Chaim Y. Botwinick

On Becoming an Effective Day School Board: Its All About Leadership


Creating a Path for Board Growth, Leadership and Development


Last year, I was invited to a full-day board retreat, sponsored by a medium sized Jewish day school. The purpose of the retreat was to encourage the board to take stock and reflect upon the manner in which it governs its school, their past accomplishments as well as to engage in a candid and frank conversation regarding their purpose and future direction. Ultimately, the goal was to create a strategic planning framework for the creation of a high impact board action plan.

My role as consultant was to help the board design and frame the conversation, facilitate the process, create an environment conducive for sharing and reflection; and ensure a meaningful and valuable deliberative process and retreat outcome.

Of  the eighteen board members who were in attendance at the retreat (out of a total of twenty-two), I was  familiar with the vice-chair of the board and one other member of the board. This lack of personal or professional familiarity with those in attendance, made it easier for me to facilitate the retreat deliberations. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. I was therefore coming to the table completely unbiased as to who was siting around the table, their backgrounds, influence, affiliations and/or involvement on the board or the school. From my perspective, it was an even playing field.

Retreat Planning and Board Assessment

Critical to the success of the retreat, was my ability as consultant to “check the pulse” of the board regarding their self- perceived role and effectiveness. To this end, I distributed (one week prior to the retreat)) a Board Effectiveness Inventory based upon the information the vice chair provided to me. Parenthetically, the vice-chair of the board was the individual who chaired the retreat, engaged me as consultant to facilitate the retreat process, and provided me with basic and rudimentary information regarding the history of board. I collected responses from the entire board and segregated the five responses from those who were not in attendance. I nevertheless did utilize portions of  data and responses from that group.

Without getting into the weeds of the individual  Inventory responses, the survey process was most valuable in helping me to measure the following board characteristics:

  • Strengths and weaknesses of the board;
  • Areas which require improvement;
  • Board member perceptions of the board’s and school’s mission, purpose, and impact;
  • The Board’s knowledge about governance best practices;
  • Their wish-list of changes they would make in order to improve the board’s’ structure; and and/or mandate; and,
  • Their desired outcomes resulting from the retreat.

The Inventory also included basic demographic information such as the number of years members served on the school board, whether the board member was a parent or grandparent, or involved in other non profit boards, etc.

Finally, the Inventory sought to determine the reasons these board members joined the school board and their current levels of satisfaction serving on the board as well as a leadership profile which measured their ability, capacity, bandwidth  and skill-set required to lead and to be part of a “leadership team”.

Having conducted and facilitated many similar board planning processes, I was not totally surprised by the following findings:

  • About three-quarters of the board had very little to no experience, understanding and/or knowledge of their roles and responsibilities as board members;
  • Seventy five percent were totally not familiar with the role and responsibility of the head of school as it relates to her/his relationship to the board;
  • Most of the board members in attendance had very little idea regarding their individual or collective roles in the areas of fundraising (for the school), nor did they have any understanding or expectations regarding their own minimum gift requirement to the institution;
  • Most board members were totally unfamiliar with the board’s by-laws except for term-limits which were distributed to them in a letter of appointment;
  • The board was never engaged (within the past five years) in any conversation, review or deliberation regarding the mission, vision or value proposition of the school, let alone the need for a shared vision between themselves and the administration;
  • Most of the board’s policy deliberations were the result of either a school related crisis as opposed to the normative role and responsibility of the board;
  • Self-assessment or performance evaluation of the board was virtually non-existent;
  • Every member of the board felt an urgent need for the board as a whole to be engaged in its own development as a board, including being better informed about best and model governance practices,
  • Each member of the board expressed a passion and commitment to making a true difference in the growth, viability and vitality of the school. The challenge however was that they are not totally clear regarding their particular roles, responsibilities or  boundaries; and,
  • Virtually all attendees felt that they did not have the leadership experience or skill-set to lead the school ….and that  they were all in need of continued training, development and mentoring.

This last finding was particularly fascinating. It not only pointed to the fact that board development was viewed as an unmet need, but that irrespective of personality, demeanor, occupation, ego, age or gender, they did not view themselves as having the  leadership experience to help them inform and lead a school, from a lay perspective.  Several of these folks mind-you were managers, c-suite executives and CEO’s of their own companies.

In addition, its important to note that of the twenty-two board members, nineteen have been serving on the board for at least three years.  Term limits allowed board member to serve on the board for up to three years and are then eligible for another one year board member appointment, unless appointed to an officer position, in which case they are entitled to an additional two years on the board.

Whether or not these term limits, as indicated in their by-laws conforms to governance best practice, is an important conversation for a future conversation.

As a result of these responses to the Inventory, I engaged those present in an extensive drilled-down, no-holes-barred  conversation regarding characteristics of a leader and what makes a school board member a leader? 

This was particularly important and revealing since many in the field of education and communal service view board members as “leaders” or as lay leadership; These titles are not necessarily semantic in nature; but rather do suggest a perception or expectation regarding the role and responsibility of those who serve on boards..

During the course of this extensive interactive conversation with the group, it became very evident that the majority of those present  felt a certain mystic about their roles and responsibilities and began to understand the daunting challenge they all have as trustees of the school. They also began to understand that their positions on the school board was totally different that  managing a company or serving as president or CEO of an agency; but, rather about entrusting the welfare, viability and health of  a school  in the hands of  a few privileged and well respected, committed  and motivated adults.

