17. Building & Sustaining Board Relationships for Success with Brooke Carroll and Liz Dover

Do you want to build a better dynamic between your school and board? In this episode, Brooke and Liz discuss key strategies to create and maintain a highly effective school board at your small or independent, from setting clear expectations to ongoing professional development. They also share ways they incorporate strategic thinking and mindfulness into their leadership.

About Brooke Caroll & Liz Dover:

Brooke Carroll is Principal Coach and Consultant with Acies Strategies, focusing on strategies for small school leaders and governors. 

Liz Dover is the Head of the GreenMount School in Baltimore, MD. 

Find Brooke Caroll & Liz Dover:

Show Transcript

Tara: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Tara Claeys.

Aubrey: And I’m Aubrey Bursch. Today we’re joined with Brooke Carroll and Liz Dover. Brooke is Principal Coach and Consultant with Acies Strategies focusing on strategies for small school leaders and governors. Liz is the head of Green Mount School in Baltimore. Welcome, Brooke and Liz. 

Brooke: Thanks so much for having us. 

Liz: Thank you. Thank you. What a pleasure to be here! 

Tara: Yeah, we’re excited. Can you each take turns telling us a little bit more about yourself? 

Brooke: Sure Liz, go ahead. 

Liz: Oh, I was going to say you go ahead, Brooke. All right. I’ll jump in. My name is Liz. I am the head of school at the Green Mount School here in Baltimore, Maryland.

What I love about my school is we are a super small K-8 progressive independent school in the heart of Baltimore city. My past has been pretty varied as well. I have both been an educator in public and independent schools. I’m also a mom of a high schooler, which is just a whole other realm of of life and excitement and have just really been a lifelong educator.

Even before I was a teacher, I was a camp counselor and I remember early, early on someone asking me what I wanted to do with my life. And I said I just want to be knee-deep in kids. It’s just really, it’s fabulous at a small school, I get to do all of that.

Brooke: I’m Brooke Carroll. I’m the Principal Consultant and coach with Acies Strategies. I have a similar background to Liz. I started as a camp counselor and just loved working with kids, got into education, got a degree in educational psychology and then have worked in, in all kinds of educational settings since then. I was the head of a small school for nine years and really loved that work. And for the past five years have been doing consulting and coaching with small schools primarily, I’m passionate about small schools. I think small schools are different than larger schools and there’s not enough conversation about the unique nature of  small schools.

So I really that’s really my mission to focus on small schools and particularly small school leadership and governance. I’m a governance geek. And I love doing that and I love getting to work with amazing educators like Liz, Liz, and I have become friends through the work that we’ve done around small schools. And so I was just really thrilled to be able to have this conversation with her cause she’s so awesome. 

Liz: Back at ya. 

Aubrey: Yay. Oh my gosh. It’s so much fun to have you here and to see your friendship grow and blossom through the years and small schools are so important, right? With their limited resources, they’re still expected to pull off the same things as their larger counterparts. So I think you both are fulfilling a key role in that space for sure. Now, today we really wanted to dive into a little bit about boards and maybe small school boards, but in general boards for independent schools. I mean, they’re such a vital part of independent schools.

Yet we find that so many boards have trouble identifying what to do. What’s their role? Can you speak a little bit more to some common challenges that boards are facing? 

Brooke: Sure. Yeah, this is the work that I do a lot with my businesses. I really work with primarily small school boards and here’s the thing.

There is very little in our society that prepares people for governance. When you’re engaged in governance, you’re not involved in the day-to-day kind of operations. You’re not involved in the nitty-gritty of who’s doing what it’s bigger picture thinking. It’s the visionary, it’s thinking about challenges and opportunities. And we just don’t practice that in our everyday lives. So board members go onto a school board because they love the school. They’re passionate about the school, oftentimes they’re parents, but even if they’re community members or local business people, they’re passionate about the school and they want to help, they’re doers.

They want to get in there and really support the school. And so there’s this disconnect between wanting to do something and really see results and what actually governance requires and needs is, is not that actual doing, doing, doing, but the critical thinking and the planning and the visioning and that kind of work.

So I find often that there’s this disconnect or this challenge in boards where they want to be doing something, but what they actually need to be doing is something they don’t really even understand. I don’t know. Liz, do you find anything? 

Liz: Absolutely. Both as an administrator of a school, working with the board and then also being a board member on other school boards as well.

