Board Climate Matters

By Doug Eadie

You can’t believe how negative our board’s culture is,” a participant in my governance workshop for superintendents and school board members observed several months ago. “I’d really like to know how we can turn things around, because the constant bickering and rude comments are wearing us all out emotionally, and we’re building up quite a backlog of unaddressed issues, to boot.”

The board member went on to say: “Frankly, it’s not much fun being on the board. Actually, it’s becoming pretty depressing, and I’m wondering if I’ll run again when my term is up.”

Sound familiar? This isn’t an unusual lament in my workshops. I frequently hear about dysfunctional board “cultures,” and I’m often asked for practical guidance on building a positive one. My initial response is always, as it was on this most recent occasion, to ask for a definition of “culture.”

It never takes long to establish that “culture” is an amorphous concept that’s hard to get your arms around, and that it means lots of things to different people. For example, to the participants in this particular workshop it meant “what it feels like on this board,” “our shared values,” “how we treat each other in our deliberations,” “our guidelines for interacting with each other,” and “how we go about doing our governing work,” to mention just a few of the responses.

Without trying to pin the concept down precisely, let’s just say that a board’s culture reflects the beliefs, principles, and attitudes about working together in the governing enterprise. We know a positive board culture when we see it: Members work through complex issues in a harmonious fashion and treat one other with respect.

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