Is Your Board Turning into a House of Cards?

By Joan Feiereisen, Director of Governance & Board Leadership

If scheming politico Frank Underwood in Netflix’s hit show is the role model of one of your board members, you have a major problem.

Is your board turning into a House of Cards?

Most boards, including those we work with through our PAVE Partner School Program, are composed of competent, dedicated individuals who are genuinely passionate about improving the organizations they serve. Board members may ask tough questions, hold the CEO to high standards and require a high degree of accountability, but they should be doing these things if they are doing their jobs well.

However, there are times when a confluence of weak board leadership coupled with a crisis or challenging situation can produce the rogue board member, someone bent on exerting power and influence who can completely derail a board’s work and thus its effectiveness. This is NOT simply the case of a board member who asks challenging questions or makes others uncomfortable by probing deeper into difficult subjects. Much like Kevin Spacey’s character on House of Cards, who plots to manipulate and scheme his way to the Presidency, this kind of board member has a different agenda, often becoming destructive as he or she seeks to build a power base, undermine the principal, and take over the running of the school.

Look for these signs of trouble:

  • One board member’s name dominates the minutes – and the conversation – at every board meeting
  • A board member begins showing up at school on an almost daily basis, usually unannounced
  • Factions begin to develop on the board, with members aligning for and against the rogue member
  • The Board Chair loses control of board meetings, with the rogue member often taking over
  • Some board members resign in frustration
  • The Executive Committee begins to meet more often – and makes more and more of the decisions outside of the normal meeting times in an effort to avoid conflict, and the problematic board member

If one or more of these indicators is present, don’t wait – take action. The Governance Committee should get involved immediately by meeting with the difficult board member to discuss his or her actions, reviewing the role of the board and reminding him or her that deviating from that role will not be tolerated. If the problematic behavior continues, after a final warning is issued, the board member’s resignation should be called for. If the member resists leaving, don’t hesitate to remove the person from the board. Strong action is necessary in these cases to avoid complete disintegration of a board’s effectiveness.

3 Tips to Re-energize Your Board Service in 2015

By Marcela Garcia, Assoc. Director of Governance & Board Leadership

Re-energize your board service

It’s a new year—and with this comes realigning the energy we have to invest in ourselves and others. This includes our New Year resolutions to go back to the gym, spend more quality time with our loved ones, as well as to be more intentional with the use of our “free” time. As individuals who value service and community, it is of the utmost importance that we invest some time in service that is meaningful and rewarding. But let’s keep it real—this can be a challenge. Especially if you are new to board service, you might not know what to expect or how you will be connected. And even if you are seasoned, becoming jaded with the challenges of board service does happen.

So, as I put together on-boarding guides and manuals, and talk to Partner School board members, Board Corps members, and those contemplating board service, I reflect on the lessons that I have learned as we launch the third year of the Board Corps program.

Board Corps members who have already served at least a year were asked to share advice with other program participants during a pinning ceremony that we hosted to celebrate the milestone of having placed more than 50 Board Corps members on our Partner School boards. The advice they shared was very practical and can be categorized into three important areas.

Don’t stop learning

  • Make the time to attend the ongoing education opportunities – PAVE’s training are first class and will benefit both you and the school.
  • Be prepared to listen and learn, but don’t be afraid to participate. You have a lot to offer so don’t hold back.
  • Do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and take a risk.

Find ways to connect your intellect and heart to the mission of the school 

  • Patience and empathy will go a long way when working through conflicting ideas.
  • Make sure you believe in the culture and mission of the school. Visit during the school day, get to know the teachers and students.
  • Go into the process with an open mind and open heart.

Be patient

  • It takes time; schools can’t be turned around overnight.
  • Be open to taking on new and different challenges that take you outside your comfort zone and allow you to grow!
  • You’ll always get more out of it then you put in.

As we get re-energized, and find ways to make our work significant, it is important that we connect our intellect and heart to the work we do. How are you making this happen in 2015?​

Board Diversity – Representing the Populations You Serve

By Marcela Garcia, Associate Director of Governance & Board Leadership

I have sat around many board tables—through my work serving on non-profit boards as well as an adviser—analyzing systems, structures, and culture and how these affect organizational operations. Through my observations and my lived experience, the lack of diversity of folks around those tables is still alarming—whether that is a metric that looks at race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or expertise. However, this is not new information since not much of a dent has been made to change this in the last decade. We know that board diversity is lagging in almost every sector, non-profit and corporate. Within the non-profit sector 86% of nonprofit board members nationwide are White.

Diversity in the Boardroom

With 30 years since the court-ordered school desegregation was implemented in Milwaukee, students of color composed 86.4% of the 2013-2014 student enrollment within our public school district; 93.8% of the enrollment at independent charter schools; and 78% of private school enrollment for the same school year. With student demographics like these, it is only natural to question why the board representation of these institutions do not resemble the populations they serve. The education system in my city continues to be inequitable for countless kids and youth. Especially for those kids living at or below the poverty level, and for brown and black kids. The socioeconomic disparities in Milwaukee are very visible. As a result, the challenges with board service can be very intimidating, and at times, uncomfortable.

Here are four tips to keep in mind as you are reflecting on your board service, or on your interest to get involved.

1.       The savior mentality is dangerous. As leaders, we not only have to acknowledge our privilege, but learn how to challenge it within ourselves and to others. Our function as a board member is not to “save” the communities in which we work. Marginalized communities are not empty vessels that are waiting for your pouring—stop flattering yourself.

