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10 Ways Your Board Can be More Generative

By April 23, 2024No Comments

In the last two entries, I made the case that boards need to be more generative. Generative governance is focused on sense-making, framing the work of the organization around essential questions of the school’s mission and values. This type of governance helps boards do the three things it must do well: identify the most important issues, engage in thoughtful deliberation about those issues, and then make sound decisions to ensure meaningful results. 

The problem largely emanates from identifying the critical issues. If boards latch on to peripheral (operational) problems, the opportunity cost is significant. Boards meet infrequently, and thus time is limited. Generative governance is not merely about talking about key questions, it is about changing the mindset of the board. In the boardroom, board members are not executives, nor are they school employees. They are trustees. It is easy to miss this, which is why Richard Chait, author of Governance as Leadership, spends so much time on the “problem of purpose.” Being very clear about the board’s purpose will shape the structure, form, and content of the board’s activity. This is what generative governance is really about.  

Generative governance is so important because:

  • It is how a board can add the greatest value to an organization; indeed, generative governance is most valuable because it is work ONLY the board can do. 
  • It is more engaging and intellectually challenging to trustees than traditional modes and models of governance.
  • It makes the best use of the board’s time and talent. Spending hours reporting and updating, meandering in operational matters, is frustrating, wasteful, and boring.
  • It provides the head of school with the collective mind of the board without inserting itself into operations. Chait says, “Generative work conveys the gift of helping executives see things better, improving their perception and perspective so that they are in a better position to invent new goals, to discard old goals, to better see problems and to discard problems that really are not that important in the long run.”
  • It is less dependent on technical knowledge and allows board members to contribute without extensive educational expertise. 
  • It focuses the board’s time on clearly defining who the school is with respect to the most critical issues the school is facing. In this sense, it is enacting the board’s primary role as mission guardians, trustees of the school’s integrity and future.

If the reasons for becoming a more generative board are compelling, but it isn’t clear how to become more generative, here are 10 things your board can do to get started:

1. Brainstorm the essential questions of your school.

Ask your head (who should be adept at generative thinking!) and his executive team to generate a list of questions they see as crucial to the school. Use that as a baseline for the board to dig in, edit, modify, and add to the list. Here are some examples of topics and questions:

School Culture – What are the distinctives of a classical, Christian school culture? How are those distinctives uniquely and particularly expressed at our school? What would it look like if our school culture was thriving? 

Thick Christian Institution – What is the ideal vision for a thick Christian institution/school? What should be the feel and ethos of a thick Christian school? What beliefs and practices would characterize a thick Christian school? What are the essential external/cultural/community commitments of a thick Christian school?

2. Meet outside the boardroom. 

When your board meets in a more casual setting the conversation will naturally be more creative and generative. Boards tend to be locked into tight structures that actually stifle rather than stimulate good conversation. Put the agenda aside, serve some good food and wine, take the questions mentioned above, and facilitate a great dialogue. Classical Christian school boards should be good at this! Give it a go. As a side benefit, BoardSource reports that boards that meet outside the boardroom have significantly higher trust levels than boards that do not. 

3. Assign your more generative thinking board members to facilitate conversation. 

Your visionaries, if you have them on your board, will be the ones most excited about this move to more generative thinking. Allow them to use their expertise. Have them take time to frame the questions and facilitate the conversation when it is time to do so.

4. Educate your board about generative governance. 

Assign your Governance Committee Chair and/or head of school to present to the board what generative governance is and why it is important. Read Governance as Leadership as a board and make it part of your onboarding process. Look for generative board members, not just fiduciary members.

5. Schedule time in your agenda reserved for generative conversations. 

If you do not schedule the time, it will likely not happen. Frontload the questions ahead of time so everyone can think about them. If you need to, end the official meeting time and then begin the generative portion. This will allow everyone to relax, speak freely, and shed Robert’s Rules of Order mentality. 

6. Take 2-3 items on your strategic plan and analyze the degree to which you are approaching them generatively. 

Look at your strategic plan. Have you identified the most important questions and issues for each initiative? Have you really worked through the most critical questions related to your school’s values, mission, and identity? Did you focus more on how than why?  

7. Silent starts. 

Begin your generative discussion time with a few minutes for each board member to write on an index card the most critical question relevant to the issue at hand. At the end of discussions give each board member five minutes to write down any thoughts or questions that were not expressed.

8. Reflect on the school’s history and growth through a generative lens.

Boards are composed of smart people. They are problem solvers and doers. They know how systems work and want to bring resolution to issues. However, be careful you are not rushing to solutions when the problems are not understood in light of the essential questions. The board’s competencies and confidence can be an obstacle if there is no humility, patience, and a willingness to go deeper. 

9. Arm your board with a bank of generative questions

Here are some questions that Chait and others suggest: What three adjectives or short phrases best characterize your school?  What will be most strikingly different about this school in five years? What do you hope will be most strikingly different about this school in five years? On that list, which would you rank at the top? Five years from now, what will this school community think was the most important legacy of this board? What will be different about this board and how it governs ten years from now? How would we respond if a donor offered us $2,000,000 tomorrow? What has a competitor done successfully that we would not choose to do as a matter of principle? What headline about our school would we most want to see at the end of this school year? Where is the grossest discrepancy between what we say we do and what we actually do?

10. Conduct case studies and simulations. 

Considering scenarios that the board has not yet confronted allows you to get a feel for navigating ambiguous situations with generative thinking at the forefront. For example, smaller schools often form stewardship policies in real-time as issues arise rather than preemptively. This is risky because you don’t want your naming policy to be formed around a particular donor and dollar amount. You want to form your policies on principles and values that are forged out of healthy deliberation, not on whether your gym will be built or not.

All of these recommendations are simple to implement. Take some time with your board chair and discuss ways in which you can move towards a more generative governance model.

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