Noses In, Fingers Out

At my most recent board retreat I displayed on a screen these quotations:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” — Greek Proverb

“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” — Jonas Salk

“Why should I care about future generations—what have they ever done for me?” — Groucho Marx

Heads of school will recognize immediately the goal of that first meeting: good governance. I think the three biggest areas of concern for schools coming out of the pandemic are student health, faculty retention, and governance. You probably have experienced a critical moment in at least one of those areas. The fast-paced, prolonged, and unpredictable disruption to our schools created existential demands about enrollment and operations. By necessity, the crisis required trustees to work nimbly with heads and administrators in an area of decision-making formerly marked by a clear separation of roles. Many schools may be discovering now that good governance is threatened when the board or individual trustees linger in that place where they enjoyed being tactical instead of strategic. Coming out of the pandemic, therefore, is an excellent time to review good governance.

One of my board chairs wisely repeated, “Noses in, fingers out.” It is the simplest encapsulation of the difference between governance and management, but how do we encourage leaning in instead of reaching in? The arc of good governance starts with the mission and values of the school and ends with each generation of the board being a good ancestor. After being grounded in the purpose and principles of the school, trustees need to be invited to use their distinct position in making a difference in the strategic future of the school. A helpful diagnostic question in determining proper engagement is to ask: Are we asking trustees to change the lives of their own children or those of the next generation? Trustees should understand that they are given greater responsibility and participation in the strategic future of the school (while they also are giving up some privileges as a parent). 

Highly effective boards have three functions—what Richard Chait and others call fiduciary, strategic, and generative functions. I sometimes categorize sections of the board meeting agenda with those three words or with their counterparts: oversight, insight, and foresight. Prioritizing and annually refreshing these responsibilities go a long way in aligning the board to its unique and essential role in school health.

A few small details that have helped the board I am privileged to serve:

  • Don’t underestimate how the agenda itself invites trustees to participate at the right altitude. At St. Mary’s, the largest portion of the meeting is titled Generative Discussion and often comes with pre-reading and questions. The chair and I also condense reporting out to one line on the page called Reports, so the meeting isn’t consumed by reciting minutes of other meetings. 
  • The trustee and governance committee is the most important committee after finance. While we all know a “perfect person who would be great on the board,” that isn’t always true. When your committee selects candidates, are they vetting them through a lens of the strategic capacities necessary for the board’s strategic work? Do you have those goals in front of the committee? We have found a constituent and skill grid a useful tool for “seeing” the composition of the board in order to identify where we are over- or under-represented.
  • Association leaders are saying more frequently that we no longer need “interesting people” as trustees; we need known entities who will predictably serve the school. And we may not need a larger (cumbersome) board. COVID taught us the virtue of nimbleness. It also taught us to get the trustees back in the physical room as soon as possible.
  • Heads should also be reminded that it is the chair’s board–it is the one environment where we are not the bosses. It also means (for once!) that it is not the head’s role to address any misbehavior of, or among, trustees.
  • And last, no discussion of an effective board can omit the essential expectation of confidentiality and that the board speaks with one voice outside of the boardroom.

The work of an independent school board has never been more important. As we all return to our assigned roles with a clear understanding of good governance, we can, as good ancestors, effectively plant trees to shade future generations.

Albert Throckmorton is Head of School at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, TN.