Monday, 10 September 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 4 of 10: Good Processes Build Better Boards

School boards are intentionally comprised of several elected trustees in order to bring a variety of community voices to the board table. It is this diversity of perspective that enriches decision-making and community representation. This, of course, is the critical attribute of publicly elected school boards, and is also what makes board work hard. It means that ideas will be contested, opinions will be defended, and disagreements may be strong. This human and sometimes messy part of board work is essential, but that doesn’t mean that governance has to mired in poor behaviour or chaotic “debate’. 

The most successful boards are able to manage their work by establishing and reinforcing a set of good governance practices.  Unfortunately, some boards are reluctant to do so.  Sometimes there is a tendency, particularly with boards from smaller communities or those that have enjoyed long-term stability, to be somewhat casual with board processes such as the chairing of meetings, building agendas, and trustee communications. I have observed some board meetings that more closely resemble informal discussions, with minimal management, loose agendas and few formal motions.  On the surface this may feel comfortable but this lack of process leaves a board more vulnerable to dysfunction, projects an image that diminishes the importance of the board’s work in the eye of the public and can leave senior staff unclear on board direction.

I am not suggestion that meetings need to be run stiffly to be effective. They can be professional and comfortable at the same time.  It starts with an inclusive and transparent process for agenda building and distribution.  All trustees should have the ability to bring matters of concern to the board for discussion. But except for emergent issues, this needs to be done in advance so that everyone knows what is coming and senior staff, in particular, have an opportunity to have the appropriate information at hand to answer questions to help guide the board’s decision-making.  It also limits the ability of those who may wish to ambush other members or senior staff.  The principle here is no surprises. But if there is little opportunity for input on the agenda or one that is only loosely followed, then meetings can turn into free-for-alls and provide an open platform for those who want to grandstand or undermine.

The second critical factor is good meeting chairing. This topic requires much more space than available here and perhaps will be the subject of a future article. Briefly, however, the Chair is like the conductor of the orchestra. She sets the tone and ensures order. There are two key attributes to good chairing: Having a working knowledge of the rules and processes of running a meeting (the science of chairing), and; having a style that is professional, equitable and comfortable in nature (the art of chairing). The Chair also leads by example. I have seen Chairs who misuse their role by dominating the discussion, editorialising after others have spoken, and running the board as though they own it.  Although Chairs are normally the spokesperson for the board with the public and senior staff, they are there to serve the board, not to be its monarch. To be fair, chairing meetings is challenging work.  All the more reason to have a set of procedures, such as Robert’s Rules, upon which to rely. This doesn’t mean the Chair has to be a trained parliamentarian. The vast majority of meeting procedure are covered by just a handful of Robert’s Rules (or other standardised meeting rules) supported by your own board’s meeting policies. Meetings need to be run using a predictable set of procedures that everyone knows and can rely on.

Upcoming posts in this series will explore other processes to help your board become and remain a high functioning governance body.

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