Nurturing Leaders for the Board of Trustees

Cheryl R. Finkel

This positive and joyous image—a dancer celebrating Jewish life and expanding the circle to include more and more dancers—provides a simple definition of the kind of empowering energy we need in the leaders of our Jewish day school boards of trustees.

How do such people know they are needed at that moment? Where do they get that sense that they should “get things going” more intensely and that courage to take action? Did someone actively nurture their awareness, their vision, and their ability to inspire?

If the leaders of the dance can be actively developed, can we also nurture trustees who can look at their school boards, see what’s going well and what’s missing, and then take energetic and inclusive steps toward greater achievement?

Of course we can. Let us take a look at some of the informal and formal ways we can develop board leaders.

Scouting for Talent—the Job of Every Jewish Leader

In an informal way, all dedicated leaders of the Jewish community are busy searching for talented Jews of all ages. They are keeping their eyes open locally and nationally, getting to know who might like to get more engaged, matching institutional needs to individuals’ interests and skills. They include in their own leadership practice the responsibility for developing outstanding colleagues and successors, for nurturing Jewish life by mentoring the professional and volunteer leaders who will ensure that Jewish day schools and other key institutions of Jewish life will be well governed and well managed. These are the leaders who encourage young people in their teens and twenties to pursue careers as teachers, rabbis, or other Jewish communal workers. They are also the people who introduce themselves to newcomers and encourage them to attend an event or volunteer for a worthy cause—all the while keeping an eye on them for potential leadership ability.

These individuals know that engaging Jews in communal life and service inspires them to reach their fullest potential and creates the most vibrant kind of community. Like the leader in the circle dance, they know there is room for all in the Jewish circle and that the dancing of each one increases the joy of all.

No one appoints these talent scouts. Theirs is not a formal assignment. Yet there is simply no substitute for the courage and chutzpah of leaders who continuously recruit and mentor new leaders of the Jewish community. Once they have you engaged, they are the people who guide you through ethical dilemmas; who stand by you saying, “We will get through this crisis together”; who go with you to ask for a critical donation or to confront a formidable opponent. They are also the ones who are not afraid to confront and challenge you to reach your own potential.

I have been blessed by the teaching of a number of such mentors and have also seen the impact of their guidance on a generation of board leaders in my hometown of Atlanta. Everyone they touched has served with greater dedication to Jewish life and with the desire to follow their example and nurture others.

The Committee on Trustees: Formalizing Talent Search and Development

A board’s most important asset may well be an effective Committee on Trustees (also called the Governance Committee), because it officially harnesses the power of informal talent scouts and mentors. The Committee on Trustees creates and maintains a board with the right combination of personal qualities, skills, and interests to govern and to help the school fulfill its mission. Think of this committee as the board’s personnel or human resources department. It is continuously scouting for prospective talent, screening out false leads, selecting the best, getting to know them through non-board assignments, and lining them up for future openings. When prospective trustees are invited to join the board, this committee explains what trustees are expected to do and how the board will support their leadership development. This will include an orientation and an induction process with buddies or mentors to help new trustees get started and grow.

Is this different from what school managers do when they hire, orient, and support outstanding educational and operations staff? It is exactly parallel except that the Committee on Trustees offers no salaries.

Thinking of board service as an unpaid job with training, support, and performance evaluation reframes less-demanding concepts of the trustee volunteer role. I believe this willingness to ask and expect a lot of trustees is critically important and well supported by the fiduciary duties that actually bind board members under the law.

What Do We Mean by Leadership Potential?

Before “hiring” trustees, it’s important to get to know them and observe their volunteer style. Try them out in non-board roles or as a member of a board committee.

Each board will be looking for trustees with the particular skills, experiences, and backgrounds needed to fulfill its current strategic goals. At the same time, every desirable trustee will bring a collection of positive personal characteristics from the following clusters:

  • Self-understanding and confidence
    Look for people with personal integrity; demonstrated commitment to the school’s mission and vision of Jewish education; the ability to form and articulate a thoughtful perspective; willingness to take personal responsibility; self-control; self-awareness; initiative; optimism; resilience.
  • Interpersonal relationships
    Look for empathy and respect; the ability to read another person’s social signals; ability to communicate thoughts and feelings; active listening skills; appreciation of diverse backgrounds and styles.
  • Interpersonal leadership skills
    Look for skill in decision making; group processing; mediation; managing conflict; giving and receiving feedback.
  • Organizational leadership skills
    Look for the ability to plan a course of action, define roles and divide up work to manage a project; capability in time management; facilitation; team-building; group dynamics.

How Do You Nurture New Board Members?

  • Orientation
    Make sure this is a high quality experience that addresses trustee roles and responsibilities, principles of good practice for trustees and this board, and the school’s strategic plan.
  • Demonstrate good practice
    New trustees will learn by example. They must see good governance in action—that board meetings use time well; that veteran trustees prepare and attend; that discussion is meaningful and considers multiple perspectives; that confidentiality is preserved; that trustees are eager to learn more and receive formal education about how to fulfill their board roles effectively and improve their practice. They must see trustees fulfilling their responsibility as financial supporters and goodwill ambassadors for the school. They must see a positive and supportive partnership between the board and the head of school.
  • Engage
    Give all trustees manageable jobs and then help them achieve success. Employ a buddy system or assign an informal mentor. Refresh the energy of veteran leaders by calling on them to mentor others. Give more challenging assignments when individuals are ready; keep supports going.
  • Promote
    As experience accumulates, encourage novices to move into the role of talent scout and mentor.

The Circle Continues

If we do a good job of nurturing strong board leaders, our schools will flourish and the talent developed will spill out to benefit all the other efforts of our communities. Like the leader of the circle dance described in the opening paragraph of this article, our current and past trustees will be alert to community needs. They will be looking around to see who else might like to contribute to the community’s activities and to those people they will stretch out warm hands of friendship and encouragement. In this way they will make the circle stretch to accommodate new people and new contributions and thus they will invigorate our Jewish world with even more energy and joy. ♦

Cheryl R. Finkel is Senior Consultant for the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE). She can be reached at [email protected].
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HaYidion Nurturing Leadership
Nurturing Leadership
Summer 2009