Building Highly Effective Boards

In many of our schools, the school boards are chosen from the church members of the supporting church or churches for their school. One scenario that can quickly happen is that each of these individuals will have their ideas about what a school should look like and what they would like for their children. These ideas are largely based on the values that each member holds and what each determines to be the most important. Some people value a strong academic education in preparation for higher education. Other people value life skills that set up their children for work within the trades. Still others may be most concerned with helping their children navigate this world while maintaining Kingdom values. These values are not exclusive; most people likely hold a combination of these values. However, when a board member determines that their ideas must be preeminent in shaping the culture of a school, the groundwork has been laid for some very challenging situations and a potentially dysfunctional team.

Understanding how a team is built and meant to function is a very important foundation for any board member. There is great strength in a team that blends completely dichotomous ideas to form solutions that are collaborative and innovative.

The Foundation

Highly effective teams must begin with a solid foundation. The first layer of this foundation is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In Psalm 127, the psalmist recognizes this very concept when he states: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” God must be the center of our organization. Each person within that organization must recognize that this organization is not about themselves. It is God’s work, and as such, they must attempt to think about the working of the organization from that vantage point of decision-making that builds God’s kingdom. This takes a level of humility that is uncommon in our world, to be able to recognize that my ideas are preferences and may actually not be what is best for the organization.

This foundation has to be nurtured by the leader of the team. The board and the principal or administrator should work in unison to develop and implement the mission and the vision for the school. While this mission and vision will be determined by the founders, the leaders of the organization must be the primary champion of the mission and vision of the school. In order for this mission and vision to be passed down through generations of leaders, the vision and mission must be overcommunicated with examples of behaviors that support the mission. The leaders must champion the culture in themselves and set expectations for others. They do well to recognize behaviors in others that support this mission. When making decisions, the mission and vision should be discussed in relation to the decision that is being made.

Team Building

Team building is a popular idea in the professional world. It is vitally important to build teams that are highly effective so that the business or organization functions well. Maybe you think of things like retreats and team-building exercises when you think about team building. While these activities have the opportunity of helping us understand the team on which we work and the dynamics that make up the team, we cannot expect these kinds of activities alone to create a highly effective team. I would equate expecting these kinds of activities to transform our team to expecting a house built without a foundation to be an effective shelter. These kinds of activities are most effective with a strong team in place already.

The most important part of team building is not activities or retreats; the most important element is building a foundation of trust. This trust must first be grounded in the belief that each person on the team is primarily concerned with advancing the mission and vision of the organization. This team must also be grounded in the idea that they represent the interests of those that have appointed them to serve in a leadership role on the board.

Building Trust

Many times, we do not spend a lot of time really considering how trust is built or developed. The first thing that is required to build trust is that the leader must lead the way. The board and faculty will not experience trust if the leader is unwilling to initiate building trust. This trust is developed through the vulnerability of trusting first. In his book Trust First, Bruce Deel (2019) shares his experience in inner city Atlanta. He notes that when he was willing to be vulnerable first, only then did the team begin to be vulnerable and trusting. While openness and vulnerability build trust, leaders that rally support prior to meetings or hold exclusive meetings outside of meetings to discuss issues within the board or school destroy trust very rapidly. The divide-and-conquer mentality is not a leadership strategy; it is a manipulative method to control the narrative with our own ideas.

Trust is something that is quite fickle at times. It takes time to build trust and it can be torn down in an instant. The leader’s role is to build that trust within the team so that when decisions are made, the team walks forward together in harmony. A team built on trust will be able to weather differing ideas. Patrick Lencioni (2012) notes in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, that teams that are built on trust are going to have open dialogue as a team even when there are differing ideas. There is great strength in combining these ideas to find creative solutions for challenges within the school. However, in a low trust environment, these ideas become platforms and campaigns instead of ideas on which to collaborate. This leads to people not being willing to share their ideas and limiting the creative ingenuity of the board.

