Best Practices for Doing the Board’s Work
Having great Trustees won’t by itself assure a great Board. The other ingredient is effective processes for going about their work. If you read the first two posts in this three-part series, you heard about the board’s role, as well as some best practices for becoming a better board. In this post I’d like to talk about best practices for doing the Board’s work.
The areas I’ll focus on in this post are:
Evaluating the Chief Administrator
Boards do their work at a fairly high level, so their span of responsibility is quite broad. To give meaningful oversight to the apostolic, pedagogical, human and business dimensions of the school, boards must divide up the work among committees. There they can focus on specific issues and bring back a deeper knowledge to inform board decisions.
Standing committees should be kept to a minimum, five at most, because they require significant time from both the trustees and the administrators who must support them. These can be augmented by ad hoc committees as other needs arise. Trustees should serve on no more than two committees, and for many, one will be commitment enough.
That means that committees should also involve non-trustees, who can add greater breadth and depth to deliberations. The non-trustees are also a pool of potential trustees as they learn about the board’s work and the board learns about how they work.
The main role of a committee is to recommend to the board, when necessary, policies related to their area. But they don’t set policy themselves. More often, they serve as a sounding board and a resource to the administrator working in the area they oversee. They must be clear, however, that they are not supervising that administrator, or it will subvert the relationship of the chief administrator to her administrative team.
In a high functioning board, most of the work is being done by the committees. Because this is true, it works well to have the board and committees meet in alternating months.
Strategic Planning is the process of aligning the significant internal factors within a school’s control to better accomplish the mission, in the face of significant external factors not within the school’s control.
While the Strategic Plan is a crucial tool for the chief administrative officer, and the CAO provides leadership in its creation, the Strategic Plan must be formulated under the board’s authority. The Strategic Plan allows the board to stay on the governance level, while giving the CAO clarity about its vision for the school. Board members come and go, so the CAO and his team need the assurance of continuity in the strategic directions they are pursuing.
So ultimately the board “owns” the plan, and the CAO leads the planning process. But because a faith-based school runs on generosity, its stakeholders need to participate in the process. Their involvement assures that the experience of people served by the school shapes the plan, and it builds their ownership, so crucial when the time comes for implementation.
Managing for Mission has identified ten characteristics of effective plans. Of these, the four most important are that they be:
Chief Administrator Evaluation
The board has only one employee who reports to it directly. It is therefore imperative that the board give direction and feedback to its employee. When things are going well, it may seem like a formal evaluation of the Chief Administrative Officer is unnecessary. But there are at least three important reasons to maintain this practice.
First, if problems do develop, they will be easier to deal with if there has been a consistent discipline of evaluation.
Second, the evaluation isn’t just to identify problems with the CAO’s performance. It’s a time for her to hear from the board that her job is important and she has their appreciation when she does it well and their support where she needs to get better.
Third, it sets a good example. The CAO should be evaluating her administrative team, who should in turn be evaluating the faculty and staff who report to them. The board must model the importance of evaluations to the CAO, giving her leverage when asking employees to participate in a process that applies to her as well.
The CAO should receive formative feedback on a regular basis. This can be in an informal setting, like a monthly meeting with the Board Chair, but it should be planned and regular.
Managing for Mission also recommends that the board administer an annual summative evaluation which identifies and documents officially both achievements to be recognized and deficiencies to be remedied.
The summative evaluation should include data on the progress toward Strategic Plan goals, review of professional goals, a self-evaluation and confidential survey sampling 360o input from direct reports, various sectors of the school community, and every trustee.
The annual review should also include setting goals for the coming year. Goal setting, and evaluation based on the goals, should be done yearly because good performance trends can’t wait for two or three years to be acknowledged and adverse performance trends can’t wait to be corrected.
Nothing the board does will impact the well-being of the school more that doing a thoughtful and consistent job of giving formative and summative feedback to the CAO.
For some, providing philanthropic support is the most important job of the board. I don’t think that‘s true, but it is pretty important. Faith-based schools depend for their very existence on the generosity of benefactors. To give such generous support, a donor needs to understand what the school is about and feel a personal connection. Who is more knowledgeable and connected than the trustees? If they are not willing benefactors, how could we expect anyone else to be?
Conversely, who can make a better board member than one who has done his due diligence and made a major investment in the school? He will want to follow his investment and will have extra motivation and insight in carrying out his duties.
Trustees set an example for others to follow, in this as in other matters. While it’s great to have people of wealth on the board who can give leadership gifts, it’s more important that all board members support both the annual fund and any campaign to an extent proportionate to their means. In this way they can support the five keys to development success.
We’ve talked about committees, strategic planning, evaluation of the chief administrator and board philanthropy. In the previous tutorial we talked about recruiting new members, formation, self- evaluation, and board manuals. There are other best practices, but if trustees make a concerted effort in these, they can become a great board.
This topic of Four Best Practices for Doing the Board’s Work can also be viewed as an eight minute video by clicking here. I encourage you to learn more about governance and school management by viewing the other tutorials on this website and our YouTube Channel.