Governance Study: Lessons from Schools with Highly Effective Strategic Cultures

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part research series about independent school governance. Based on a study of NAIS member institutions, this post looks at lessons learned from schools that have highly effective strategic cultures at the board of trustee level, including findings that are adaptable to a wide variety of school contexts. The authors of the study and blog posts are Troy Baker, director of athletics at Pace Academy (Georgia); Stephen Campbell, assistant head of Upper School at Lausanne Collegiate School (Tennessee); and Dave Ostroff, director of the Honors College at All Saints' Episcopal School (Texas). NAIS members can access the full report here. 

Heads of school and board chairs report that a heightened focus on cultivation and onboarding — as complements to traditional recruitment and orientation efforts — makes a meaningful, positive impact on boards of trustees’ capacity to think and act strategically. That’s according to a new study we conducted at Vanderbilt University in collaboration with NAIS.   

We surveyed 807 heads of school and board chairs at NAIS member institutions. In our previous post, we argued that the capacity of boards of trustees to think and act strategically — specifically on financial sustainability and strategic planning matters — has positive impacts on key markers of strong, healthy institutional performance.   

In this post, we take a closer look at lessons learned from case studies in our research. We visited NAIS member schools that have highly effective strategic cultures at the board of trustee level and interviewed heads of school and board chairs. Here we offer a pair of findings that are adaptable to a wide variety of school contexts.   

We have defined “Strategic Effectiveness” as the capacity to: 

  • Refrain from the tactical in favor of strategic and long-term issues;
  • Separate one’s role on the board from real-time parent concerns and complaints; 
  • Displace personal motivation and interest in favor of the long-term goals and mission of the school; and 
  • Predict challenges based on market forces and local and national trends, while also considering the implications and results of past decisions and initiatives.  

Finding #1: Strategically effective boards are intentional about onboarding new trustees “Organizational socialization, or onboarding, describes the process by which newcomers move from being organizational outsiders to becoming organizational insiders” (Bauer, Erdogan, Berrin, Zedeck, & Sheldon, 2011). In contrast with orientation, which tends to happen within a narrowly defined window of time, onboarding refers to a longer acculturation process for sharing knowledge, skills, and behaviors that initiates need to succeed in their new roles and organizations. Newcomer acclimatization is associated with important outcomes, including: satisfaction, commitment, turnover, and performance.     

Although most boards have a process of orientation, we found that boards that exhibited higher strategic effectiveness ratings devoted longer periods of time to organizational socialization and acculturation of new trustees (“onboarding”). One head of school in our study explained: 

“About three-fourths of our trustees are current parents. So we educate them on the role of being a trustee and a parent and what that really means… and about leaving the parent hat outside the boardroom when we are talking about decisions for the school.” 

A critical component of the onboarding process is educating trustees, many of whom are current parents, to enhance their understanding of the complexities of their dual roles and how to manage them. It’s crucial for trustees to balance being approachable to parents and adhering to board protocol. One head of school described the role of a trustee as an “embattled position.” He explained: 

“Board members must be proud and confident that the school is doing the right thing when approached with tactical problems. They must have a sense of pride... It is important that our trustees are able to insulate themselves from operational issues. The onboarding process for trustees stresses the importance of this complex role.” 

Trustees must possess the ability to interact with and listen to parents at extracurricular functions and events, while also resisting the urge to react to parent concerns beyond the scope of their responsibility.   

School leaders we interviewed also described onboarding as a powerful process for creating a common understanding among trustees about how schools work. One board chair offered insight into the complex challenge of acculturating trustees and observed that the work could be done in a variety of ways, including engagement around case studies and discussions of scenarios from previous years. He also highlighted the importance of onboarding to initiate a paradigm shift for new trustees from the corporate sector approach to the educational sector mindset. Another board chair echoed this view: “You can’t fire the bottom 10 percent in an independent school like you can as a CEO.”   

The key distinctions between orientation and onboarding are frequency and duration. We find that highly effective school leaders spend more time sharing knowledge, skills, and behaviors that define the role of trustee in strategic terms. 

Finding #2: The process of cultivation is a critical step that cannot be ignored We define cultivation as the long-term process of nurturing relationships with potential trustees, including sharing information and extending invitations to serve on ad hoc committees or task forces. Highly strategic school leaders devote much time and effort to encouraging interactions between potential board members and the board prior to the formal recruitment process. Strategic cultivation piques the interest of potential trustees, and creates a sense of task ownership. Cultivation also gives current trustees opportunities to observe and interact with potential future trustees prior to recruitment. 

We note a growing sense among school leaders that trustee selection is a complex, highly contextual endeavor. The level of importance ascribed to particular characteristics of potential trustees changes based on challenges and initiatives that are on the school's strategic horizon. 

One head of school in our study explained: “Board building should be strategic. It’s about thinking about the skill sets that you’re going to need, not for next year, but for four or five years from now... and then orchestrating a process of progressive cultivation so that people who could really be assets to your board are moved closer and closer to your institution to the point where when you ask them to serve they will say yes.” 

Cultivation helps keep school leaders ahead of the curve in terms of planning for the future needs of their boards. Heads of schools and board chairs in our case studies place heavy emphasis on disposition, skill set, and area of professional expertise when cultivating potential trustees. One board chair addressed the importance of balancing expertise and collaboration, saying, “Smart people who clash get you nowhere.”   

Cultivation efforts also create time and space to test potential trustees' dispositions within the context of work on a task force or ad hoc committee. When asked about the most important attribute for trustee selection, one head of school asserted: “Disposition. I think that it’s the one ... if you get the disposition wrong, if they’re the person who comes in and doesn’t work with the group, who has an axe to grind, who’s temperamental, that’s where the price is tears.” 

School leaders in our interviews noted the importance of identifying potential trustees who are able to collaborate well, understand group dynamics, and demonstrate collegiality. Heads of school and board chairs in our sample seek trustees who understand the importance of being part of a process rather than each acting as a single, directive voice.   

Findings from our research indicate that investments in cultivation and onboarding yield powerful payoffs for any collaborative working group with a shared mission: increased effectiveness and a healthier strategic culture.

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Troy Baker

Troy Baker is director of athletics at Pace Academy (Georgia). 

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Stephen Campbell

Stephen Campbell is assistant head of Upper School at Lausanne Collegiate School (Tennessee). 

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Dave Ostroff

Dave Ostroff is director of the Honors College at All Saints' Episcopal School (Texas).