Not only will healthy teams built on trust have more dialogue and come to better conclusions, they will also walk in unity together when decisions are made by the team. This communication and dialogue is vital to a healthy team. When communication breaks down, there is no longer the ability to move forward in the decision-making process. The team will have respect for the decision-making process of the group and will not undermine the decision even if it wasn’t made in the way they may have preferred. A true team player never says “I told you so” when a decision doesn’t work as intended. These teams will also have the ability to provide constructive feedback to each other in the appropriate setting, building each other up to be better followers of God and better team members for the organization.

Practical Considerations

There are many ideas on how teams are supposed to work. There are many folks that spend their life work building and developing teams. There are many books published that share principles that are important to team cohesion. These are all good theoretically, but they must be carried out practically.

Many folks within our Anabaptist setting may have little exposure to working on boards or teams and thus have no real understanding of some of these principles. This, however, does not mean they are not a team player or would be handicapped on the board. It simply means that we must be cognizant of this fact and provide the resources necessary to learn the structure and methods of a board.

One of the first pieces that I think needs consideration is board recruitment. In our church schools, board members from the church body are often appointed through some format of nominations and voting. In parachurch or patron schools, there is likely an appointment or recruitment process followed. While the recruiting process will look different in each of these areas, it is important to consider who we choose to serve on these boards. While the person on the board does not have to be educated, have a history of teaching, or even enjoy teaching, they must appreciate the role of the Christian school. In a patron-run school, there should be extensive background work done to ensure that this is the right candidate for the role. In a church setting, it is wise to share with the congregations the role of the board and help them to understand the need for a team player.

Another important piece to team development is board education. Many times, we get thrown onto a board and expected to figure it out on the fly. There are many costly mistakes made with this method of onboarding a new board member. There should be a board curriculum developed by the board that outlines the mission and vision of the organization, the role of the board, and the role of each board member. Each board member should understand the difference between operations and governance when accepting the role on the board. While this may differ particularly in smaller schools, the board’s role is largely to provide governance and direction to the organization. The board must hire leaders to carry out the direction that the board determines as best supporting the mission and vision of the board. There should be specific education on how the board operates and comes to decisions. In this education, the new board members can be presented with info concerning how the team is set up and how they can best integrate into that team. I believe that board education is one of the most underutilized elements of non-profit board development. Websites such as Boardsource.com are great resources to find guidance on how to setup and operate a board.

A final, practical recommendation for board development and team cohesion is to over-communicate the mission and vision of the organization. This may sound silly, but it is amazing how quickly we can soon lose sight of the mission and vision of the school as things get busy and decisions need to be made. Some of the ways that this should be completed is by adding the mission and vision to each board agenda. This mission and vision should be read at the outset of each board meeting to focus the boards mind on that singular mission. When faced with particularly challenging decisions that may feel stalemated, it is important for the chairman to pull the conversation to the mission and vision and discuss the dilemma and the options from the light of how the solutions will impact the mission and vision. This helps to reset the discussion off of our personal ideas and back to what is best for the school.

Conclusion

I have been guilty of making a few jokes about all of the committees that we Anabaptists use to carry out the work of our churches and schools. The reality is that we use committees and boards extensively because they can be highly effective tools to organizational governance. That being said, a dysfunctional team can greatly reduce the efficacy of the board and, in fact, can damage the school dramatically. In order to develop teamwork and cohesive boards, we must have a strong board structure, provide the tools necessary for board members to understand the operations and impact of the board, develop trust, and maintain open lines of communication. Team building is also not stagnant, this is not a destination but is part of the pathway to our final destination. These highly effective school board teams, when functioning well, can have an extremely positive impact on our school age children in our churches and schools.

References:

Deel, B., & Grace, S. (2019). Trust first: A true story about the power of giving people second chances. Optimism Press. 

Lencioni, P. (2012). The five dysfunctions of a team. Jossey-Bass.

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

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