If a Board is strategic, and policy driven, then it can usually avoid the pitfalls of second-guessing the professional staff and the risk of micro-management. So, if you recognize that you don't need to replicated the skills of the administrative team on the Board - what characteristics should you be looking for?
Here is the generally accepted Board member "six pack"! The effective Board member:
1. Keeps things in context: understands the school's mission, traditions, and history and approaches issues in a fashion that is consistent with institutional values;
2. Is a learner: believes in the need to learn, does her/his homework, is self-reflective and seeks feedback on her/his performance as a board member;
3. Is a team player: believes in Board holism, is collaborative and works for consensus and the attainment of group goals;
4. Is a thinker: recognizes the complexities of issues, tolerates ambiguities, sees the Board as just one constituency among many; and sees the "big picture", understanding how different issues, actions and decisions inter-relate with one another;
5. Is a politician: respects and guards the integrity of the governance process, avoids win/lose situations and works to build healthy relationships; and,
6. Is a strategist: helps the board to stay focused on those priority issues or decisions that can be seen to have strategic or symbolic importance to the school.
There is one other self-perpetuating myth that Board members hold dear. Often, they see themselves as the "business-savvy" advisors to the wooly academics who run schools. For the most part, this is the height of self-delusion. I have worked with and for dozens of Boards. Typically, they are accountants, lawyers, human resources experts, marketers, etc. In other words, most are either independent professionals or middle-management executives. It is the rare board that includes even one CEO that is running a business that is as complex as a school. Years ago, when I was doing some strategic planning with a Board in Quebec, the chair asserted - with agreement around the table - that they were the experts when it came to running the school like a business. Knowing their backgrounds, I gently (okay, maybe not so gently!) pointed out that there were only two people in the room who had any experience in running multi-million dollar corporations with dozens of employees and thousands of clients - the current Head of school and myself. As for the directors around the table, for the most part they had one or two direct reports and operated within organizations of varying sizes in which they had little or no participation in the leadership or management of business operations.
As long as Board members keep reminding themselves that their role is oversight, not management, then they can effectively exercise their governance roles and leave administrative decisions and implementation to the professional staff of the school. After all, that's why they're paid the big bucks!