by Sepideh Yeoh, Arati Nagaraj and steve ladd
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Creating a collaborative board culture
Dear BoardWise,

How do you create a collaborative board culture that minimizes micromanaging and dominating of the meetings by the board president?

Sepideh Yeoh: Developing an understanding of what constitutes a collaborative board culture and how it will contribute to an effective governance team is the first step. Collaboration can be defined as individuals coming together to create something that will create purpose. For boards, this “something” is a unity of purpose that will support the board in achieving the district or county office of education’s visions and goals. Once your governance team agrees upon your unity of purpose, the groundwork for establishing a foundational pillar is set.

Equally important is identifying how each board member contributes to this collaborative culture. After all, a team is made up of individuals, and each individual plays a key role in creating and maintaining a collaborative culture. When contributing to a board discussion or decision, each member should keep the following principles in mind:

Prepare — In a world where so much is outside of our control, we have the choice to be prepared and effective.

Respect — Practice empathy and seek to understand different points of view. Ask clarifying questions to avoid misunderstandings.

Listen to understand — Most of the time, as someone is speaking, we are focusing on formulating a response, rather than listening. This prevents us from hearing what is actually said.

Focus — Your focus should always be on those you serve (your students) and every activity and decision should be finalized with their best interest at heart.

Accountability — Review the list above and assess where you are doing well and where you can continue to improve.

In a collaborative culture board members engage in honest and transparent dialogue
When a collaborative culture is in place, board members operate within their roles and engage in honest and transparent dialogue. When board members, including the president, are not honoring the collaborative culture, collective accountability becomes critical. Later, Steve Ladd will address how board members can hold one another accountable and be an effective governance team.

Arati Nagaraj: The board president has an essential role in setting the board culture and climate. It starts with a clear understanding of the role and a focus on three core responsibilities: setting the board meeting agenda with the superintendent, facilitating board meetings and serving as the board spokesperson.

Let’s start with the first, setting the agenda. Typically, at the end of a board meeting, trustees are asked to suggest future agenda items. It is the president’s authority to include or exclude items when planning the meeting agenda with the superintendent. When a requested item is not included on the agenda, the president should model transparency and let fellow board members know why the suggested item was not included on the future agenda.

Next is the facilitation of the board meetings. As the facilitator, the board president creates space in the meeting so members may speak on and ask questions about agenda items. Board members can choose not to speak, but it is the responsibility of the board president to ensure that trustees have the opportunity and choice to engage in agenda-related discussions.

The last responsibility is serving as the board spokesperson. In most cases, the president is the spokesperson for the board. When speaking on the board’s behalf, it is important for the board president to keep the focus on what’s best for kids and to stay on point with the governance team’s unity of purpose. Depending on the protocol set by the board, the president responds to community inquiries and keeps the board informed of the responses via the superintendent or as otherwise specified by the protocol.

When acting within a clearly defined role, the president can support a collaborative culture by maintaining focus on key responsibilities and the discipline needed to act for the good of the board, governance team and the district.

Steve Ladd: Without question, understanding the value of trust and the need to build strong working relationships is essential for boards and governance teams. The need for all members of the board to know and act in accordance with their role on the governance team is equally important. Each role is necessary and should not be viewed from a power perspective. This is especially true for the role of the board president.

In order for each board and governance team to create a collaborative culture, they must also be prepared to accept the responsibility of self-governance. If a board president oversteps the values and behaviors that have been agreed upon, it is incumbent on the other board members to appropriately and civilly intervene. This is not easy to do, and likely not pleasant, but it must be done or the behavior and dysfunction will continue, which will diminish the team’s outcomes for success.

The board should “deputize” each other, to hold each other, including the board president, accountable. This is achieved by having a deep and honest dialogue about expectations and agreed-upon protocols that clearly outline how board members will act to address such a situation, should it occur. If the behaviors of a president or other board members are outside the mutually developed code of conduct, ignoring it or hoping it will get better is rarely the reality.

As mentioned earlier in this article, it is important to invest the time to cultivate a culture of trust, as well as include the time to define the role of the president — before there is an issue. By using honest communication, assuming good intent, developing a written protocol to address such an issue and collectively agreeing to self-monitor yourselves as a board, the team will be well prepared.