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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Fighting the Monsters Inside the School Boardroom

If we are in the business of school governance, most of us have been accustomed to the work of Richard P. Chait et al on Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Even if our school does not fall under this particular fiscal umbrella, there is something universally helpful in the way this book delineates the role of governance in terms of a board's fiduciary, strategic, and generative responsibilities.

At its most basic level, fiduciary responsibility (if we focus only on this aspect of the work for a moment) can be understood as looking after the financial and capital assets of the organisation. But, here, I would like to suggest that sometimes the most valuable and most ill-treated asset that a school possesses is its Experience. After all, a school's brand reputation, the critical bedrock word of mouth that is the foundation of any effective marketing strategy, its ability to attract and retain students and teachers, all flows from the Experience that it offers. And yet, all too often, it is devoid of attention or investment, lacking when it comes to strategic leadership or intentional design, and altogether left to chance.

So, particularly in these turbulent times when school boards are wondering how their school can stand out in increasingly competitive markets, one of the most important questions on the agenda might actually be this:

Alongside looking after the money and the capital, what are we doing to protect and invest in the Experience of school for the students, their families, and the employees in our community?

The point is, perhaps, an obvious one. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that there is a reason why this line of questioning doesn't always get the air time that it deserves inside the boardroom.

And it has to do with the monsters. Five of them, to be precise. Each one with an uncanny gift for finding their way into the school boardroom.

Illustration of the monsters

Each of these monsters, of course, are fictional creations of my own imagination and have never actually taken physical expression. But, if you happen to recognise any of them, it might be worth taking a minute to think about how to shut out their menacing influence on our ability to be effective guardians of the Experience of school.

So, without further ado, allow me to introduce the five villains of this story.

  1. The Eraser. The Eraser is blind to institutional memory and the experiences of those who came before. The Eraser sneaks up on you and whispers in your ear that wisdom begins the day that you joined the Board.

  2. The Personaliser. The Personaliser tells you that everyone else's experiences of the school is just as you experience it. This monster is dangerous precisely because it resists empathy, rarely listens, and is blind to the possibility that others might experience school differently.

  3. The Terminator. The Terminator enters the boardroom as a hero, promising to deliver a dramatic reduction in costs. The problem, however, is that sometimes this can only be achieved by constantly chipping away at the experience and any "frills" that are considered non-essential. The Terminator invariably lacks a nuanced understanding of culture or where true value lies.

  4. The Duplicator. The Duplicator has one simple goal: to replicate an experience from another school. It is blind to context and will tell you that it's okay to create a carbon copy of what you saw across the street or across the sea. The Duplicator is obsessed with the competition and believes that standing out is singing the same sound, but louder.

  5. The Simplifier. Not to be outdone by his fellow monsters, the Simplifier resists complexity and consistently tempts unsuspecting trustees to make decisions based on a one-dimensional and superficial understanding of the Experience. It is supremely confident in its knowledge, but ultimately pays little attention to detail. Under his spell, experiences are often half-baked, disconnected, and hard to sustain. And when things go wrong, the Simplifier will often be the first monster to leave the room, blaming everyone else on the way out.

The story of a school, of course, is never altogether subject to the individual wiles of a particular villain. And, you're unlikely to ever actually see one of these monsters walking into a boardroom. But, for those of us who are entrusted with looking after the experience of school, it might just be worth considering if we sometimes allow these tendencies to emerge.

Or at least investing in a monster-busting machine.

Illustration by Dave Low, probably the only person who can actually visualise the monsters inside my head.



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