Keep Power and Influence in Check and Hearsay at Bay in the Boardroom

Kathy Cohen, Nanette Fridman

The most common abuse of power and influence on school boards is insidious because it is difficult to see and also likely happening right under your school board’s nose. You have likely seen it a thousand times, and although it may have irritated you, you would be in the minority if you saw it as pernicious. It often happens at a board or committee meeting, taking the board chair and head of school by surprise. The meeting agenda is derailed, along with productive and constructive conversation. The culprit usually sounds like some version of this: “I have heard many people say…”

It sounds so innocuous, like one more piece of data to create a fuller understanding of the issue at hand. But these reports amount to hearsay, not knowledge that is obtained through thoughtful and balanced data collection. They likely reflect the values and beliefs of the storyteller/trustee, and can influence a board’s point of view.

Trustees almost certainly believe that they are acting in the best interests of the school when they do this. After all, most trustees join Jewish day school boards with the intention of helping the school they love, and they genuinely believe that the information they are sharing is crucial and useful. Their “data” may in fact prove influential, as undue weight can easily be given to hearsay, but sharing information in this way abuses trustee power and influence, and can significantly undermine the good work of a high-functioning board.

Trustees enjoy the power of helping a school determine strategy to achieve its goals, manage risk and secure sustainability. Trustees also enjoy the privilege of getting insider information and having a formal process by which the head of school and high-level administrators hear their views. When trustees present hearsay as evidence of their point of view, they may exert influence that can disproportionately impact strategy and policy.

“I have heard many people say…” can mean that trustees have heard from one person or five people. They may have prompted the conversation among friends. They may not be aware that alternate points of view exist or choose not to share them. Yet the stories they share all too often become the focus of attention and simultaneously become the board narrative about what is happening at the school or how parents feel about an issue. Nonetheless, this abuse of power and privilege is difficult to recognize in the moment, especially from a well-meaning trustee.

Ideally, these anecdotes should first be shared privately with the head of school and board chair so that they can investigate the issue and inform the board accordingly. If “I have heard many people say…” is shared with the board without prior notification to head and chair, the statements may not be qualified and balanced by other pertinent information. Unless the head and chair have had time to look into the issue, productive conversation at the board level will be hindered and progress delayed. Although the board chair and head of school can look into the issue after the meeting, there may now be damage to clean up.

Resorting to such hearsay can cause real harm. Consider a school that is struggling with enrollment, and a trustee who truly believes a highly visible teacher is driving families away from the school. The trustee may bring this to the attention of the board out of genuine love for the school and the desire to retain current families as well as attract new ones. On the one hand, the trustee may be thinking strategically in all the ways a school would hope for; contemplating how to showcase a school to attract students and eliminate or mitigate issues that might drive prospective families away is an appropriate issue for a school board to grapple with. But singling out an employee at a board meeting is inappropriate and beyond the scope of a school board’s power and privilege. Saying at a board meeting “I have heard many people say that Mr. X drives prospective families away” derails not only a board’s fiscal and ethical responsibilities but also a board’s capacity to have a constructive and high-level strategic conversation.

Boards can manage this common challenge. It takes education, vigilance and dedication to correcting counterproductive behavior. This is often difficult because few see this behavior as abusive, and most trustees are well-meaning. To address this issue effectively, we recommend school boards take the following steps:

Train your board. Board members should be challenged to think organizationally, understand the viewpoints of the many stakeholders in the system, and be mission-driven with the goal of always advancing the school.

Educate your board. Be clear that “I have heard many people say…” is a bad habit that boards can get into with only the best of intentions. Emphasize, however, that this is a very destructive process and an abuse of power and privilege. The board needs to know that the right process for addressing what they have heard from a few people is to share it with the head of school and board chair so that the matter can be looked into properly.

Adopt board norms. Board norms should include speaking only for oneself with “I” statements during board meetings. It is also critically important that trustees understand that outside of board meetings, all trustees speak on behalf of the board with one unified voice. This voice always represents the board’s decisions and point of view as a single entity, not the conversations and debate that preceded the decision.

Let stakeholders have input. On major decisions, stakeholders on and off the board should be surveyed broadly and their input should be considered. This should be a systematic process that is part of board strategy, not the work of a trustee going rogue and trying to collect various points of view at any given time. Every board should be charged with considering multiple points of view so that many perspectives are taken into account when making decisions. Board members will hear information outside of a formal inquiry if they have an “ear to the ground,” which is often helpful information to the leadership of the school. Again, trustees should determine if passing on the information is warranted and if so, share the information directly with the board chair or head of school.

Be on the lookout for this behavior. It is easy to engage in and it is easy to miss “I have heard many people say…” when it happens. Tell your board that you are on a campaign both to notice and end this behavior.

Shut this behavior down firmly, immediately, consistently and with compassion. Old habits are hard to break; insert a gentle interruption of something like the following: “I’m sorry to call you out here because we all do this, so please know I am not picking on you. I am, however, using this moment to remind our board that we are trying to break the bad habit of saying ‘I have heard many people say.’ Let’s be sure to talk about what you have heard offline after the meeting. In the meantime, let’s direct our attention to the strategic concepts of what we are discussing and stay out of the weeds.”

Having the boardroom as a platform comes with trustees having the responsibility to use their power and privilege judiciously and in the best interests of the school. Trustees must contribute responsibly and constructively. Each board member and board chair must be on guard to check, challenge and redirect this behavior through education, vigilance and partnership.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019