principles of good governance.
Many schools and Boards run into difficulties when the Board loses sight of its designated purpose and instead wanders into the realm of school administration. In actual fact, rather than focusing on their actual responsibilities, Board members far prefer to get into the “fun stuff” of micro-management. Once a Board makes this mistake, there is no longer an arm’s length body in place to ensure the continued health and growth of the school.
Why does this happen? There are a number of reasons. In some cases, Board members – particularly parents – might be the founders of a school. Having established its organization, structure and mission, they are then unable to let go. They hire a Head to take over the actual management of the school but continue to critique major programme and financial decisions in order to protect their “baby”.
Occasionally, Boards move in when there is a leadership vacuum. When a school goes through a series of short-term Heads, or when the school is under the stewardship of an interim Head, or when a sitting Head is perceived to be weak or ineffectual, Chairs and Boards will often take a greater and greater role in the day to day direction of operations.
A third instance of over-involvement by governors comes when individuals are unable to remove their parent or alumni hat when they sit at the Board table.
Conversely, Boards can take such a hands-off approach as to be virtually invisible. Ironically, the stronger and more effective the Head, often the more weak and ineffectual the Board. After all, why mess with success? The answer obviously is that for sustainability, a school cannot be a one person show. The best Heads know this, and welcome serious discussion of issues and effective oversight at the Board table.
However, not all Heads welcome being challenged or questioned on their ideas. A few years ago I was visiting a highly successful and long-serving Head of School and he recounted an incident that had happened at the previous night’s Board meeting.
The Board was about to vote on the Head’s plan to expand programmes and facilities and there were a number of Board members who felt that the school, which already had a significant debt load, was overextending itself. After a heated discussion, the Head announced that he was going to turn his back on the Board “so that I don’t see which Board members are stupid enough to vote against this great idea”.
He boasted to me that, of course, his plan was approved. Interestingly, within a year of that meeting he “retired”, and his project remains shelved to this day. The Board Chair confided in me afterwards that his turning his back on the Board actually galvanized the Governance Committee to re-think the role of the Board and to acknowledge the fact they had let their oversight function atrophy over the previous few years. An attempt by the Head to bully the Board had actually resulted in a renaissance in governance at the school.
There is no question that Boards are all over the spectrum. They range from passive cheerleaders to aggressive meddlers and everything in between.
Primarily however, Boards end up playing roles outside of their actual mandate simply because they lack a clear understanding of what that mandate is.
Research shows that there are three key principles for effective Board practice:
- To be Visionary (not short-sighted) in its outlook;
- To be Strategic (not operational) in its actions; and,
- To be Vigilant (not vigilante) in its oversight.
Over the next few posts, I want to look at what that means in a practical sense for good governance.