Seven Lessons in Pursuit of Board Excellence
Through my work over the past ten years in board governance and as the architect of RAVSAK’s Sulam 2.0 program in board development, I have seen firsthand the incredible progress that has been made in day school governance. Working with my colleagues who have led the charge toward best practices, I’ve seen many schools paying increased attention to the role of the board vis-à-vis the administration. Although it hasn’t been easy, boards are pulling back from micromanaging school functions. More and more schools are engaged in conversations about performing self-evaluations, running tighter and more relevant board meetings, and thinking more strategically. School boards are keeping a closer eye on monetary matters like budgeting, faculty salaries, tuition and endowment.
But are these best practices to help us achieve board excellence? Excellence isn’t meeting the standard, it is setting the standard. Excellence is the quality of being outstanding. To get to excellence you must first achieve the usual standards, and then you must break through them to the next level.
In their book Scaling Up Excellence, Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao uncover what it takes to build and identify pockets of excellence and to spread them to others. They offer seven lessons which, when paired with the governance principles Cathy Trower lays out in her groundbreaking Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership, provide guidance for the pursuit of excellence in Jewish day school boards.
Spread a Mindset
While Carol Dweck was not the first person to notice the effect of someone’s mindset on his or her behaviors, her book Mindset made a big splash among behavioral professionals and educators alike. Dweck identifies a “growth mindset” that is essential for a love of learning, resilience and accomplishment. In a growth mindset people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and that brains and talent are just the starting point. Her conception of a growth mindset is perfectly suited for schools, as it is predicated on the belief that one can and should constantly desire to learn. This love of learning has always been a desired character trait for day school graduates.
But have we emphasized a learning mindset for the people who steer the institution? An excellent board will see itself as an incubator of ideas, not just a decision-making mechanism. Board members who embrace the growth mindset shift from an emphasis on making the best decisions to asking the best questions.
Traditionally, school boards see themselves as decision makers. The main function of the board is the vote, recording for posterity changes in the organization’s culture or policy. But while votes are important, what would it look like if the focus of every board were on learning, not deciding? Shifting the focus from the decision, an end, to learning, a process, creates a culture of experimentation, reflection and accountability. Pursuing excellence means perpetual inquiry in a quest to be better. Here are the kinds of questions that can stimulate excellence: In reviewing data, are our outcomes being met? How do we need to adapt to be more effective? Growth mindset environments are not afraid to take risks. That’s where the real learning occurs. The excellent board supports experimentation, combined with healthy reflection and measurement to support attaining results. Together, this dynamic creates a creative and accountable learning atmosphere.
As boards give more management decisions to the head of school, they often wonder what is left to talk about. The most consistent advice I received when I entered the upper echelons of board service was to line up votes before the board meeting begins, eliminating surprises. But here’s the thing: meetings get very boring when committee reports and head of school reports occupy more and more of the board’s agenda, and vote outcomes are predetermined. Board members begin to question their value. Bored board members become unhappy ambassadors. And boredom often morphs into micromanaging.
Boards need engaged and lively conversations. As Patrick Lencioni points out in his book Death by Meeting, boring meetings are the most painful problem in business, and certainly they can be more painful as a volunteer. To capture the attention of those around the table, discussions should be dynamic and vigorous around vital, complex issues. Too many executive committees handle all the controversial questions themselves, choosing to bring solutions to the board for voting. Board excellence is reflected in seeking critical conversations that stakeholders should be a part of, and encouraging spirited debate. Many times, board meetings are the most significant touchpoint board members have with the school. Imagine the difference in sending out invigorated ambassadors after lively debates that produce excitement about the thinking and learning going on throughout school!
Fox or Hedgehog?
The Greek poet Archilochus said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins picks up on this analogy. In the hunt for excellence, organizations seek to attain “piercing clarity about how to produce long-term results, exercising relentless discipline to say ‘No thank you’ to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test.” Boards are the hedgehog leaders of the school; they shoulder the responsibility for attaining this clarity and ensuring discipline to push aside all other distractions. Sutton and Rao assert that scaling excellence requires both addition and subtraction, peeling away the extraneous pieces that don’t lead directly to the hedgehog idea. Too many schools, though, leave their mission or vision statement too generic to provide the clear guidance schools need.
A hedgehog is at the intersection of what you are passionate about, what you are best at and what drives your resources (in this case enrollment and donors). Getting to your hedgehog is a torturous task, forcing boards to dig deeper until identifying what makes your school unique. If you find it, you will give your school a gift that pays dividends for years to come. With this clarity of purpose, boards can devote targeted resources and administrators can work toward focused change getting the right people on the bus, piloting programs and evaluations, eliminating stale programs and unsuccessful curriculum pieces that get in the way.
