School boards are neglecting succession planning at the very time that they need it most. The recession of 2008 tightened purse strings to the point that boards now focus almost exclusively on economizing. At the same time, the need for succession planning has been growing since 2003, when the first cohort of baby boomers started retiring. That trend is certain to continue, as the youngest boomers are now hitting their mid-50s. It is also tempting to avoid thinking about future transitions since elected board membership cannot be managed with much precision. A strong, balanced board is too important to be left entirely to chance. Intentional governance requires careful succession planning. Following this checklist will bring your school board up to speed.
1. Take stock of present talent.
Your present board brings a lot to the table. Alas, each of those board members will one day rotate off the board, resign, retire, move or die. To know what qualities future board members will need, you must first recognize fully what makes up current board profile.
Vocational expertise is the easiest asset to identify in each board member. The CPA knows how to create a budget, the PR professional can manage strategic communications, and the attorney knows the ins and outs of labor negotiations. It is not difficult to create a skills matrix charting the knowledge and experience that each current board member contributes – and which capabilities the current board lacks.
Intangible assets are harder to see, but no less important. One board member might bring with him extensive personal networks. Another might excel at motivating others on a team. One might command the respect of absolutely everybody in the community. The longest-serving member will have an invaluable institutional memory. All these personal assets strengthen the board.
Finally, each board member represents certain interest groups and demographic blocs. Studies show that retaining a broader base of such representation increases community buy-in and brings multiple perspectives to board business, resulting in better decisions. Certain conspicuous filters will apply to every community. Interest groups will likely include business owners and working parents; demographic sectors will be sorted by race, gender and social class.
Particular communities, however, will have unique characteristics that warrant more nuanced diversity on the board. In some predominantly Christian small towns, a person’s “church home” will factor high in others’ identification with them, so multiple churches need to be represented. Dog breeders or rose growers may constitute a meaningful social (and even political) unit in other districts.
Today’s perfect mix of knowledge, personalities and group affiliations might not work tomorrow. Forces already in motion (like a plant closing or the opening of a new mall) could signal predictable demographic and economic shifts in the coming years. Identifying trends will help you find what you need when you need it.
2. Anticipate future transitions.
Person by person, each board member will one day leave, taking his personal assets with him. Term limits predict when each member will rotate off the board and when others will come up for reelection. With that knowledge, the board can generate a timeline of what qualities will be needed at predictable moments in the future. The idea is not to find a clone of each departing director, but to keep the combination of overall board qualities complementary and representative.
Unplanned transitions pose a greater challenge. The best boards expect the unexpected, thinking through sudden leadership gaps in advance. They might identify an interim substitute for each director. That person could be called on to knowledgeably pick up where the departing director left off until an election is held.
3. Build a deep bench of future candidates.
While laser-sharp formation of a future board may be within reach of an appointed board, school boards have less control over their own replacements. That’s no reason to stop trying. School boards can still take an active lead in recruiting and grooming their future replacements.
Strong board leaders stay on the lookout for exceptional talent in the community every day of the year. When they notice a person with the requisite strengths, they can encourage his future leadership. It might start with asking for his help on an ad hoc citizens committee. If the prospect’s skills shine and his interest grows, he may participate more and more, finally running for a board seat.
The Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District (HEBISD) of Bedford, Texas, has formalized the grooming process with considerable success. Since its founding in 2010, its Board Leadership Academy has trained 90 community members. Four of those graduates have been elected to the school board. Many others serve on district committees, and academy alumni are well represented in a foundation that helps with school board elections.
The board seeks prospective members by considering needed personal strengths as well as representation across multiple demographic groups. (More than 70 languages are spoken in Bedford!) To find these candidates, board members insert themselves into listening sessions, service projects or recreational opportunities in areas where desired constituents are likely to be in attendance – be they working parents, say, or gay professionals or retired attorneys. As board members meet promising persons, they encourage them to apply to the leadership institute.
Meeting one day a month, the institute introduces its students to all aspects of school business, such as district priorities and board duties. “We recognized that, in the community, people didn’t understand what our job was,” says School Board President Ellen Jones. “It’s an opportunity to empower people to be ambassadors for us.”
Graduates become strong school supporters and leaders. Steven Chapman reports that this level of understanding results in widespread support as participants tell their friends, neighbors and colleagues about what’s going on in the school system. Minority representation on the board has increased. Twenty-one-year school board veteran Faye Beaulieu traces that success to the institute. “We wouldn’t have gotten there if we had waited for them to run for the board,” she reports. “We now look like our community.”
The institute earned HEBISD an NSBA Magna Grand Prize in the over-20,000 category. The NSBA regards the intentional leadership program as exemplary. “You can’t control who runs for the board,” says Beaulieu. “That is not how democracy works. But when you are in a candidate forum, and some of our leadership academy people are speaking, it becomes obvious who is knowledgeable.”
4. Manage transitions to pass on expertise.
After a school board election, ideal onboarding will include shadowing an outgoing board member before he completes his term. Departing members should also write for their successors crucial contacts and processes. Ideally, board members who retire stay on as ex-officio members for a full year.
Deliberate succession planning makes intentional governance a reality for school boards. A school board can exert influence on future leadership transitions by assessing present board strengths, anticipating future transitions, building a cadre of future prospects and managing transitions. Annual board retreats provide a perfect opportunity to review and update the succession plan.