21st century schools deserve,  and most likely require,  21st century boards, which could be defined as ones where trustees actively engage in a dynamic of learning by doing, collaborating, questioning,  critical thinking, problem-solving and innovating.    This phrasing was not the explicit message of Dr. Cathy Trower, a governance expert from Harvard, but I think it is a reasonable inference from her message.

The essential ethos, she suggested,  for 21st century boards must be one of powerful questioning and problem identification.

Rather than recording Professor Trower’s remarks here, I am going to suggest a progressive pathway forward for boards to become higher functioning, 21st century governance agencies.

Putting first things first, start with an inquiry into and clarification of the work of governance.  Get Governance Right First– Trower implored. Do so even if some individual members might push instead for a priority upon strategic planning or fund-raising, Trower advocated.

Begin the board year with developing and identifying the board’s own particular mission. This mission could have two parts: a generic and philosophical or abstract: the role and purpose of the board is to ……..

Trower provided additional questions to consider to illuminate this board mission: Why are we here? What is most important for us to do? How can we add value?

Then determined the specific board purpose by asking and answering the following Trower provided: Five or ten years from now, what will the key school constituents believe the most important legacy or legacies of this board.

Having answered the two above, it becomes time then for boards to answer the question: To do this, the board must…

We could also consider here:  who should be on this team, and how do we build this team?

The Main thing is to ensure the main thing is the main thing.

As part of an extended inquiry into the qualities of good governance, it might also behoove boards to query and consider and declare what are the core values of our board? (suggested by Trower:  openness, mutual trust, and respect).

Having done so, it would also behoove to generate the actions could we all take to strengthen these core values among us in our work.

Four to eight meetings annually should be scheduled in the calendar, but before the first one occurs, each should be designated for its particular purpose(s), and that should be shared with the board as a whole in advance.

Meetings scheduled and meeting agendas can and should be labeled as serving the purposes of fiduciary (oversight, the What?); the strategic (foresight, the how?) and generative (insight, the why?)   Leaders should also try to label the agenda with the determined intent and intended outcome of each board meeting.  Err in the direction of overstating and over-simplifying, for clarity and focus.  Say and state the intent and purpose.

A key part of monthly executive committee meetings should be exactly this: looking ahead one, two, and three meetings, and determining what purposes should be fulfilled and what the goals will be for each, and then also reviewing the work of committees: are chairs paralleling this process, and are committee meetings clear about objectives and outcomes?

Trower also encouraged ongoing board education is critical– and a suggested topic might be how to read a balance sheet, and other financial statements.

Another action item she suggested boards consider or clarify regularly, in the name of openness, is what the appropriate succession processes for board and head leaderships should be.

Finally, on governance,  consider how to evaluate each and every board meeting: an on-line survey the next day, or a note-card at the end of each meeting, or a little survey form at the end of each meeting?  Take the temperature of the board regularly, feed it back to trustees, and adjust accordingly.

Moving from governance, we consider strategic priorities: What do want to accomplish as a board? What are our 3-7 goals (no more)? How do they align with what we declared our board mission and our board legacy were? Also, how do want to measure board success, and school effectivness?

Trower urged boards to have targets upon which to focus, and used the amusing, if crude, metaphor of a target dot inside a urinal, to which men and boys far more often aim when provided.

Ask Trustees, she suggested, What is the single most important question facing the school in the next 12-18 months?

Another important project: keep a focus on school effectiveness and progress upon goals by establishing a clear, focussed, and reasonably narrow school dashboard.   Pat Bassett suggested the NAIS markers of success be used to build the dashboard; ISM also has materials  for this.

Trower put a focus, as her colleague Dick Chait does, on using generative questions at board meetings to provoke conversation, and to use tactics such as providing each board member five minutes to write their own thoughts before beginning conversation.   I also love the chance for participants to be able to move around a room, write their answers up 0n butcher block paper, discuss in small talk with each other what they are writing and reading of each other, and then bring back the conversation to the whole by reading out the answers and seeking to discern themes.

Some suggested possible generative questions, some from Trower and some from me:

  • What makes great boards great?
  • What should be the core values of our board?
  • What is our school’s perception in the broader community, and what do we want it to be?
  • What are the elements of our school we wish to be still true in ten years?
  • ‘What do we wish were different about our school in ten years?
  • What does it mean to be high tech and high touch?
  • What is 21st century education?  What should be our definition?
  • What are the skills and habits of minds most essential for success in this day and age?
  • What do we wish our graduates, at graduation, could or would perform to demonstrate their learning at our school?
  • What keeps our Head up at night?
  • What do we wish kept our Head up at night?
  • What do we want students to do to demonstrate qualities of effective leaders and innovators?
  • Who are the members of our community? Who are our key stakeholders?
  • Whom do we serve?
  • Who should teach?