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Q: When does a board matter most?

A: When something big happens or needs to happen.

 

I often think that board work is like baseball.  The fielders do more standing around than making plays.  (I once read that out of an entire baseball game, the ball is in play for less than eleven minutes.)  On top of that, most plays are routine–almost choreographed.  From Little League on, every position player learns where to stand and where to make the play under almost any circumstances.  

Most “plays” that boards make are routine.  Board meetings are often taken up with committee reports, reports from the head and sometimes from other administrators. Budgets are presented and approved.  A few questions for clarification may be raised, but the answers generally make sense and easily satisfy the questioner.  One Board Chair once said to me, “Boring is good.  Boring means nothing bad is happening.”  As much as I understand what he meant, I think boring can also be dangerous.  

Boring can mean complacent.  Boring can mean that fundamental skills of collective decision-making are getting rusty.  Boring can mean that practices get sloppy, because, as has been said, “When things are going well, anything will work.”  The climate of agreement within a board may be wider than it is deep.  Challenges test the depth of shared values and strategic priorities. Yes, it’s how our practices and policies hold up under duress or challenge that really matters.  

Challenges come in many forms–not all of them negative.  The “something big” could be the need for development of a fresh strategic perspective or a strategic response to an external challenge–such as the economic crash of 2008.  The challenge could be managing the departure of a long-term head of school, or the need to manage the search for a new head.  The challenge could also be a sudden, possibly damaging crisis –an unexpected flashpoint that must be dealt with quickly and wisely.  

Like baseball, during those “routine” interludes, the game is still going on.  Every routine play is a chance to stay sharp.  That is the mindset of high-functioning boards no less than for elite athletes.  That means regular reviews of board culture through an annual self-evaluation.  It means the board chair and the head regularly seek out individual trustees to test for their satisfaction with their board service and ask for their input about the board culture.  It means strong rapport and trust between board chair and head. 

High-functioning boards consistently practice self-assessment and self-reflection.  The focus of board development is to

  •  Build trust
  • Strengthen relationships
  • Have the right conversations                         

Within a board that has developed these practices, the structures are in place to deal with challenges with agility and wisdom and trust.  

 

Next up: managing crisis.