I feel like I’ve felt the full gamut, I would say too, especially in small schools, the challenge is, is that. While we don’t want our boards in the day-to-day operations. There are lots of times when we actually need the board to help us with day-to-day operations. And I think Brooke was one who coined this great as a great idea of you need to be in the trenches, but then you need to let them know where they need to sore back up to 30,000 feet.

Right. And one of the things that I have really learned is in my role as the head of school or director, is the clarity of what I need from the board. Another good friend of mine gave me a good kind of analogy of the board is the head of the body and the head of school is the neck. And so it’s my job to push the board in the direction for visioning and planning and sustainability.

But with my knowledge of the day-to-day operations, and that’s really hard as Brooke said, our board members, thankfully are doers and movers and shakers. And so the need to be really clear and explicit of what we need them to do and move. And when is, is wonderful and challenging. 

Tara: Yeah, I think what both of you said really hits a chord with me, I’m on a board and I also, in building websites for, and doing branding for nonprofits and schools, I also, go in front of boards and interact with them.

And I think it is a real challenge to, to be diplomatic. And, in knowing how, what role of board can and should play. And when, as your great analogy, as when they need to come up and soar above everything what is some advice that you give boards Brooke, or what can you advise? Can you share from your experience on how to manage that diplomatically? 

Brooke: It’s, it really is a partnership between the head and the board. And that’s the other thing that’s a little that’s unique about governance is that you have these people who are in theory, the, the boss, the employer of the head of school, or in a nonprofit of an executive director, and yet the head of school knows vastly much more about the organization than their employer does. Right. And so there often can be a confusion about who’s responsible for, for what. And so I think really looking at it as a partnership and being super, super clear about expectations and roles and clarity, both in writing and in conversation.

I’m a big fan of, good fences, make good neighbors, good contracts, make good board members. So that the board members have in writing what their expectations are. They want to fulfill those expectations. But I think a lot of schools, particularly small schools that are just trying to keep the wheels on the bus, don’t take the time to write the board handbooks that need to be written to write the board contracts, those kinds of things. So, that’s a, long-winded answer Tara, but some of it comes down to those basic structures that you implement to put the guard rails around the expectation.

Liz: Yeah. And relationships. I actually think that’s a huge piece of it too, is that the relationship between the director, the head of school and the chair of the board is so essential. And not best friends kind of relationship, but really respecting each other in the work that they’re doing. I’ve been through a couple of board chairs, in my tenure here.

And it’s always started with a sit-down, off-campus a nice dinner, somewhere. Glass of wine sometimes helps a little bit too, but A, just get to know each other. Right. And how do you operate? What is the way that you like to communicate? What, when you feel stressed, what, what do you do, right. Just so you can learn to read each other because the board also needs to know that the head of school and the board chair have a very good relationship too, because I think that then trickles into the relationships that the head of school can have with the board as well.

And I’ve just found it really important to take that time to build that relationship as best as I can. 

Brooke: I actually just created a worksheet around communication clarity between the head and the board to help new board chairs typically, cause heads can go through several board chairs in their tenure and to help with that relationship and just to provide the prompts for those kinds of conversations.

Because I think, I think Liz, that’s an excellent practice that you implement. But not all heads know to implement that, or if it’s a new head. So I just, I came up with a worksheet that has those prompts that folks can use. 

Tara: Yeah. We’ve, in our conversations with, with a couple of our guests we’ve talked about, because we talk about mindfulness and a holistic approach to anything.

One of the things that we’ve really enjoyed talking about is understanding each other’s personality types when you work with a team. And that must really also apply here, even though you’re not working with your board every day, to understand where people are coming from, from a personality, have you done any of the assessments or that type of thing to understand the different personality types that you have on your board would be really interesting to do?

Liz: That would be also like just with our teachers, our administrative team’s practice. Absolutely. Yeah. 

Brooke: Yeah. I do that. I do that with administrative teams. I have different, some different assessments that I use when I’m doing team building and leadership building. I haven’t done it with boards, so that’s an interesting, that would be fun.

Aubrey: Yeah. I always find those so very helpful and insightful just when knowing yourself and how you communicate, because sometimes you don’t even realize. What are my strengths as a communicator, really? I’m wondering, as we’re talking about all this, what comes to mind for me is when I’m working with schools and they’re in the process of building their boards, right.

That is such a, it is a process, right? And so many things come up for them. What would you say are words of advice or, the steps to go about building a better, a board that, that works for them, and that starts off on the right foot?

Brooke: That’s a big question. And it’s something that I think about a lot and, and I do a lot of board training and I have an online course that I’m developing for boards that really will allow boards to highlight the different areas that they need to address. And I think of board work and approaching how to improve boards in three areas. One is the focus which really we talked about and that’s that you’re focusing on governance, not an operation. Do you understand that line and that you have a very strategic focus. So one area is focus. One area is people that you have the right people on your board that they are well-trained that the culture and climate of your board is one that’s conducive of strategic thinking. And then the third area, are practices, and that you are disciplined about following through with the practices that are proven to be effective governance, things like goal setting, things like evaluating your head and, and supporting your head. Fundraising and development and the board’s participation there. Financial forecasting of course is a huge one.

So all of those practices and, and that’s the way I structure how I think about really ensuring that a board is effective is looking at those three areas. And then within those areas, breaking down and saying, where do you need to improve? For me, the really the first place is that strategic thinking.

Are you, are you thinking strategically, which means for me using data and considering options about everything that you do on your board. About when you meet about how many times a month or a year you meet where you meet all of those things I think need to be thought about strategically. And if you do that, then you’ll get at those practices. 

Liz: And I would also like to say that I think board building is a continuous, it’s not, oh, we’re a new board and we’re going to fill it our board, but you’re always onboarding new members. And so you are always in the process of building your board. And I think if you ever get to a point where you think you’ve got it you need to go look back and look at what you’re doing again, right.

Because there’s no such thing. It’s, it’s always changing. And so I just, I always think that this idea of building a board is, and it’s a continuous, ongoing process. And it’s, I think keeping it that way, it’s fresh too. You’re bringing new people in, you’re bringing in new ideas and yes, as you move further, you’ve established some foundations that make sense.

You have your committee work in place, but that doesn’t mean you’re stagnant. And I think that’s so key in successful boards and continuous board building. Yeah. 

Brooke: I agree with you completely. And I think that’s what I talked to boards about having ongoing annual professional development, even if you’ve got seasoned board members, when you have those training sessions, everybody learns different things every time you hear them. So I think that’s a great point, Liz.

Tara: Yeah, and I think it relates to something I want to ask about, which is marketing. And we also, as small schools, we want to rely on all the resources we have to help market our school and, and share and get the word out. And so we talk about using our community, right?

Relying on our community to spread the word, their voice, they really can be your best tool for selling because they have an experience there. And I wonder also about the role that the board plays in that process for you. I know in the board that I’m on we definitely are called upon to share, on social media to share in our network, but also related to what you were just talking about in terms of board recruitment is, part of marketing your school to, for prospective families.

Prospective students is also reflecting on how you market yourself to potential board members and what makes them want to become a member of your board. So can you talk a little bit about that process and how your board is involved in marketing your school? 

Liz: Yeah. They’re integral marketing our school, 100%. Our board is, is a little different than maybe some others and that it is the majority of parents who are on our board. Our school is a parent cooperative. So what that means is that our families actually give time to the school as part of their contract. They help us with admissions and with IT and substitute teaching.

You name it. And you really are an integral part of what we do. And so our board isn’t, I wouldn’t say so elusive as maybe some other boards are like, who are those people? Because our community is continually mixing and someone would say, oh, you are on the board, aren’t you? Oh, I didn’t realize that, putting that together, but in terms of marketing, their word of mouth is it’s just so key is they’re out in the community and talking and their kids are out and about yes, we give them t-shirts we give them stickers and water bottles, all those kinds of things as well.

But the social media piece is, is big. As well as just please share the things that we’re doing. But it’s also really important in that onboarding and in that kind of annual professional development that we do is a constant reminder of our mission and vision. Right. That is something that every board member should have and know.

And every time that they’re speaking to someone about the school and certainly trying to remember to separate the board hat and parent hat sometimes is a little difficult when we’re trying to do some of those marketing pieces or having them sell the school. They have to remember that they’re representing both.

But really tuning in on who we are as a school. What is our mission? What is our vision so that they can easily and seamlessly, it’s almost like the elevator talk, right? To be able to talk about our school, what our core values are. And I’ve just found that to be really most useful and helpful way to, to be able to market is making sure everybody has the right idea of the mission and vision and right idea of what to say.

Brooke: I agree with you completely. And I just, this makes me remember, I just recently did a, a board workshop and I came on right as that the head was finishing up his presentation and he gave a little tutorial to the board on how to go on to and, and give recommendations for the school on various sites.

And it was just brilliantly done. And so I think it’s that constant reminder about what, what is the message we need to get it out there and how to get it out there. But Tara, you asked also about board recruitment and that’s another area that I really focus a lot on, and really, encourage boards to be strategic about.

I so often, unfortunately, I see boards where at the end of the board meeting, somebody will say, oh yeah, wait a minute. Does anybody know anybody who wants to be on our board? And I’m like, that is so non-strategic. And, if boards take the time to go through the process of thinking about who they have on the board, who they want on the board and who they need on the board.

That will be additive to their board, not just somebody who will fit in, but who will be additive to their board. And they really create a thoughtful process for that. That’s how you get the most strategic board. 

Liz: And those needs change. Right? So it depends on where this is and what you’re doing. You are going to need different skillsets on your board.

We’re also a big proponent of committee work and making sure that our board committees also have members of the community of the school community within those committees, because that’s how you build leadership capacity. That’s how you learn where people’s interests and expertise are. And you’re able to then, even more seamlessly, bring them into the board because they’ve already had experience. And it also provides a wonderful opportunity for buy-in within the entire community of the work that you’re doing, because they know that people are involved in all sorts of levels in terms of, of these initiatives and things that we’re doing.

Aubrey: That’s such a great point. And the building of leadership and the reminder of that throughout is, is so key and so critical. You brought up some great points. Now as we’re at that part of our show, which we’re so delighted to step into, and I think they’ll have fun with where we ask some questions of our guests, and we’d love to hear your answers. So I’m going to kick us off. What are the most important things you can do to grow professionally and personally? 

Liz: Sleep. I’m sorry. You’re asking that question in the time of COVID in a small school 

Aubrey: Absolutely, sleep counts.

Liz: That’s the piece that’s missing right now. For me personally, growing professionally and personally, I think for our board is just it’s the networking, the relationships really it’s being able to talk to people and remembering that we don’t live in our own little bubble and being able to reach out to people to bring insight, to do assessments with us, for Brooke is working with our board to help assess where we are, where we need to move forward.

Brooke: My answer to that question really. It’s about it’s about space to disconnect and And I just find, I am my, the most creative, either about a work issue or, or something that I’m working on with work or in my personal life. If I take time off I try to, I try to go for a walk just about every day or a hike.

And that is the most generative time often for me. I have the privilege and the luxury that most heads of schools don’t. But I think, but I do think that there are ways to, to create those spaces in different ways and everybody has to do it for themselves, but I do think that, and there’s a lot of research that shows that the disconnect actually helps the creativity.

Tara: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s, that’s very true. And related to the next question, which is what is one of the most important things that we can do to be more mindful? 

Brooke: When, when I was thinking about that question, and I’m so immersed in strategic thinking. But they’re connected for me, because strategic thinking for boards or for heads of schools, or for anyone is about taking the time to step back just a little bit and say, what are my goals? What are the different ways that I can reach my goals and, and how am I going to get there rather than just charging ahead. And I think it, it’s taking the breath, taking the moment to really think through things. It, it is both strategic and it’s mindful. 

Liz: And I’m going to put a twist to that and just say for me, it’s actually the connecting with people that to be more mindful, I want to hear more and learn more and understand the experiences that people are having.

Often I think I know what’s best or what makes the most sense, but when I really sit down and talk to people, my, my views shift and change based on where my community is. And yes, I need the disconnect after I have been able to engage in the conversations and bring people together. So it goes together nicely.

Aubrey: It’s like you planned it out. I love it.

Liz: We love doing stuff together. 

Aubrey: Very complimentary to each other. Perfect. Now we are headed into our rapid-fire questions, which doesn’t sound so serious, but it’s not, it’s fun. All right. So if you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be?

Liz: Oh, no, I do K to eight. I can’t do, I can’t answer that one for you. 

Aubrey: You can, you can answer it however you want. 

Liz: It’s so funny. Cause I kept thinking about this question. I’m like, oh my God, it’s so heavy, but I have to tell you one of my favorite reads that I use as an administrator that I share. It’s based on the book wonder it’s called 365 Days of Wonder and it’s a page a day of kindness. And, you know, especially in the insanity of the world today that goes that’s everything and everywhere that just the ability to empathize with other people and just quick little snippets of just kindness makes a really big difference. 

