The Board Awakens | Jill Healey

11 May 2021

Do your eyes glaze over when you hear the word governance?

In his recent CSA blog, Daniel Pampuch, CEO of Christian Schools Australia shared some of his reflections on governance and the reality that board governance is the ‘Highest Leadership of All’. As I read Daniel’s blog, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey as Principal and what I would do differently if I had my time again. Daniel stated that if he had his time again, he would work harder on governance approaches.

It is nearly 7 years since I retired as Executive Principal from a large multi-campus Christian school after a long tenure. Since then, I have had the privilege of serving on a variety of different boards including the board of another very large multi-campus school, all of which has given me fresh insight into what effective school governance looks like in reality. May I take a little of your time to share some of my post principalship observations, that is, what I have learnt and continue to learn about serving on the board of a flourishing school. To do this, I want to present a real life scenario I have recently had to deal with as a board member on an independent school board.

 

Scenario:
"The principal has advised the board of his/her intention to retire.
The school need to appoint a new principal!
The board awakens.

 

So how does a board prepare itself for such a daunting task?  Surely, that task in itself warrants divine insight and high functioning, capable directors who know and understand their mission and the school community they serve; prepared and equipped to fulfill their role and responsibilities incumbent with the most important appointment in the school.   We all know what happens when boards get this crucial appointment wrong!

The successful appointment of a new principal begins well before the board is even aware that the incumbent is about to leave the organisation. A successful appointment is much more likely to occur if the board has established structures, systems and processes that support effective governance enabling the organisation to grow its vision and mission and flourish.  Achieving this end requires intentional strategic planning, time, resources and commitment.


Some questions that come to mind:

Has a substantial allowance been made in the school budget for board professional development to cover all training costs incurred by directors?
What governance structures, policies and practices need to be embedded in the board culture?
What leadership does a school board need to have in place to ensure that the school goes from strength to strength and flourishes in the next season of leadership?

This particular school began in the 1980’s in response to a call for Christian education similar to many of our CSA schools.   About 4 years ago, the board (prompted by the principal) recognised that the College Constitution, which had served the school very well for the past 30 years, required careful review and modernisation in line with legislative changes, governance requirements and the teaching and learning environment in which it now operates.  Many of the directors had provided outstanding service to the school for 20+ years and were nearing the end of their tenure.  The board was already functioning at a high level, but it recognised and understood that changes to its systems, policies and practices were necessary to enable it to continue lead the school into the future with strong and effective governance built on Christian principles and values. I have learnt so much from my involvement in this school board’s renewal process.


Step 1:

The first step was to form a Constitution subcommittee which worked in consultation with a legal firm to develop a new Constitution which endorsed and deepened the school’s Christian foundations and established a new board structure that would provide a framework for the board to fulfil its strategic, educational, fiduciary and compliance responsibilities. After 18 months of consultation with stakeholders, the new Constitution was adopted enabling robust structures, systems and processes to be put in place for the school to go from strength to strength and flourish into the next generation. A roadmap for transitioning from the old to the new constitution was prepared.


Step 2:

The next significant step involved appointing board subcommittees responsible for specific governance areas and developing Terms of Reference for each.  Each subcommittee, chaired by a director, comprised other directors, company members and board advisors. The subcommittees included, but not limited to: Nominations, Finance & Audit, Risk and Compliance, Community Engagement, Learning Environments & Property, Principal Appraisal.


Initially, the Nominations subcommittee undertook much of the heavy lifting in leading the transition process. It had the critical responsibility of ongoing recruitment and induction of new directors, company members and board advisors to ensure that new appointees had the necessary personal characteristics, skills and professional experience to contribute to subcommittees.  A member of the school community may have a genuine heart for Christian education and put up their hand to serve on the board, but in the current climate, new directors also need to be able to contribute professional knowledge and skills as determined by a board skill matrix.

Does this sound like a huge amount of work? Yes, it takes intentionality, time and commitment, especially from the school executive and the board chair, but the end result is well worth the effort!

 

Feeling Frustrated?

Are you a principal who is so frustrated by the ineffectiveness of your board that you have effectively pushed it to the side and got on with the job?  Please read on. 

The principal is in a position to play a significant role in supporting board renewal by:

 

Ensuring that a substantial allowance is made in the school budget for board professional development to cover all training costs incurred by directors.
Developing a strong relationship of trust and respect with the board chair – the principal plays a key role in developing and maintaining this relationship.

 

Bringing to the Board’s attention the names of professionals within the school community who may be able to contribute expertise to subcommittees.
Ensuring that a substantial allowance is made in the school budget for board professional development to cover all training costs incurred by directors.

Principals, if you genuinely want your school to flourish beyond your tenure, then seize the unique opportunity you have to exert significant influence on your board’s development.  It is in the best interest of the school and your personal performance to foster a board/principal relationship of deep trust and open communication that supports and sustains mutual school improvement and leadership development.

The school mentioned above is currently in the process of appointing a new Principal following the highly successful leadership of the past principal over several decades!  Despite the challenges this presents, the board is now in a strong place to make a successful appointment.  Following the appointment, the next major task of the board is the onboarding and induction of the new principal – this doesn’t happen by osmosis! Develop a clear process for developing a robust induction plan that includes: open communication with the incumbent, mentoring, coaching, building networks, review and regular feedback.

There is a whole other blog to be written about the role of the company secretary or board secretary.  The use of the term ‘secretary’ has the potential to imply little more than ‘making cups of tea’, but this critical role doesn’t involve ‘making cups of tea and cleaning up after board dinners’!!

Schools often delegate the role of company secretary to the principal’s executive assistant who has little governance training, expertise or time to commitment to this essential role.  I encourage schools to invest in the appointment of a suitably qualified and experienced person whose primary task is to provide corporate administration and support for the board.  Such a strategic appointment has the potential to revolutionise the board and allow time and space for directors to genuinely discern God’s leading and direction.

Now is the time for boards to prepare, equip and be ready for the day when the principal announces he/she is moving on!  Being a board director requires significant time and commitment. It is not a badge of honour to be on numerous boards if you are unable be actively involved in the work of governance which are part and parcel of board service.

If done well, good governance not only ensures the health and life of the school, but also sustains the senior leadership for the long term."
Dr Daniel Pampuch

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