Seven steps to a better body

13th May 2005 at 01:00
What are the obstacles that prevent governors working together well? Nigel Gann suggests a recipe for success

If you want to change the way you operate, the first rule nowadays is to do it in sevens. So, having read Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (Stephen Covey), The Seven Bad Habits of Highly Ineffective People (Richard MacDonald), The Seven Secrets of Slim People (Vikki Hansen - must read again) and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (John Gottman Nan Silver - must read again) - here's our recipe for governing bodies: Eighteen months ago, management consultant Paddy O'Brien (author of Taking the Macho out of Management) and I sat down to identify the seven major obstacles that get in the way of groups being as effective as they might be. We mainly had governing bodies in mind, although we were also using our work with other teams - multi-agency Sure Start managers, charity and voluntary organisation trustees, parish and parochial church councils, for example.

Here is our summary of those obstacles, which forms the basis of our work with a programme called "Activate the voice of your governing body": The meetings culture and the pressure to "do business" We come across governing bodies whose sole aim, it appears, is to get business done. Our most extreme illustration was the governing body of a then grant-maintained school in the north of England. Comprised entirely of businessmen, they prided themselves on having just one meeting a term which lasted no more than one hour. Who did their thinking for them? The head, of course. We can easily be seduced into thinking that our main job is decision-making - there's a lot of pressure from outside to suggest that it is - but maybe that's just the most comfortable part of what we do. We must have time for reflection, and an atmosphere and structure for meetings to encourage it.

Lack of information Who decides what information we should get from the head and staff? We need to do that together, of course. So build in a regular session where governors and staff agree what information is important to share, and a structure for sharing it between staff, committees and governing body.

People not valuing themselves or others A lot of governors wonder what they as individuals might have to offer. One of the first school governors I ever interviewed told me that she didn't tell the other parents she had been elected because they would wonder "Why her, and not me?" Governing bodies - especially heads and chairs - need to establish, by the ways they organise themselves and the ways they behave to each other, that every governor counts and that everyone has something worth contributing.

Lack of group skills Teamwork, assertiveness, questioning and challenging - even how to behave at a formal meeting - are areas we may neglect because we take them for granted. I was much struck when a governor at my own school asked for a rundown of the duties of a committee chair, because "before I became a governor, I had never been to a formal meeting". We may need to work on these skills together to ensure that everyone is comfortable with them.

Fear of retribution, lack of trust and a sense that whatever people will say, they will be disregarded After 25 years of working with heads and governing bodies, I am still shocked by how many staff governors will not say what they feel for fear of upsetting or angering the head, and who think that any chance of promotion has gone since they joined the governing body. Many parents, too, fear that their children may be victimised if they speak out. Other governors (including the head, sometimes) may worry about being shown up in front of each other. And how many governors go through entire meetings without speaking? And why?

People who are possessive and fearful and who have secret agendas How often do you wonder what's actually going on at a meeting? How do the people really get on? What do they really think of each other? Fear is a great motivator - and makes an even better set of manacles. Very often, meetings are as much about power - what people perceive as being their areas of responsibility - as about moving the organisation forward.

People under stress and not managing their energy well Often our meetings take place when we are all at our lowest ebb - at the end of a long day, with our minds on other things. How can we enable both best concentration and dynamic interplay? There are a lot of techniques around - brain gym, for example - if we can only learn how to use them.

The responsibilities of governing bodies continue to grow with the Department for Education and Skills' five-year strategy. These barriers to best group practice need to be tackled head-on if governing bodies are to get best value for time and effort from their members.

Nigel Gann works with school leadership teams and has published a number of books on governance and headship. Paddy O'Brien is a management consultant and author. They can be contacted through

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