A Jewish day school imperative
Reenergizing and inspiring your school board of directors
There are essentially five interrelated components which drive school effectiveness; they include: exemplary executive and instructional leadership, high-quality faculty, student academic achievement, parental engagement and governance.
“Leadership is a choice, not a position”
Editor’s note: While the author’s focus is Jewish day schools and yeshivot, the actions he suggests are applicable to almost any organization, regardless of mission.
Over the past six months, a number of day school heads and executive directors recently shared with me (as their coach) concern and frustration in not being able to motivate, inspire or move their boards forward in a meaningful way. Traditionally, this concern is most common for new school heads, or for school boards that have unfortunately been on “automatic pilot” due to inertia or a lack of leadership.
At first blush, I attributed these concerns to some form of “post-COVID institutional fatigue” which many day school lay and professional leaders reported experiencing following almost 18 months of school restrictions, lockdowns and new health/safety policies and protocols. To be sure, these COVID-related challenges were beyond stressful, time-consuming and nerve-racking for many day school boards and senior administrators, let alone families and communities. As a result, schools were very hyper-focused and cautious as they attempted to return to normal school activity…. especially after they eased some of their health and safety precautions and policies.
As I began to analyze these school governance concerns a bit more closely, I observed striking similarities and commonalities. They all had high levels of board turnover; a relatively new board chair/school president who was recently elected to the post; and several new members of the board who were in desperate need of onboarding. All of this governance transitioning took place at the height of the COVID pandemic, which only added additional stress, uncertainty and ambiguity to the mix. In other words, this was a big deal, a perfect storm, impacting the school board; and, it needed to be resolved.
Under normal circumstances, boards which are in a state of flux, crossroads or stand-still should be offered a series of refresher sessions and “rebooting” exercises in addition to training sessions relating to board roles, responsibilities and best practice. However, given the depth and magnitude the board’s unfamiliarity, coupled with a sincere willingness and desire to be more relevant and effective (also shared with me by the heads of school), I suggested a more comprehensive and intensive “re-onboarding training process”. My ultimate goal would be to “reenergize” and inspire the board so that they can begin to feel relevant and empowered with a renewed sense of direction, purpose, clarity and value.
Recalibrate, Refocus and Reenergize
There are essentially five interrelated components which drive school effectiveness; they include: exemplary executive and instructional leadership, high-quality faculty, student academic achievement, parental engagement and governance. Of these five, governance (as an important functional part of the school) is usually the one aspect of effective schooling which is not always accorded equal importance or, is not always recognized as an essential part of a school’s operation, growth or progress. This reality is borne out of the belief that school board functions and activity are voluntary in nature, function independently from the rest of the school are not necessarily anchored in any visible educational or school related programs. Yes, the board sets policy, approves budgetary expenditures, raises funds and evaluates the performance of the head of school, but, these activities are usually physically invisible to students, teachers, staff and most parents.
Ironically, the role and function of the school board is probably one of the most taken-for-granted or understated aspects of effective schooling; yet, Board governance is one of the most important foundational entities upon which a school is built and sustained. As I tell my clients: There are many ineffective institutions governed by ineffective boards…but, there are very few if any effective or high impact boards governing ineffective institutions. In addition, healthy, engaged boards follow through on commitments while unhealthy boards have no sense of accountability or follow-through. It’s just the reality of organizational behavior and our understanding regarding the powerful impact and quality governance on institutional effectiveness, productivity, transparency and accountability. To be sure, those schools that have an effective and engaged board are those that have a far better opportunity to succeed, grow and flourish.
Irrespective of whether your board of directors functions at maximum capacity, or is experiencing a level of lethargy or ineffectiveness, it is essential that your board consciously and continuously assess its mission, function and direction. By doing so, the board maintains its viability, relevance and value. It also ensures that the school maintains high levels of transparency and lay accountability.
Building Blocks to Inspire and Reenergize – Processes and Venues
In an effort to re-energize your Board, it is essential to shore-up the board’s sense of relevance, confidence, self-perception and effectiveness. This happens by engaging members of the board in a variety of engaging and inspiring training and development exercises. This process can be facilitated via a well-trained head of school, principal or more often than not, a highly qualified outside consultant/facilitator who is familiar with the culture and nuances of Jewish day schools.
The following are 10 action steps which are aimed at reenergizing your board of directors. They can be actualized through hands-on interactive presentations and/or via the dissemination of written or published information.
