I received a call from a board president recently. “I can’t figure out what is going on with the board,” he said. “No one seems engaged. It’s like they are going through the motions. Attendance is poor. Several times this year we have had to cancel regular meetings due to lack of a quorum. We were late with the evaluation of the superintendent due to lack of participation. I just don’t know how to fix it.”

The issues on this particular board are symptoms of a board culture in need of change.

But what exactly do we mean by “culture?” Edgar H. Schein, former professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and notable for his work in group process and organizational culture, says culture is defined as, “A pattern of basic assumptions–invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.”

In more colloquial terms, an organization’s culture reflects the values and behaviors that members engage in. As former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher once said, “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.”

In most cases, board culture is a positive entity, developed through good governance policies and practices implemented and attended throughout the years. Sometimes, however, a board may find itself in a position where the culture has shifted and needs some attention.

The structure of school boards, with three-year terms and typically one-third of the seats up for election every year, provides a recipe for a culture that can change – either negatively or positively—fairly frequently. After all, new members may be consistently moving in and out of the organization. Couple this with some politics, inadequate board leadership, or a misunderstanding of a board member’s role, and a board might find itself in a struggle to adapt.

The symptoms of a board in need of a culture shift may range from a lack of direction for the district, frequent changes in administration, or board member apathy, to more adversarial behaviors including personality conflicts and factionalism on the board and lack of confidentiality.

Doug Eadie, a nationally prominent thought leader who has helped to shape the fields of nonprofit and public leadership and management, described the consequences of poor board culture in a 2009 article, “The Cultured Club,” which appeared in American School Board Journal. Highly adversarial boards or those characterized by uncivil interactions results in emotional distress which can take its toll over time, according to Eadie. It also triggers poor decision-making practices which ultimately affect the school district.

“We’re a dysfunctional board,” is a comment I hear sometimes in my work with boards of education. I ask them to tell me what it is that makes them feel as though their board is dysfunctional. The answers have varied, but often include micromanagement, infighting, and lack of leadership. In more than one instance, I have spoken with board members who are eager to leave when their terms expire. “This isn’t what I signed up for,” said one member. “The constant finger-pointing, chastising and arguing at board meetings is wearing me down. And the board, in its current state, is no longer effective. No one is looking at education.”

We Have a Problem So, what happens when a board finds itself in need of a culture shift? First, it is important to recognize that “Houston, we have a problem.” Many groups, at some point, have a dysfunctional period or a time where they have had to address the group’s culture. There is no cause for shame in admitting that your board needs to change. The board needs to recognize that it cannot be effective moving forward in that state. What, exactly, are you trying to fix? What does the board need to do differently in order to positively impact the culture?

There is no one recipe for change but there are resources available to boards that can help them initiate a culture shift. A board self-evaluation may be a good starting point to identify the root causes of the problem.
You may want to bring in an outside facilitator to assist in the conversation and the development of the plan. Your NJSBA field service representative can serve as the facilitator in team building and developing management objectives for working together as well as other types of programs.

Depending on the issue, you may want to utilize your in-house professionals — your superintendent may have some suggestions and may be able to assist. Depending on the issue, your business administrator may be a subject matter expert and may be able to provide some knowledge needed by the board in particular areas. A word of caution though, the board is responsible to police itself. Do not make the mistake of putting your administrators in an enforcement role or a role that may compromise their relationship with the board, which is their employer.

Address the Problem’s Cause, Not the Symptoms Develop a plan, implement it and monitor it. Ensure you address the cause of the problem, not just the symptoms. I worked with a board several months ago and, at their request, presented a workshop on board roles and responsibilities. It was evident during the workshop there were other issues, but when I left, everyone was smiling and talking. Fast forward four months and I received another call. Things were worse than ever, could I come back? Although the first workshop addressed some of the symptoms, it did not get to the root cause, which was a seeming lack of leadership on the board. This time, we got to the root cause, developed a plan and a method of monitoring it moving forward.

It is important that you revisit governance policies for the board to ensure they meet the standards today for good board performance. The development of a good new board member orientation program can also help to provide a smooth transition for new members to get up to speed quickly with district business. Make sure the strategic plan and district’s goals are a part of the orientation process. A board member mentorship program might provide new members with the opportunity to ask questions about how things work on the board.

Keep your expectations realistic. Change is a process, not an event. It will not happen overnight. A constant “culture check” should be a part of all board work.

Theresa Lewis is an NJSBA field service representative who serves boards of education in Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Gloucester and Salem counties.