2.       Representation is not enough. Just because a board is tracking the progress of the numbers (number of women, African-Americans, Latinos, LGTBQ, under 30 years old, etc.) on the board does not mean that it is addressing gaps within its structure, nor creating a culture that embraces diversity as an organizational value. Keep in mind that bringing diverse leadership on board will not single-handedly empower the marginalized. It’s not just about the numbers, people!

3.       Finding leadership for your board is not like ordering a hamburger. “I’ll take a young Black or Latino, with a side of some board service.” Doesn’t that just sound awful? Remember that the characteristics that contribute to diversity can be either visible or invisible. When considering new board members, it is important to aim to build bridges that connect your organization to networks that perhaps have not before been built or crossed. Being intentional and keeping the future needs of your organization in mind while considering perspective board members is important.

4.       If it’s not in the organization fabric, it will not be sustainable. The value of what diversity brings to an organization has to be operative and integrated into the fabric of the organization. Institutional buy-in has to happen for long-term sustainability. This is not the responsibility of one person in the organization, nor that of a committee. There has to be a plan to insure that this diverse leadership is involved, respected, valued, and connected to the mission of the organization.

As the second year of Board Corps comes to an end, I am very hopeful that PAVE’s Board Corps Program will continue to make a difference in the way boards are built and sustained. Since 25% of our program applicants self-identified as a racial/ethnic minority, 51% as women, and 64% as 40 years and younger, I am confident that change will begin to be felt and seen across many more board tables in Milwaukee.

Lessons from the Corporation – 3 Compelling Reasons Why It Pays to Have Women on Your Board

By Joan Feiereisen, Director of Governance & Board Leadership

Women on Boards of Directors

We all instinctively know it’s better to have a board that’s gender-diverse. But why? At the recent BoardSource Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., Dr. Margaret Reid from the University of Arkansas examined research from for-profit companies that showed why having the female perspective is not just politically correct, but also makes good business sense.

  • Women directors mean more profits – In a study on corporate performance and women’s representation on boards of directors (Carter and Wagner, Catalyst – 2004-2008), companies with three or more women on their boards outperformed those with zero women by 84%. Another study found that having at least one woman on a board decreases bankruptcy by a full 20% (Wilson and Atlantar, 2009).
  • Having women on boards leads to more ethical behavior – Companies with more women on their boards see better corporate governance and ethical behavior (Franke, 1997). It isn’t so much that women are necessarily more honest, but they tend to ask more questions, thus uncovering issues that boards should be addressing.
  • It never pays to marginalize half the population – Corporations have realized that not having females represented on their boards leads to losing a critical opinion and voice. If women feel shut out from decision-making, they are less likely to support an organization that doesn’t value a feminine perspective.

How does the business case parallel schools? While businesses may lose perspective on their products and services without women involved at a high level, schools can miss out on important insight on everything from parent involvement to fundraising strategy to marketing ideas. They also may not be hearing all of those hard-hitting questions women are likely to pose.

Unfortunately, businesses aren’t paying enough attention to the research. Recent statistics show that right here in our state, only 15.5% of board seats in Wisconsin’s top 50 companies are held by women. The Greater Milwaukee Committee is joining forces with Milwaukee Women Inc. in their goal to increase that number substantially.

PAVE recognized early on that it was important to have diverse boards governing schools. Our Board Corps is far ahead of the curve when it comes to recruiting women to serve on school boards. 50% of PAVE’s Board Corps members are female and will be productively adding their insight and perspective to our Partner Schools in the coming years. Lessons definitely learned!

Governance As Interesting?

By Michelle Burmeister, Communications Director

I started working for PAVE nearly two years ago, when the organization was gearing up to launch Board Corps. Interviewing for a marketing and public relations position, I was prepared to answer some of the typical questions about how to get media exposure for the organization and what are my ideas for using social platforms, etc. But, the main focus of the interview was “How will you make ‘governance’ interesting?” This has been my guiding mantra ever since.

I was not extremely well-versed in “governance” when I started at PAVE and I vaguely understood it’s importance based on my interview, but now, nearly two years later, I’m truly a believer in governance done well, because I’ve seen how an effective and dedicated board of directors can transform a school’s leadership and create positive and sustainable change.

PAVE Milwaukee Governance and Leadership

Have I accomplished the goal of making governance interesting? We’ve seen a great response to our recruitment efforts for Board Corps, so we’re clearly on the right path to explaining the important roles that governance and leadership have in improving and sustaining high-potential schools. But, I’m continuously working on it, along with the rest of my team. Part of the challenge is using language that is universally relate-able and doesn’t have skewed connotations (i.e. government). Equating governance with leadership, vision and oversight, as opposed to power, dictating and laws, helps to change the conversation about what a non-profit or school board of directors should be doing to champion the mission and achieve the vision of the organization.

Explaining what governance actually is, and showing through examples that it’s interesting and important, is an ongoing process of educating Milwaukee’s professional community and schools. It’s a goal that PAVE needs to continue focusing on in order to achieve our mission of making excellent educational opportunities possible for Milwaukee families. Stay tuned for many more posts about governance on The PAVE Blog…

What is your understanding of governance in a volunteer board setting? How have your professional experiences shaped your understanding of board leadership?