Building Trust With Your Board

By Sharon W. Cox



Trust is the bedrock of all successful relationships, the foundation of a culture that supports risk taking and innovation in continuous improvement efforts. A board that trusts its superintendent acts as a shield against the special interests of the community and advocates for the work of the district.

Superintendents who trust their boards appreciate the insight and perspective of members who support their efforts to help all children learn at high levels, obtain funding and build the capacity to implement adopted strategies.

The relationship between the board and superintendent straddles the personal/professional line. Most board members are good people who want to make a positive difference for the children in their community. They understand that building trust is not the same thing as making friends. Building trust requires respectful and honest communications, follow-through on promises and a demonstrated interest in and consideration of others’ viewpoints.

Obviously, factors that complicate the relationship between the superintendent and board also complicate efforts to establish trust.

If board members do not understand the role of the board and their own responsibilities, they do not understand yours.

Turf battles preclude trust. Describing this situation as awkward is a wonderful example of understatement. How does a superintendent tell the members of the board that employs him or her that they do not know their job?

An artful approach is necessary. Identify an activity that interests your board and requires them to discuss and agree on roles and responsibilities. It can be planning an orientation for new board members, aligning the board’s work plan with the district’s plan, creating a self assessment process for the board or establishing a process for communicating to stakeholders about how the board and superintendent work together to achieve the community’s vision for student success.

Enlist a facilitator who understands the underlying issue of trust and will guide the discussion to ensure everyone understands the differences between governance and management.

Communicating with multiple board members takes time away from managing the district.

If you do not establish the habit of regularly communicating with all board members, it won’t be long before you are wondering why you never got a heads up on a new business item or resolution. Nothing erodes trust like poor communication. Of course, you need to find the balance that allows you to have effective personal/professional relationships and accomplish your work.

Work with your board to identify protocols that promote effective and efficient communication. The size of your district, past practices and culture all contribute to expectations, but what should drive this discussion is what works to help improve, not hinder, everyone’s job performance. Set a time to revisit the protocols as a group, to affirm what works and address any issues or concerns. This exercise sets a precedent for the type of constructive collaboration you want for your own goal-setting and evaluation process.

Communicating with all board members regularly does not require weekly lunches. What is important is that your communications are consistent and inclusive. If part of the model you use relies on the board president as a channel for your communications, be able to ensure that channel is open. You do not want to become a pawn in the game of “knowledge is power and I’m more powerful than you.”

Actions speak louder than words.

Board members must recognize that you respect their role, that you are working with them, not against or around them. I saw relationships dissolve when a superintendent created his own “community advisory” committee that the board believed undermined its role in representing the public’s interest. The board may even perceive floating an idea in the community as an attempt to circumvent their oversight role by building constituent pressure for approval.

The key here is the concept of no surprises. Board members understand that you must do your homework. But, they do not want to appear oblivious, or worse, superfluous. When you are putting out feelers in the community, tell the board that’s what you are doing. Don’t let “I’ll continue to keep you informed” become a meaningless postscript to conversations or memos.

“Once burned, twice shy” is true for us all.

Distrust is easy to create and hard to eradicate. Board members will talk among themselves, develop relationships with staff members and have conversations with folks in the community about you and the work of the district. Consistent communication is important.

Make sure your staff understands the communication protocols you have established with the board. When the superintendent has told board members they can ask questions of any staff member, yet staff members tell them they are not allowed to talk to board members, it’s a problem. When board members hear from the business community that the superintendent is requesting curricular supports for an alternative school the board has yet to approve, it’s a problem. When there is no trust, boards try to demonstrate their authority by changing policies or passing resolutions that tie the superintendent’s hands.

Whether elected or appointed, board members are politicians, and so are you.

Unfortunately, one aspect of the political nature of the job is the potential for board members, especially elected ones, to resent the attention superintendents get in the community. Being aware of appropriate opportunities for the board to be included in the “spotlight” will go a long way toward avoiding discord. If you are invited to speak at an event that features other politicians, share the stage with a board officer. When board members are attending functions at which you are speaking, introduce them from the podium.

Because the superintendency is wrapped up in politics, remember that whatever you say or do to advance or oppose a board candidate will make its way to the newspapers. If you try to influence elections or appointments, you may be successful. However, try not to overplay your hand. Over time, special interest groups characterize those you support as a “rubber stamp” and use that sobriquet to motivate the public to elect “independent voices” who equate opposition with independence.

Some people are just impossible.

A long-time superintendent recently told me he has never had a bad board member. I think it is safe to say his experience is the exception, not the rule. Every experienced superintendent has stories about “rogue” board members, from those whose posturing adds hours to board meetings to those whose pandering is so egregious they parrot the questions that constituents text message them during board meetings.

You cannot change the nature of these board members. Other board members who understand roles and responsibilities, know the district and know from experience that your recommendations are made in the best interest of children, should be the ones to take them on.

A culture of trust and collaboration fosters best practices and effective processes that serve as a bulwark against those who grandstand and disrupt.

One last caveat: This is an ongoing effort. New board members will come into office and the dynamics of the group will change. You and your board must continue to

  • Establish and maintain personal and professional relationships with each other by engaging in respectful and honest communications, following through on promises and demonstrating interest in and consideration of others’ viewpoints.
  • Maintain a clear understanding of how each of you fulfills your role and responsibilities and what supports you require of each other.
  • Commit to consistently applying protocols that promote effective, efficient and inclusive two-way communication.
  • Ensure your personal/professional relationships allow you to recognize and support each other’s political roles.
  • Address issues before they become insurmountable barriers.

Demonstrate to the public that collaborative relationships foster honest discussion around children’s best interests and enhance effective decision making.

About the Author
Sharon Cox is president of Synergetic Leadership Group and a former elected board member of Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools.