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I’m coming up on my first year working directly with a governance board again. As some of you will know, a board will have its own personality. You may have one that is right in the middle, neither hot or cold. Some boards I’ve worked with will have one or two very active members. Those can be a challenge and also a godsend, depending on the board and the need. I’ve been looking back at the last year and thinking about what I need to do more proactively this year to work on the relationship I need to have with our board of trustees.
If you’ve ever started a new job, you can picture what it is like to start working with a board. There is your role on paper and then there is the historical way your role has interacted with the board. Just like a new job, some things are implicit and some are explicit. Your board members, like your new coworkers, each bring their own personality and interests to their role, and to their interactions with you.
It may be worth saying that I have two boards, although one is governance and one belongs to a foundation. It means that there have been three micro cultures – the law library staff, the governance board, and the foundation board – to navigate and learn in my current role. Each one is different and, in the case of the governance and foundation boards, their relative relationship is also something to navigate and consider.
The more I thought of it, the more it reminded me of ballroom dance.
Don’t Be a Crusher
I studied in England for a year during my undergrad, ostensibly learning British law and political science. I also worked at the Brown Bear pub, drawing pints, and I joined the university ballroom dance club. Well, I was joined might be the better description. I think what happened is that I took a freebie class and was recruited, but not for my steps.
The dance club had some really great dancers in it. My organized dance experience was limited to some Scottish sword dancing steps in my kilt and some 4th grade square dancing in another (elementary) school club. But the club had a very strong, very tall dancer, and so they needed someone tall to be her dance partner. I don’t really recall how it all came about, but my kids have had a laugh at the photos of me competing in ballroom dance that year.
When I got back to the States, I had one more year to complete. And I had my physical education requirement to fulfill, so naturally I signed up for the ballroom dance class. You would think my previous experience would have been useful. You would think.
And it was, in a sense. There were two men in the class and I quickly learned that the other fellow had a nickname. I’m pretty sure it was the “crusher.” When he was your partner, he would bring you uncomfortably close, unnecessarily so. I didn’t see it, because I tend to have to focus on my dancing and my partner, but one of my partners shared that with me.
It meant that, whatever else I’d picked up while away, I had at least learned the proper ballroom dance frame. I’ve thought about it often, over the years, as a simple example of how organizational and operationals relationships require balance, and pressure exerted from two directions, to be successful.
Create the Frame
One of the most common concerns about working with governance boards is over- or under-reach. With overreach, you have board members, who are supposed to be working at arms length, meddling in operations. I use the term “meddling” on purpose, because unless the governance board by-laws require them to make operational decisions, they should not be making them.
A good governance board will stay at a distance, exerting their influence through requiring the law library director to be accountable, through questioning, documentation, audit, and other tools. If they don’t like the work I’m doing, the decisions I’m making, their role is to fire me. They shouldn’t leave me in place and try to work around me.
You would think this would be simple, even preferable. This approach requires the board to merely work with one person, and hire or fire that person as the need demands. But at both the Law Society and the American Bar Association, it was common to have governance board members insert themselves into operations. When that happens, your staff should inform you so that you can intercept the request and reaffirm the point of communication.
That doesn’t mean the board can’t communicate with staff. Perhaps that is part of the confusion, but I’m happy to have board members talk to my staff directly. How’s work? How’s David doing? What should we be concerned about? That fits completely into their oversight role.
The ideal approach is like a ballroom dance frame. Each person in the dancing pair has a role. Sometimes that role requires them to do different things from each other. If one person isn’t fit for their role, the other person could fall or be injured and the dance could be marred.
The way I learned it, the person leading puts their right hand behind their partner’s back. High, somewhat in the center, slightly angled with the fingers pointing a bit down and to the right of the partner. The left hand was held up and out to the left side. The partner’s right hand met the leader’s left hand, their left hand on the leader’s right upper arm.
There’s decorum involved of course. But there’s also physics. The leader has it easy. They are moving forward, mostly, and so are pushing or, on turns and in corners, pulling. The partner who doesn’t push back can find themselves too close to the leader. Crusher. But also getting their feet stepped on, and too close to perform footwork without tripping. So the partner needs to have some rigidity in their arms, to push back, to keep the distance between the two dancers.
I know, I know, not all dancing works out this way. We learned the “tall Bud” hold for the Texas two-step. In this situation, your partner is in the normal position and the leader’s left hand is normal too. But the right arm is extended directly ahead, with the wrist resting the partner’s shoulder, where you’re holding your bottle of Budweiser beer as you peregrinate the ballroom dance floor. No, I don’t know if it’s real or just a laugh our instructor was having at our expense. We learned it all the same.
What is your frame like with your board? That’ll depend on the board’s personality. If they are accustomed to working as a partner, at arms-length but with firmness, it will probably be fine. If they are not, you may not be sure what to expect.
Dance with Goldilocks
A board that is too involved, even if it’s just one person, can be a bit like having two leaders in a dance pair. A dance pair both need to know what they are doing, to fulfill their different roles. If suddenly both sides of the pair are trying to do the same role, you’ll have trouble.
Similarly, a board that is under involved can be difficult too. If the board is there for something other than the work, it creates a number of issues. A law library director may do things that they shouldn’t, on purpose or by mistake. Board members may be using the position for prestige or CV status, but they still have an oversight role. I’ve seen situations where the executive officer is playing both their role and the board’s, in order to ensure that oversight activities (like audits) are performed correctly and on time.
Some boards are just right. But that doesn’t just happen. In most cases, your board experiences will involve regular turnover. That means regular adaptation of the board’s culture, of it’s role as your partner. I tend to think of the executive director as the leader, the board being the partner without which the law library’s mission can’t be fulfilled.
This means that you need to be thinking about that tension – the force exerted from both sides towards each other – as a healthy thing to be cultivated. When you find that members of your board are becoming disengaged, you may need to ensure that you are utilizing their participation properly. Or you may want to talk to them about stepping down from the board to allow someone with more energy to join.
Conversely, when you have a board member who is pressing into operational decisions, you need to be just as firm, or risk having someone get stepped on or take a fall. They can disagree with your decisions but they can’t undo them. That isn’t their role. In theory, they have hired you for your expertise and that counts for something. When we talk about law librarians having a place at the table, this is the place where leadership and decision-making, and firmness, may be most important.
Not all boards are the same in need, either. As mentioned, I have a governance board and a foundation board that I work with. The latter is what I expect a “friends of the public library” board would be like. These can be trickier, because they cannot hire or fire you, and can operate without your input. You want to have a positive relationship with them but it may be harder to steer their efforts to ensure they stay aligned with the library’s needs.
Looking at public library boards, there seems to be a much greater risk of high-energy people creating activity that can drain the library of resources or support. Unlike a governance, this sort of support board needs an even brighter line between it and library operations.
One change I made almost immediately with our foundation board was to end our staff support of their activities. Our staff participation hid the actual cost to the library of seconding staff, and hid the actual cost of the foundation activities. This brighter delineation has not had any detrimental impact on their activities and fund-raising and means that law library staff do not have to engage in event planning for outside organizations.