The Onboarding Process:

Once the results of the Board Inventory were collected, collated and analyzed, they served as an invaluable  foundation or basis upon which to build an effective onboarding process,

An  onboarding program  by definition is essentially an orientation phase for board members and represents one of the important foundational aspects for developing an effective board. In fact, by definition it brings new board member “on board “in an effective and seamless fashion.

In order to ensure the viability, impact and effectiveness of the school board, it is essential that  new board members are engaged in a well- developed and carefully planned onboarding process.

During onboarding, the new board member is offered the opportunity to obtain a “big picture” understanding of the board and its role, his/her particular role on that continuum;  as well as the finite aspects  and details necessary to become an effective school board member.

Like any discipline, in order to understand, appreciate and embrace ones role in an organization, one must first have a clear understanding regarding his/her obligations, expectations and demands of the organization

More often than not, this important orientation phase is taken for granted and is not given primacy when bringing new board members on to a board.

Just imagine, trying to learn how to fly a plane with little to no experience or understanding  regarding the plane’s navigational system or for the rules, laws and standards of aviation.

The amount of time and energy devoted and dedicated  to onboarding, has a very positive impact on the effectiveness and success of the board member and on the board as a whole., It is for this reason that a growing number of school boards are now devoting a considerable amount of time, energy and resources to the “onboarding process”.

Additional aspects  of effective onboarding include, teaming up or partnering with a board mentor or coach, working on  several board committees or task forces, problem solving exercises and one-on-one consultations with the board president, chair and/or head of school.

The amount of time, energy and resources a board spends on the onboarding process is invaluable. To be sure, there is no substitute for this important process, irrespective of how experienced  a new board member may be.

Board Responsibilities, Obligations and Requirements

As  we know, every school is unique. As such, each school board is mandated to work or operate within the boundaries and limits or framework  of the school’s culture, mission, vision or leadership strengths and weakness.

Their are school boards that function as high performing governing entities; there are  those that function well, but are not very unique or exceptional; and there are those boards which exist on paper, but are totally ineffective in their ability to govern, set policy, fundraising or develop a shared vision or mission.

The goal and objective of school boards, must be to serve as the official governing body for the school. To this end,  the board is responsible for the fiscal viability of the school, formulation of school policies, fundraising and performance evaluation of the head of school. 

Beyond these broad governing  responsibilities, boards  are involved in school volunteer opportunities, representing the school at public venues, leveraging communal support, and liaising with the school parent body.

It is essential that the board develop, review and amend as required, it’s By-Laws. These By-laws  contain specific requirements relating to term limits, criteria for board selection and recruitment, maximum and minimum number of required board members, the definition of a quorum, a description of various working board committees and subcommittees, board member responsibilities, and any other information which is relevant to the board’s governing responsibilities, requirements and accountability.

Creating a Board Leadership Model

As we know, many schools refer to their board members as “leaders”. In these select cases, the term “leader” is often used in order to describe the job or responsibility of a board member. Its is important however to keep in mind that not every board member “leads” is a “leader. or has the skill-set to lead. But,nevertheless the board member is often called upon by the school and its community to “lead”.

At the risk of getting hung-up on semantics, the true role of the board member is to lead or aspire to lead through her/his position on the board. The board member’s leadership capacity, impact and effectiveness  is the result of many factors including personality, training, experience, and the perception of others  (being led) regarding the leader, just to name a few,

It is for this very reason, and possibly others, that board leadership onboarding, training and development are some of the most critically important challenges in developing effective and high impact board leadership.

When developing or designing a strong board governance leadership model, it is imperative that the following characteristics, indices and attributes be included in the mix.

They may include, but no be limited to the following:

  • high levels of  Board member diversity within the framework of the school’s mission, philosophy and hashkafa;
  • the engagement of a strong board chair or president who is respected by his/her peers;
  • transparency of the school’s financial and legal status and requirements;
  • trustworthiness both internally and in the community;
  • commitment to continuous and ongoing board self assessment and performance evaluation (including an annual  board 360 evaluation);
  • continued desire and commitment to engage the professional management and leadership of the school in respectful dialogue, conversation and problem solving;
  • outstanding board member attendance at all board meetings and school board-related events;
  • high levels of emotional intelligence including empathy;
  • purposefulness;
  • ability and capacity to problem-solve for the sole benefit of the institution;and
  • a commitment to governance excellence and best practices.

In addition the the above, the school board as a whole must transform itself into an instrumentality that is mission-driven and mission-centered; committed to strategic planning, leadership development; professionalism; collaboration, resiliency and a board which places the school’s growth, welfare and development at the core of it mission, value proposition, purpose and raison detre.

Ultimately, the board of the school, whether it be a Jewish day school or a  yeshiva, must develop itself into a “leadership” organization which is respected by members of the school community, as well as by the community at large.

Finally, we must always be mindful that there are very few schools of excellence that have weak or ineffective boards. But, there are many mediocre schools that have poor performing and ineffective boards.

The result of this reality should be obvious. We must strive to create strong and impactful school boards…not just on paper, bu,t in practice and in real time. This formula for success may at times appear to be obvious, but our true challenge individually and collectively is making it happen.

At the end of the day, “its all about leadership”.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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