Strengthen Relationships, Strengthen the Board
By Makiyah Moody, Governance Initiatives Director
Leadership is always dependent on the context, but the context is established by the relationships we value. – Margaret Wheatley
Take a moment to think back to circle time on the magic carpet in kindergarten. Like my teacher, I’m sure yours emphasized being respectful, not taking up more room than you needed, sharing, and using words to express yourself. If only I’d known thirty years ago that Mrs. Young was planting a seed for effective board leadership.
In my line of work, I have the opportunity to work with a variety of charter school boards. Some of them are nascent, while others are more developed. Each board that contracts for my services strives to improve their effectiveness and accelerate organizational success. The strength and the quality of the relationships amongst board members generally correlate to how well the board works as a team to achieve the organization’s mission.
The notion that relationships are critical to a team’s success is not a novel idea. Relational Leadership encompasses five components: purpose, inclusion, empowerment, ethics and process. (This post will only address purpose and inclusion. A future post will elaborate on the other three domains.) Weaving Relational Leadership into a board’s DNA creates meaningful board engagement. Simply put, Relational Leadership stems from a leader’s ability to create positive relationships within the organization. Schools are complex places with multilayered relationships between teachers, students, staff, school leaders and board members. Recognizing the power of relationships and working deliberately to cultivate consequential ones makes all the difference for the health of an organization – specifically at the top between school leadership and board members.
Fostering board engagement relies on the school leader ensuring that the board’s work is purposeful. How does the strategic decision-making of the board fulfill the mission of the organization? Are there systems in place to streamline communication, so information is accessible to all board members?
In The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards, Cathy Trower notes that 67% of the time board members are bored at meetings. Boredom is a barrier to action, and subsequently, purpose fulfillment. Relational Leadership begins with making purpose explicit, by connecting the mission of the organization to the work of the board. For example, during the founding year at Success Preparatory Academy(SPA), a K-8 college-preparatory school in New Orleans, board members canvassed neighborhoods to recruit students. Their action displayed a clear alignment with the purpose of the school – an example of cohesive vision. Operating under this shared vision, the SPA board stepped up and out for their school in a crucial role as community ambassadors. While student recruitment is a management function, during start-up it’s typical for board members to support the school in this way.
Similar to the inclusive nature of winning athletic teams, strong boards are inclusive in their practices. At meetings, diverse perspectives are intentionally encouraged in order to reach the best decision under the organization’s current circumstances. Here’s a glimpse of what inclusivity looks like at SPA board meetings:
- The board is comprised of diverse professionals – from architects to lawyers to urban planners to insurance brokers. Each offers a unique skill set with which to interpret the challenges and successes facing the organization.
- Since board members’ life experiences and backgrounds are distinct, they each bring a level of inquiry that cannot be duplicated, engendering deep exchanges.
- Just like circle time, board members share the space in an egalitarian way – listening to and respecting the points of fellow board members.
- My favorite evidence of inclusion: there’s laughter! Board members enjoy being around each other. There’s a collegiality and rapport often absent at other board meetings I observe. This lighter mood in itself can stave off the stagnation of boredom mentioned above. Despite the good cheer and warmth, SPA board members never lose sight of the importance of the strategic governance decisions before them.
- It takes two to tango. Investing in meaningful relationships requires action from both board members and school leadership working collaboratively.
- Strong boards value the collective over individual agendas. The mission of the organization is the guiding light.
- Two-way communication is a sign of a healthy organization. Access to information is a procedural element that fosters inclusion. By sharing information equitably with all board members, school leaders demonstrate respect and trust which are key elements of meaningful relationships.