- Reconnecting the board to the school’s mission, vision and philosophy, similar to the Board’s first “orientation session.” The board is not only refamiliarizing itself with these important dimensions and aspects of the school, but is also reconnecting members of the board with one another on a social level…an equally important requirement for team building on the board level;
- Conducting a complete review of the board’s by-laws in order to reorient members of the board regarding board committee process, term limits, legal obligations and other governing requirements and obligations;
- Reviewing board committee assignments and mandates in order to determine their continue value and relevance;
- Providing members of the board with clarity and focus regarding the board’s role, responsibilities and expectations;
- Ensuring that all board members receive programmatic school updates reports regarding new and exciting school developments, initiatives and programs;
- Ensuring that every board meeting has at least two “action items” which require in-depth deliberation and/or a board vote;
- Reassigning board members with specific committee assignments which are aligned with their interest, expertise and/or request. The work of the board must take place in committees as opposed to the total board;
- Providing each board member with an opportunity to learn more about the school through meetings with the administration, teachers and staff; and, invitations to school celebrations and special events;
- Reaching out to board members in order to determine their concerns, feelings and perceptions regarding their involvement and role on the board, and ways in which the board can improve its role and responsibility;
- All board members should be invited to serve as “school ambassadors.” As such, each board member should be provided with talking points, brag sheets or other pertinent data and information regarding the school’s celebrated accomplishments and impact;
- Ensuring that the board is knowledgeable and well informed regarding the school’s budget and financial condition;
- Providing each board member with the opportunity to be engaged in fundraising for the school or the school’s ongoing financial resource development program.
Venues and Pathways for Board Growth, Development and Reflection
In addition to these aforementioned activities, it is essential that the Board be provided with a variety of informative and engaging venues in order to re-energize and reactivate its growth and development. For example, board retreats have proven to be very effective venues for inspiring board social interaction and learning. Many schools opt to engage either a speaker or facilitator to lead, inspire and facilitate these sessions. Retreats provide participants with learning environments that are more conductive than a conference room and less encumbered by outside distractions.
Several suggested retreat themes or topics may include:
- Board responsibilities and obligations
- Creating a shared vision
- Governance vs. management
- Characteristics of healthy boards
- Decision making and policy formulation
- Individual board member responsibility
- Board committees
- Strategic planning
- Evaluation board performance, impact and effectiveness
- Nominating and recruiting new board members
The wide array of retreat themes and topics are endless and can be somewhat overwhelming. It is therefore advisable to first determine your board’s strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Once this list is developed, prioritize those areas of concern which need to be addressed first…. then go for it.
Finally, not all boards are able to afford the time or resources to engage in a full-blown retreat with all the bells whistles. In these cases, you may want to dedicate a board meeting or segments of your board meetings to an area of professional learning and development. In doing so, you are able to engage your board in these important conversations over an extended period of time.
Board Coaches and Mentors:
Another effective way to re-energize your board is through providing them with a series of board mentorship and board chair coaching opportunities
A mentor is someone who shares their knowledge, skills and/or experiences to help another to develop and grow; a coach is someone who provides guidance to a client on their goals and helps them reach their full potential.
In order to help board members more fully understand and appreciate their respective leadership roles (on the board), it would be extremely beneficial if they could be paired with individuals on the board who can mentor them. These “board mentors,” more often than not can be either veteran members of the school board and/or folks who have had extensive board or governance experience serving on other nonprofit boards. A board mentorship program can be extremely beneficial in helping reenergize board members and at the same time enhance social interaction between and among board members.
Coaching on the other hand is more germane to the board chair (president) and/or for chair of board committees. As such, a board chair may be paired with a “leadership coach” who can provide the chair with a wide array of best practice approaches and strategies in order to help guide and assist the chair realize his or her goals, as board chair. The relationship between the coach and board chair is one that is based on mutual trust and respect.
Finally, experience in the field strongly suggests that board mentors and coaches can significantly improve and enhance the condition of the board as well as the leadership effectiveness of the board chair or president.
As we know, every Jewish day school and yeshiva has its internal leadership strengths, weaknesses and cultural nuances. Developing and growing strong, effective and impactful school boards, as just indicated, is one of the most important 21st century investments a school can make. A board’s impact on the school’s fiscal viability, its senior leadership effectiveness, strategic mission and policies are paramount. It is therefore essential that no time be spared in developing a viable and an effective board of directors for your school.
Chaim Y. Botwinick, Ed.D., is principal of the Hebrew Academy Day School, Margate FL., organizational consultant and executive coach. He served in a variety of senior Jewish education leadership positions on the local and national levels; and is the Co-Founder of LEV Consulting Associates, specializing in strategic planning, and organizational development. He is the author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness, Brown Books, 2011.