When prompted to think of a successful, high-performing team, what comes to mind? Perhaps a professional sports team, one that has the best players in the league, an outstanding coach and a full trophy case. Excellent boards operate in much the same way as a successful athletic team. Sports teams rely on the team to work together as a cohesive unit as much as they rely on exceptional individual performance; similarly, successful boards require the group to work together as an effective team just as much as they require committed individuals to give of their time and expertise.
Many boards focus on finding great board members but spend little or no time on the work required to help those individuals form a cohesive team. The result may be a board that is less effective, and board members who are less engaged, than they might be if they work as a unit. If you have great people on your board, but feel that you could work better together for the good of the school, consider making one or more of the following changes to enhance the effectiveness of your team.
CREATE A BOARD MANUAL
The board manual is your board’s playbook. Compiling a few key documents to share with the board, and keeping them up to date, ensures that every board member has access to important information that guides the board’s work. In the past, board manuals were hard-copy binders that were challenging to keep updated, and that tended to gather dust on shelves. Fortunately, today’s online board manuals are easy to update and give board members effortless access to important materials. A board manual can be as simple as a shared Google folder, or can be maintained on a platform such as LiveBinders.com.
If your board does not already have a manual, start with something simple. The school’s mission statement, contact information and a short bio for each board member, and a calendar of upcoming meetings, are a great place to start. Once the board manual has been created, other documents can be added over time. Additions might include a list of the basic responsibilities of individual board members, a list of committees, and your board’s conflict-of-interest and whistleblower policies.
Your online board manual can also be a portal for board members to access pre-reading materials for meetings. This feature may streamline the process of distributing these materials and ensure that the materials remain archived. The manual will contribute to a shared sense of institutional memory, for both veteran and new board members, further contributing to the board’s ability to function as a cohesive team.
DEVELOP SHARED GOALS
Working toward common goals is a defining characteristic of a strong team. When individual board members focus on their own priorities, or aren’t sure whether or how their work contributes to the overall success of the group, the board as a whole will be less effective in its work.
Consider establishing annual goals for your board. These are in addition to the school’s strategic plan or any annual goals that the board or head of school have set for the school itself. Board goals will focus on the specific work to be accomplished by the board over the course of the year.
The goal-setting process is most effective as a highly collaborative exercise, in which board members brainstorm issues to tackle throughout the year and then reach consensus or vote to determine which are most important. Once the goals are set, determine a work plan for achieving them, assigning tasks to existing board committees or creating task forces as needed.
Use some time at each board meeting to check in on progress, and adjust the work plan as needed. This process will ensure that board members are working together toward shared priorities, rather than feeling unsure of how they can best contribute or, worse, working at odds with one another.
FOCUS ON BOARD COMPOSITION
When thinking of prospective board members, nominating committees often look for individuals with particular skills and characteristics considered to define a “good board member.” Is he a smart, thoughtful person? Does she have professional skills that will be useful to our school? However, in order to build your board into the team that your school needs for strong leadership, it is essential to see each board member not only through the lens of his or her particular skills, but also as a teammate who will play a specific role on the team. Put another way, your board needs members whose skills fill the gaps in your current board and whose dispositions complement one another and create a cohesive whole.
Consider the dynamics in your boardroom. Do different kinds of voices fill the room? When new ideas are raised, is one person a cheerleader while another is a healthy skeptic? When problems arise, does one board member work to analyze the issue while another seeks consensus among the group? Does your board sometimes have disagreements that lead to a deeper understanding of an issue? Ideally the answer to these questions is “yes”; if not, then your board might benefit from a careful analysis of its composition.
Try creating a board composition matrix to assess the current makeup of your board and to find gaps that can be filled as you nominate new members. Some boards limit their matrix to the professional skills and demographics of their members, but your board will benefit from including categories describing the dispositions of your board members as well. A sample board composition matrix offered on BoardSource.com includes the category “qualities” (for example, “motivator” and “leadership skills”), as well as the category “personal styles” (such as “mediator” and “visionary”). Download BoardSource’s matrix or create your own, and then fill it out to assess any gaps on your board that are preventing it from being the exceptional team your school needs it to be.
Once these gaps have been identified, seek new board members who exhibit the qualities and personal styles that are missing from your board. These are harder to assess than, say, professional skills, but it is not impossible to get some sense of a prospect’s personal style. Get to know a potential board member by inviting him to serve on a task force or work on a volunteer committee. Pay attention to the role she plays in that work, and assess whether that role complements the roles played by current board members. This takes some extra effort, but the benefit of having well-balanced discussions in the boardroom will make it worthwhile.
PROVIDE A NEW BOARD MEMBER ORIENTATION
An effective onboarding program, including a formal orientation for new members, is key to creating a feeling among board members that they are part of a cohesive team. However, a recent report from Prizmah, “Jewish Day Schools: Snapshots of the Field,” revealed that only 49% of Jewish day school boards provide a structured, formal orientation for new board members. Skipping the orientation leaves new board members hanging out to dry, without a sense of shared institutional knowledge. Orientations don’t have to be complicated, but they do need to happen consistently.
At a minimum, new board members should meet with the head of school and one or two veteran board members (often the board chair and/or chair of the governance committee). Share your board manual with the new members, and answer their questions about the materials contained in it. Talk through some key issues that were discussed at recent meetings, sharing any decisions that were made and the rationale behind them. Explain the board’s committee structure and share a sentence or two about how each committee functions. Investing an hour or two in spending this time with your new board members will help them integrate into the group quickly, rather than leaving them on the sidelines as they learn only by observing the board at work.
If your board has not provided an orientation for new members already, consider inviting your entire board to the first orientation that you run. Even veteran board members will benefit from taking a step back, reviewing the board manual (particularly if it is newly created), and considering the board’s work from the perspective of the newly appointed members. It may seem counterintuitive to invite long-time board members to a new-member orientation, but it will level the playing field and go a long way toward cultivating a sense of shared purpose.
ESTABLISH A GOVERNANCE COMMITTEE
A board’s governance committee is its coach. Like a coach, the governance committee is responsible for helping the team reach its full potential by recruiting new talent, improving individual and team performance through regular training, and motivating the team to succeed. In addition to overseeing the nominations process, the governance committee regularly assesses the needs of the board and addresses problems that keep the board from being a high-functioning team. The suggestions given above would each fall under the governance committee’s purview and would be implemented at the governance committee’s discretion.
If the recommendations shared here seem daunting, keep in mind that it is not necessary to work on all of them at once. Choose just one or two to get started. Each step you take will make your board a stronger team. Transforming a board from a collection of talented individuals into a cohesive team takes an investment in time and energy, but the end result will be a highly effective board that will be better positioned to help your school succeed.