trustees, boards, parents association committee, membership, candidates, head of school, leadership, governance,

The Right Trustees

A couple of renegade trustees—sometimes only ONE—can turn an effective board into a contentious, unsupportive, parsimonious, or a dysfunctional one; often the board turns into all of these. So how can you screen new trustees effectively? And is it possible to get rid of the “bad seeds.”

Screening requires both opportunity and discipline. I strongly recommend adding potential trustees to board and/or parents association committees where you can determine how well they play with others. It’s not a good idea to let any potential trustee know you have him or her in your sights for membership; the person will assume that being in the waiting room is a guaranteed precursor to an offer. A year or two of service on supporting committees is a great way to test the collaborative and supportive qualities you need in board members.  

Discipline is sometimes harder to come by. A common mistake is naming someone to the board for their “potential,” either for their giving or their expertise. If someone has not been especially generous before being asked to join the board, it is unlikely that board service is going to change their behavior. In fact it’s inevitable that they will see some of the warts of the school emerge in trustee meetings and it may even sour them. Conversely, someone who has been generous as a parent or alum is likely to remain so as a trustee, especially if they see the need for giving. Expertise is helpful but it can always be solicited without trustee membership attached. If a board candidate has expertise as well as a collaborative and supportive history with the school, all the better. But expertise should be a bonus and not an essential quality. 

Discipline requires a process within the committee on trustees whereby no one feels the need to act too quickly. Putting a brand-new community member on a board is always risky and the committee needs to take its time, at least a couple of years of quiet screening, before offering membership. I recommend a layered approach where potential candidates are quietly moved closer to consideration as they become better known. And candidates who prove unsuited should be quietly dropped from consideration. 

Removing a difficult board member is tough and requires strong leadership of the Chair and Executive Committee. Inevitably, feelings are hurt and whatever support that person lent will evaporate. However, the trade-offs need to be weighed and considered carefully. Is avoiding the alienation of that one person worth the time, energy, and good spirits he or she saps from the board? And what effect is that person’s presence having on the head and other trustees? If board meetings are contentious or dreaded events, it’s unlikely that people are going to want to participate in governance.  

While much has been written about generative boards and good board practice, my opinion is that not enough thought has gone into board membership. The wrong mix of people isn’t going to be generative, supportive, or able to practice “good” for the school, but the right mix almost always creates progress for a school and harmony within the board and with the head.