Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Long-term boards, strategic plans, and board chairs

I recently spoke with some independent school folks in Maryland on the topic of change and innovation. Along the way to putting my thoughts into words, I had a couple of ideas that might be useful for people in schools wanting to but mired down in the challenges of change.

As educators and especially as change agents within schools, we sometimes neglect or regard as an insurmountable obstacle the role of governing boards. While good boards should have a healthy admixture of innovators and steady hands, often enough the culture of boards produces a kind of stagnation, or certainly aversion to change.

Boards are important, and their members are important are good, and they want like crazy for your school and its leadership and its faculty and its students to succeed. They are the school’s most important friends and allies, and they deserve all the help and patient guidance that we who are desirous of change can give them; we can’t write them off.

But we know the challenges of trying to tell the board that some new approach to curriculum is going to set college or next school admission committees’ eyes all aglow. These are among the wisest, most influential people in the school, and they care as deeply about the place as its faculty and administration, although probably in different ways depending on their personal relationship with the institution. Some of the most conservative (and sometimes, face it, most annoying) trustees are those who are most quick to remind everyone that they have a fiduciary responsibility to the school, that they are responsible before almighty God and the state for every penny that goes in and out. Innovation costs money, and when people start throwing around wild ideas, they want proof that these ideas will work and that they aren't going to necessitate raising tuition or otherwise jeopardizing the school’s fiscal stability.

Here are a couple of suggestions that can’t happen overnight, because they require cultural change and possibly a modification of the rules by which the board operates. Start planting the seeds now, though, and you may live to see them bear fruit:

If your school tends toward long-term trustees—seven years or more without a sabbatical, board chairs who took office in the time of Bush One—perhaps there should be a reconsideration of this practice. New blood matters, and so does the opportunity for old blood to step outside a long-term role in order to acquire some new perspective.

The board leadership ought to see to it that the full board, or certainly the nominating committee and the educational policy committee or (best of all) the annual board retreat ought to involve some mandatory and high-level learning every year about current thinking in education; this should happen regardless of the length of board terms.

Your board members need to know not only how to read a balance sheet and ask their peers for ungodly amounts of money, they also need to understand something about how independent schools and teaching have been evolving. You don’t seriously want them learning everything they know about 21st-century education from Jay Mathews or Forbes, do you? You can start by getting each of them an annual subscription to Independent School magazine—it’s only twenty bucks a pop.

If your school has a strategic plan, how old is it? Has it been around longer than a significant number of the trustees? If so, then these newer folks didn’t make it, didn’t approve it, and probably don’t have a lot of personal investment in its success. They’re back to relying on Jay Mathews or those scary articles on college admissions in the Wall Street Journal. If you want to engage the board and move along a few things that are on the minds of the academic visionaries in your school, push for a new strategic planning process every four or even three years.

This shouldn’t be a closed-door, one-weekend, board-only exercise but an open, broadly inclusive, dynamic process that includes some real educational exploration and some provocative, original thinking relating to your school's mission and values in the context of future needs. (Just try to remember the ideas that you were all hot and bothered about four years ago, and you’ll see the wisdom in this suggestion.)

I also happen to think that the rare practice of rolling over board chairs every three or four years is a really good idea as a way of keeping the board paying attention. Even though there will be a regularly reoccurring learning curve for the head and for the succession of new chairs, the school and the board will get a regular new dose of dynamism, and your head doesn’t get to fall into too cozy and relaxed a relationship with a congenial chair. You may also avoid what is much worse: a head and board who manage the school into a state of programmatic paralysis out of fear of offending an iconic, omnipotent board chair whom no one dares cross or a chair who is simply so competent that new ideas seem somehow unnecessary.

There was an interesting and sometimes overheated thread on the ISED listserv in the fall of 2009 in which it was suggested (a la Daniel Pink's Drive) that overpaid heads lead resistance to innovation to preserve what is for them a comfortable status quo. It occurs to me that mere money is probably (mostly) not the problem: many of the longest-term heads, who of course tend to earn the most money, are the creatures of long-term chairs and complacent long-term boards. Well, it’s no surprise that schools with such leadership—and it may be excellent leadership in many ways—aren’t leading the pack when it comes to trying new things.

So, it's important that school leaders think about rattling the cages of boards as well as of faculties if they'd like to expedite the process of innovation. While the roles and responsibilities of governors must be respected and kept within appropriate and statutory bounds, they must also be seen as a fundamental and potentially huge resource in the process of change. The trick is to structure the composition and work of this resource in a way that fosters and does not impede vitally necessary programmatic innovation.