November/December 2021

From the Field: A Board Team Built on the Pillars of Trust

By Lori Grant

We have a crisis of trust in our country. This breach of confidence has filtered to the local level, and school leaders report witnessing behaviors most have not seen in their lifetime. Now more than ever, building trust between school boards, school leaders, staff, and the community is crucial for growing lasting, high functioning working relationships. In school districts, it starts with the board of education.

Most people do not see trust as a competency to develop and practice. Thankfully, David Horsager, author of the book, The Trust Edge, did years of research to discover the leadership qualities of the most trusted companies and organizations in the world, and developed strategies to help teams build these qualities. Horsager’s research led to the development of the “Eight Pillars of Trust: Clarity, Compassion, Character, Competency, Contribution, Connection, Commitment, and Consistency.” Your board may already be strong in several of these pillars, but if just one pillar is shaky, trust may be wavering for even the highest functioning teams.

Building trust of the board must start by building trust within the board. When applied, intentional focus on the eight pillars can quickly move a board from good to great, and from dysfunctional to productive, efficient, effective, and trusted. Let’s apply the pillars to board work.

CLARITY: People trust the clear and distrust the ambiguous. Clarity comes in two forms – communication clarity and strategic clarity.

Communication clarity: Start with your board and superintendent team of eight. Does every member on the team have shared meaning around their roles and responsibilities and on the work of the board (the ends) vs. the work of the superintendent (the means)? High-functioning school boards have crystal-clear communication expectations and agreed-upon protocols for doing the work during meetings and between meetings.

Strategic clarity: Does your team have shared meaning around your mission, vision, policies, goals, and expectations for the district? Do the superintendent’s goals align with district goals? Strategic clarity is essential, and aligning goals and expectations from the board to the superintendent, then to every level in the district, not only elevates productivity, it builds trust.

COMPASSION: People put faith in those who think beyond themselves. Do you recall the last time you thanked one of your colleagues for a great idea they shared, extra effort they put forth, or simply their time? Gratitude is a magnetic human trait. Showing appreciation for those around you is compassionate and builds trust. Take a moment to write a thank-you note or two. Showing compassion also means never disparaging a colleague, at the board table or away from it, publicly or privately. Gossip is destructive. Always remember that you are one of a team of eight. Your words and actions impact the team, which leads us to the next pillar, character.

CHARACTER: People notice those who do what is right over what is easy. How many times has your board had to make extremely difficult decisions? Though some may not agree with these decisions, your dedication to doing what is right over what is easy is a show of strong character. The two key elements of character — integrity and morality — must be present to build and maintain this pillar. People trust honesty. Hold each other accountable to integrity and to doing your best work. Stay true to what you know is right as a team.

COMPETENCY: People have confidence in those who stay fresh, relevant, and capable. You can have extraordinary clarity, compassion, and character, but if you are not able to articulate and have a true understanding of your governing role, trust is eroded. Individually, where do you need to gain a better understanding? Is it district finance? Your district policies? Perhaps you need a better understanding of hot topics in your community like new state standards or Critical Race Theory. There are endless opportunities to improve your input over short periods of time: reading an article, listening to podcasts during your commute, webinars, or simply asking for feedback will fill your bucket of knowledge to help you stay fresh and relevant.

COMMITMENT: People believe in those who stand through adversity. This pillar is often a school board’s strongest. It’s the most incredible to me, especially through the past eighteen months. Despite the extreme challenges and public discourse faced, board members and school leaders keep showing up, month after month, to do this important work. Continue to make a commitment to good governance, to maintain your high-level, “out of the weeds” role as a board member and support of your one employee, the superintendent. Commit to engaging and hearing all voices of your community. Commit to supporting your board colleagues as they learn and grow. Commit to holding yourself and your colleagues accountable to doing your best work. Your commitment is building trust.

CONNECTION: People want to follow and be around friends. When I talk about connection, I often refer to my mother, a registered nurse for 40 years. I witnessed my mom, now long retired, give me a real lesson in asking open-ended questions during her recent hospital stay. As she was being checked into her room, she began asking the nurse’s aide a series of questions…”What inspired you to go into nursing? Where are you from? Tell me about your schooling…” In five minutes my 84-year-old mom knew more about this unsuspecting 20-year-old than I imagined possible. In turn, the aide responded with all kinds of non-medical questions for mom. The connection was instant, and you’d never know that 64 years separated these fast friends. The quickest way to build connection is asking good, curious questions. How well do you know your board colleagues? Have you been intentional about reaching out and learning more about your newest board members? Consider sitting down with one member at a time over a cup of coffee. Listen to understand, not to respond. Board work is complicated. Though you may not always agree, gaining a better understanding of your teammates and building connections can bridge the gaps between you. Connection builds trust.      
CONTRIBUTION: People respond immediately to results. The vast majority of school board members volunteer for this act of service because they want to make a difference and contribute to the greater good. By nature, board members are doers and givers, and appreciate bringing their experience and passion to the school community. The struggle and frustration that many discover once seated at the table, however, is being able to contribute in meaningful ways while maintaining their high level governance role, so the following will hopefully be affirming for you and cannot be overstated: By learning your governance role, coming prepared to meetings, reading board packets and asking your questions in advance, by listening to your community, respectfully engaging in discussion at the table and sharing your opinion, and by placing your vote, you are contributing to the work of the board.

CONSISTENCY: People love to see the little things done consistently. What you do consistently, good or bad, is what others trust you will do.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

— Aristotle

If you are consistently late to events, people trust that you will always be late. Of course, the opposite is also true. Every pillar discussed here is crucial, however it is practicing them consistently, again and again, that builds (or rebuilds) trust. Are you the same every time? Do you and the board team consistently speak with integrity, no matter what? Do you consistently welcome clarifying questions to ensure all have shared meaning around an issue? Trust is earned through actions, done consistently.

Which pillar is the strongest for you personally? How about your board team? Which pillar do you believe is the greatest opportunity for growth for you and your team?

It takes time, energy and commitment to build and maintain these pillars. However, the result of that effort is a team built on trust, and is time well spent.
Lori Grant is the Field Services Director for the South Cook, Three Rivers, and West Cook Divisions, and a Certified Trust Coach.