Brooke: Can I just say what she said? I think that’s what we need to teach more of is kindness. 

Tara: Yeah, I agree. What is one app you could not live without? 

Liz: My calendar. 

Brooke: Yeah, it’s my calendar. Honestly. 

Tara: Google calendar or the calendar app on your phone. What’s your calendar choice? 

Liz: I’m I used to be the calendar on my phone. It’s gotten way too complicated.

It’s the Google calendar merged with the calendar for my family. Et cetera, but I often I do not wear the watch thing. I don’t want anything buzzing on me. But the calendar is just, it’s my go-to, it’s where my colleagues see where they can connect with me. It’s also where I block off time. And yes.

Thank you. Brooke taught me that one, I think a long time ago. And I really try to stand by that. That’s the time where I get to walk around the building or spend time with teachers or with kids, or quite frankly, just get through those emails. 

Aubrey: Oh, my gosh. Yes. Especially as a head of school. I am so sure where you’re just like, I just, I’ve dealt with putting out the fires all morning and now I need to sit and answer the bazillion emails that collected during that time period.

Liz: Pretty much. 

Aubrey: I love it. It’s like you synchronize your answers. Okay. I am very curious to learn this. What are you reading right now?

Liz: You really want to know. CDC guidelines, Johns Hopkins, university COVID protocol. I am really looking forward to summer. I’ve got a stack of books and I can’t wait to read.

I am in a book group, but I don’t know what we’re reading right now. To be honest I find that. I actually, I read Independent School Magazine. I listened to webinars. I’m really looking forward to summer. Cause that’s when I turn off just a little bit and make myself a good beach read or something like that.

So not a very exciting answer on that one. 

Aubrey: But it’s so real. I love it because every kind of school or administrator out there, it’s yes, that’s what I’m reading too. And they’re looking forward to a beach reads. 

Liz: Absolutely. The CDC updates are like where it’s at right now. 

Aubrey: I love it. So realistic, but so true.

So basically you haven’t really read a book since COVID hit, I’m sure 

Liz: how it feels right about now. Yeah. 

Tara: How about you, Brooke? What are you reading?

Brooke: I’m not in, I’m not deep in anything right now, but the book that I just finished most recently that has been the most impactful for me is the Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. It shifted my thinking so much and actually am I’m developing a protocol for board meetings and administrative meetings. That takes a lot of her thinking about meetings and translates it into a business situation where, where you can be mindful and strategic about how you meet. And so that’s, what’s I’m geeking out a little bit on that. 

Liz: I’m so jealous. That’s so cool. 

Tara: All right. The last question, what is, what one great piece of advice that you’d like to leave us with?

Liz: I have two kinds of two mantras and they’re both actually on post-it notes on my computer screen that I look at all the time. So when I’m in a work moment and try to make big decisions, trying to figure out, it’s so simple, Mission. Community. Data. Right. Those are the three pieces and all of your decision-making, you’ll always come back to the mission and vision of your school.

You always look at your community and what are the needs because there’s change over time. And what is the data telling you? So those are my, my work kind of advice, my work mantra. And then just in life, I actually really feel like in, in with this past year with COVID the, the need for clarity, right? Clarity is kindness.

And that’s something that’s really resonated with me this year is that you can be direct. You can be to the point, you can do that kindly, and that people, especially in times of stress, really need and appreciate clarity as they’re trying to move forward and didn’t do their job. And so those are the two pieces that I, that stick with me and literally on a post-it note, everywhere I go by my computer. 

Brooke: I love clarity is kindness is a big one, big mantra for me. And I think the advice that I would give goes back to that taking space for yourself is, is that I think that entrepreneurial or, or working women particularly. We don’t put our oxygen masks on first and and, and I think that this past year in the pandemic has helped us to shift some ways that we think about what we do and who we are and that kind of thing.

And I really think now is the time let’s make it all right to have actual balance in our life. Let’s make it all right not to be working, working, working, 14 hours a day. Let’s make it all right to take the space to be creative and to be energized and to be centered and to be whole, I think now’s the time.

Tara: Great way to wrap up this conversation, which has gone so fast that we’re out of time already. So thank you so much for joining us. Where can people find you each online? 

Brooke: Yep. I’m at my company’s Acies Strategies. It’s www.aciesstrategies.com. 

Liz: And I’m at the Green Mountain School here in Baltimore. We’d love to hear from people.

Tara: Thank you both so much. 

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