Train, Try, Track, Repeat
Even when we clarify our vision, we can rush to implement too many shiny new advances. When we commit to excellence, we want it today. We aren’t always the most patient people. Students have only a few short years in a school, and this puts enormous pressure on leaders to attempt to make sweeping changes very quickly. Sutton and Rao warn of slipping into the illusion that achieving excellence is easy. It’s not, and all parties need to be prepared for the hard road ahead of them, along with the timeframe that is usually much longer than desired. A combination of illusion and impatience can quickly lead to incompetence when changes are implemented quickly without training and trial periods. When asking teachers about failed initiatives, many have told me they were doing their best without formal training on the materials or felt incompetent in working within the new system. Administrators might point to the lack of resources available to them for professional development, or that the cost of the program was so high they couldn’t afford to send teachers to training sessions. Fully competent professionals can be left to flounder through new waters without the proper skills and environment.
An excellent board will encourage and provide resources to train, try, track and repeat. Every new initiative should have the proper training, a pilot rollout, an evaluation and a new iteration, and a repetition of this cycle until the initiative is ready for full implementation.
Move More People
In the journey to excellence, Claudia Kotchka, former VP at Proctor & Gamble, advocates “moving a thousand people forward a foot at a time rather than moving one person forward by a thousand feet.” This advice flies in the face of accepted best practices for day schools. The head of school is the board’s only employee, and thus boards attempt to push the head of school a thousand feet: they hire a superstar, get him or her coaching, and emphasize head of school support and evaluation committees. Although the board only directly interacts with the head, the board’s focus should not be limited to the progress of the head. Part of evaluating the head of school’s job performance is measuring if the rest of the staff is moving forward as well. Heads are accountable to the board for professional development for their staff, consistent and meaningful evaluations and nurturing their progress. The board isn’t stepping into how these activity are implemented, simply that they are implemented and are achieving desired results of forward movement.
Studies have shown that the more staff are involved in the growth of the organization, the more they engage in the push toward excellence. Charles Duhigg, author of Habit, insists that instead of fighting changes, involved staff begin to suggest additional changes and implement them better. This responsibility and accountability engenders ownership, where all involved begin to feel “I own the place and the place owns me” (Sutton and Rao). Excellence is not a lonely sport.
Live Your Values
Scaling Up talks about linking short term realities to long term dreams. Does this resonate with day schools! Our dreams are nothing short of keeping our students attached to the Jewish community with a sense of love for our people and culture and deeply rooted Jewish values. The most effective way to pass on values is to be authentic role models of those values. That means that boards, along with all parts of the school, need to live the values they espouse.
Clarity around the interpretation of each value is essential to being able to make reliable decisions based upon them. Dig down to understand the implications of your values, especially if those values sometimes conflict.
Jewish schools love Jewish values; most have three to seven core values. So what do you do when you need to decide between two courses of action, each one embodying a different core value? One of the Disney Institute’s key learnings is the importance of establishing prioritized values. At Disney they call them the 4 Keys and they are powerful tools to be used as a litmus test for excellence. Having values isn’t enough if people can’t act upon those values. In order to facilitate empowered decision making, whether strategic or on the front line, all stakeholders need to be aware of the priority given to each value.
Collaborate in True Partnership
A division of labor and responsibilities is necessary to guide governance decisions, but sometimes it can be an obstacle to excellence. As Trower puts it, “The requisite culture for governance as leadership rests more squarely with a meeting of the minds rather than a division of duties. … Like partners in doubles tennis, neither party can afford to be particularly territorial or both will lose.” Boards and administrators need to see themselves as true partners. Partners collaborate.
Boards and administrators have differing jobs, and a good school will be clear on the alignment of duties for each side. But more importantly, administrators and boards have differing points of view. Capitalizing on these differences in crucial conversations about the school is the hallmark of pushing through to excellence. “The conversation is less about who calls the shots—jurisdiction, authority, distribution of power—and more about whether the board and management, together, have taken aim at the right target and discussed the implications of doing so. Clearly distinguishing the board’s ‘job’ from that of management may mean more clarity and comfort, but they come at the cost of governance and impact” (Trower).
Working slowly but intentionally, boards can take their strong foundation of best practices and push toward excellence. To quote Pat Riley, “Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.”
Orlee R. Turitz is an executive coach, board governance consultant and program director for RAVSAK’s Sulam 2.0 program. firstname.lastname@example.org