SAIS reached out to Annual Conference speakers, Anne-Marie Balzano and Arti Betof of Mission & Data to tap their expertise in addressing conflict on the board and how to move forward in a positive direction.

Anne-Marie Balzano brings a wealth of governance experience to the table. She has served as head of school, board trustee, and most recently as the director of leadership and governance for NAIS. She was the chief editor of the NAIS Board Chair Handbook and a frequent presenter on building leadership capacity and managing school change. Ari Betof has also served as an independent school trustee and head of school. His expertise lies in organizational effectiveness, group dynamics, and cultivating high-impact change. Ari is the co-founder of Mission & Data offering consulting and executive coaching services and custom data products.

Scenario: A head of school is struggling with their board. Five members fall on one side of an issue, while seven are on the other. What is the first step the head should take to get the board moving forward? What action or discussion will lay the foundation for productive work and resolution of the point of conflict?

In this case, it is essential for the head of school to meet with their board chair. As the board leader, the chair must ensure trustees have an opportunity to share their perspectives, within the boundaries of board norms and in support of a positive board culture. The NAIS Board Chair Handbook offers these strategies to help build consensus:

  • The board members who disagree can sit down together with the board chair to succinctly and non-emotionally describe individual perspectives.
  • Each party is given a chance to explain how his/her perspective aligns with the school’s mission. 
  • Identify parts of the contested issue over which the board may have little or no control and will not change. What is appropriate to the board’s responsibility?
  • Creating a timeframe for resolution. Perhaps this issue should be relegated to a “parking lot,” with assurance from the chair that it will be reviewed later.
  • Find common ground between the two perspectives as a way to begin to build consensus.

Is there a time when conflict among board members is a good thing?

Many boards have what we call “a culture of niceness.” Trustees often believe that as stewards of the school’s mission, vision, and values, they cannot or should not disagree. Conflict is healthy on the board; it allows for constructive discourse and an examination of different perspectives when making a decision.

If boards are committed to recruiting and onboarding diverse trustees, then conflict should not only be expected but embraced. It’s how the board handles conflict – their norms of behavior that shape and reinforce board culture, is what really matters. A strong board chair is key; as leader of the board, the chair should encourage candid discussions of different points of view and be able to build alignment and shared commitment between members. As Jack Creeden, author of the NAIS Board Chair Handbook explains, “Conflict is inevitable in the nonprofit world of paid administrative leaders and volunteer overseers, so it is important for the board chair to have a strategy for managing that challenge holistically.”

What can school leaders do to lay the groundwork for change and avoid destructive conflict among the board, faculty, or parent community?

One of our favorite ways to analyze the likelihood of success of any change is to use Beckhard and Harris’ (1987) formula: A+B+D> Z. This simple, yet powerful tool allows leaders to take a quick pulse check on how their community might react to a potential change. 

The sum of A+B+D>must be greater than Z

A (dissatisfaction with the way things currently are) + B (shared vision of the future) + D (know some first steps) > Z (the perceived economic, psychological, and emotional costs of the change for the likelihood of success to be high)

Before making any change, school leaders and boards should consider the following questions:

  • Will people agree there is a need for change? (A)
  • Will they agree on the direction? (B)
  • Do you know how to start? (D)
  • What are the costs or risks? Who will benefit from this change? And who will “lose?” (Z)

Need to dive a little deeper? Anne-Marie and Ari will lead this year’s Board/Head Workshop where they will unpack how leadership, governance, financial sustainability, and organizational stewardship intersect. Additionally, their SAIS Annual Conference breakout session will explore critical elements of change theory working through proven leadership strategies to build capacity for lasting progress, even when no one wants to change.

Suggested Resources

Beckhard and Harris Change Model, Daian Ospina Avendano

“The goal of the Beckhard and Harris Change Model is to achieve an analysis of the success or failure of a company’s transition in the changes it makes in the workplace. The analysis is always in favor of the success of the organization. The model helps to overcome resistance that exist between different processes and employees within the company.”

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, et al.

“Decipher the underlying structure of every difficult conversation. Start a conversation without defensiveness. Listen for the meaning of what is not said. Stay balanced in the face of attacks and accusations. Move from emotion to productive problem solving.”

Influence: Gaining Commitment, Getting Results, Harold Scharlatt & Roland Smith, Center for Creative Leadership

“Influence is an essential component of leadership. Your position in an organization and the power it gives you aren’t always enough to motivate people to do what you ask. This guidebook will help you develop your influence skills to gain commitment from people at all levels: direct reports, peers, and bosses.”

Survival of the Savvy, Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman

Survival of the Savvy will help you to adjust your attitudes about power and politics, confront your naiveté about organizational dynamics that are often swept under the carpet, and recognize tip-offs that you may be vulnerable.”