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News & Press: General Articles

Governance: Starting Off on the Right Foot

Monday, August 5, 2019  
Posted by: Abby Schultz
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By Debra P. Wilson, SAIS President

 

At this point in August, some of our schools are just days away from the first day of school, while many still have a couple of weeks to prepare for staff and students to come through those doors. There is nothing like the beginning of the school year and the excitement of your community returning refreshed from a summer break and ready to start anew, and it is easy to focus primarily on the students and staff.

 

In the wave of new school year bliss, school leaders are wise to give special attention to their boards. While hard data is difficult to come by, head of school turnover and governance difficulties litter the landscape of war stories among independent schools in the past five years. SAIS data shows roughly 50% of SAIS schools have had new heads within the last four years. Now is the time to ensure that your board and administrative team are ready to start the year on the right foot. These steps and resources might help.

  • Create common language and visuals around the strategic plan.
    Your board should be familiar with the strategic plan and should receive regular updates on the progress of various initiatives. This can be a simple color-coded table that lays out the progress of the goals and action steps, or it can be a more complex Gantt chart that goes into more detail. Whatever works for your school, a familiar tool makes reporting on progress less time consuming and serves as good reminder to board members about the ongoing work of the school. It can also help remind them where strategic conversations from the board meetings fall into the overall plan of the school. Use this tool regularly to keep the board informed and create the muscle memory for updating and checking in with key contributors.
  • Helpful Resource:
    Visual Communications for Strategic Planning

  • Take care of your new trustees.
    Orientation should include a thorough review of the school’s fundamentals (financials, key indicators, strategic plan, board expectations, board committee and structure review, etc.), as well as the expectations for nonprofit board members and best practices. The orientation should also walk through the complex situations that are unique to independent school board trustees. Case studies that are challenging for trustees who are also current parents are most helpful. The new SAIS governance videos may be helpful. New trustees should have mentors who answer any questions and provide guidance with more complex situations.
  • Helpful Resources:

    NAIS Principles of Good Practice: Board of Trustees
    NAIS Principles of Good Practice: Independent School Trustees

  • Take the time to build relationships on your board.
    Most schools have a board retreat before school starts or early in the year. These retreats provide a reminder of the school’s strategic plan, an overview of the year ahead, and a call to arms where the school needs trustees to really support the school. Along with the work of these trustees, schools should capture this time to work on the relationships with and within the board. Relationships drive our schools and strong relationships build trust in the leaders of the community. The board is no exception. The relationships between board members and between board members and the school administration must hold firm in times of crisis. The tighter those relationships are, the more stress they can manage. The time to build those relationships is day over day, event over event, and an annual board retreat is the place to start. The board might share meals, socialize, or engage in more hands-on activities; whatever mechanisms you use, make sure to allow for that time during your retreat.
  • Take time to plan your board calendar. This one seems so simple, and yet so many schools fail to take this most basic step. There should be an overall board calendar for all of the full meetings. The head, board chair, and relevant administrators should identify the strategic and generative conversations that need to take place at the meetings throughout the year. The schedule may be based on fairly traditional points in the school calendar (e.g., talking about the budget in December), but they should also consider key topics related to the board’s goals in the school’s strategic plan. Laying the topics out early, with room for modifications, ensures that the calendar reflects the work that needs to be accomplished that year. With an effective calendar, all board committees and staff members know when those conversations will occur and have time to prepare the elements they will contribute to that strategic conversation.
  • Extend this planning to your committee calendar. Many schools complain their board committees don’t “work.” As with the work of the entire board, each committee should identify goals to accomplish throughout the year, have a plan to accomplish that work, and commit to calendar dates and times before the school year begins. Some schools find that when they do this kind of planning, they can hold fewer committee meetings that become more purposeful. I recently spoke with a school that has an audit/investment committee. After looking at the true work of the committee, they realized that the committee only needs to meet twice a year and lead one meeting of the full board. This approach makes it easier to plan and easier to recruit a chair for the committee when the goals and the work ahead are clear.
  • Use technology to improve board communication. 
    As board demographics have shifted, comfort with technology and expectations for its use in business operations have evolved.
    • Use technology to hold meeting space on board calendars. All board members should receive a calendar invite to the meetings where they are needed, including committee and full board meetings. Not all schools use Outlook® calendar invites, but most board members do. If your board is composed of working professionals, sending invites to hold the board calendar slots improves the likelihood of securing that meeting time because you’re using a method with which they are already familiar. It signals a level of organizational competency that they regularly see in their professional lives.
    • Adopt technology to facilitate meetings. Schools are place-based businesses, but many board members use technology to attend meetings in their daily lives and they expect that efficiency from the boards on which they serve. Tools like Zoom, Skype, and other video platforms allow all participants to see and hear each other. These kinds are tools are particularly effective for shorter meetings, such as committee work. Some schools have started using them intermittently for business meetings of the whole board. If your school has not explored these tools, now is the time to start. 
  • Ensure your head of school goals, evaluation, and contract processes are on track. If you are the head of school, you may need to drive conversations about goals, evaluation, and contract re-negotiations. As board chairs cycle through, they do not always keep track of the cycles related to the head of school. At the beginning of the new year, talk through these issues with the board chair and place items on the calendar as needed.

Example Board Meeting Calendar

The deep dive discussions and votes will vary by school, but here’s a short example by month of topics schools might include on their calendar:

 

August

  • Board chair / head of school / senior leadership coordination of board calendar for year ahead
  • Board retreat
  • Relevant votes:
  • Welcome new board members, year-ahead goals and strategic plan overview and update, committee time for year-long planning, group activity
  •  

    October

  • Relevant votes:
  • Fundraising deep-dive
  •  

    December

  • Relevant votes: budget overview, discussion,
  • Board operations deep-dive
  •  

    February

  • Relevant votes:
  • Growth planning and insight retreat
  • Board activity
  •  

    April

  • Relevant votes: nominations
  • School culture and climate deep-dive
  •  

    May

  • Relevant votes: board members
  • Review of the year and plan for the year ahead
  • End-of-year celebration

  • June

  • Orientation new board members

  • Calendar more
    Independent School Counselors Conference
    June 10-11 | Atlanta, GA

    Institute for New Heads
    June 12-14 | Atlanta, GA

    All Events



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