Foster Board Objectivity—Avoid Subjectivity

Vol. 15 No. 5

trustees eletter vol15 no5 subjective

Trustees are human beings, and from a strategic viewpoint, human nature can impede or disrupt a Board’s key functions. One term that captures much of this problematic dimension of human nature is subjectivity.

For Board members, subjectivity may lead to an overlying personalized way of seeing organizational purpose, envisioning the school’s future, and determining planning priorities. Subjectivity can easily undermine the strategic thinking needed to preserve school mission, ensure organizational stability, and lead a school into the future. Increases in tension or anxiety on the Board may contribute to increased subjectivity.

The Committee on Trustees must assume a leadership role in addressing these manifestations of subjectivity in a professional, effective way. Objectivity—the capacity to see things as they truly are, outside the “filters” of perceptual, interpretive, and reactive tendencies with which we experience most of our lives—is the goal.

The committee’s leadership role can simultaneously lower anxiety while increasing objectivity through fostering strategic thinking. Learned “habits” are the essence of organized culture. Strategic action requires objective thinking, and objective thinking informs strategic action. Strategic culture evolves from the mutual and reciprocal influences of objective thinking and acting.

Create and perpetuate an objective Board culture that fulfills its own mission by leading members to focus objectively on the following three levels.

1. Oneself and one’s own subjectivities.

As a regular practice in the cultivation and orientation of new Trustees, ask Trustees to be mindful of subjective feelings that may exist. In preparation for meetings, and during discussions, emphasize:

  • hard data and other facts, whenever available;
  • defined terms (e.g., what we mean when we say “diversity” or “salary levels”);
  • formally tabulated, surveyed opinions (not just guesses about what constituent groups might think); and
  • reference to “strategic memory”—use of Board and other documents to establish clarity about the facts behind past decisions and, therefore, strategic continuity in the school.

One way to illustrate the challenges to objective thinking is to use fictional case studies of Board dilemmas. Consider the follow examples.

  • A Trustee who is the parent of a third-grader might want to expand the K-8 school through 12th grade so her child can continue at the school through graduation. But she must fully set aside those wishes as the Board deliberates on this strategic matter.
  • A Board member tends to focus on what is familiar to him and well inside his comfort zone (e.g., finance, construction, fundraising). He must consciously stretch himself to participate thoughtfully in discussions outside those areas.
  • A Trustee may not “like” a certain other Board member (or even the School Head), but that personal reaction cannot cloud her thinking about the Board business at hand.

2. The school.

ISM has published a comprehensive, self-scoring instrument for assessing the status of several specific, strategic predictors of a school’s sustained stability (the ISM Stability Markers™). A Trustee’s thoughtful response to each assessment item demonstrates one expression of strategic thinking at its best. Respondents must couple their evaluative deliberations on each item with “online monitoring” of their own subjectivities as each is encountered.

For example, in assessing the Parent Education Plan, a Trustee must focus on facts: the existence of a written document, clarity about its oversight, frequency of usage of communication vehicles, and proportionate participation of constituents. Such a focus bypasses feeling-based judgments like, “I think the school does a good (or poor) job of communicating with parents.”

3. The Board itself.

The issue raised in the Stability Marker example above (assessing “strategic-ness” of the Board) is directly and comprehensively addressed in ISM’s Strategic Board Assessment with its structured instrument for evaluating Board function in several areas.

Candor in response depends on objectivity—seeing Board functioning as it is.

Objective assessment will include objective responses to these questions: Do we charge every committee? If not, how many? Do we do it every year? If not, how often? Are the charges for all committees written? If not, how many are? How explicit are the charges? The individual and collective Trustee activity around making just this one assessment, when characterized by objectivity, implicitly contributes to a strategic culture, an ongoing sense that “this is the way we do business.”

With your Committee on Trustee’s leadership of Board culture, Trustees will come to “police themselves” over time. To reinforce the regular practice of objectivity monitoring, plan to include structured discussion or even written ratings of Board objectivity in the annual or biannual Board evaluation process.

Help set a strategic course by making the terms “objective” and “subjective” part of Board discourse, especially during strategic planning (and in preparation for it). But also keep these terms in mind when stepping back from school-related issues to reflect on Board function itself.

Additional ISM resources
The Source for Trustees Vol. 15 No. 1 5 Strategic Planning Detours You Must Avoid
The Source for Trustees Vol. 14 No. 2 Remedies for a ‘Fractured’ Board
The Source for Trustees Vol. 12 No. 3 Enhance Future Strategic Planning Efforts

Additional ISM resources for Gold Members
I&P Vol. 39 No. 9 Strategic Board Steps: Revitalize Your Committee on Trustees
I&P Vol. 39 No. 8 The ISM Stability Markers: The Fourth Iteration
I&P Vol. 31 No. 1 Board Evaluation and the Nature of the Committee on Trustees

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