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Be Intentional About Governance to Achieve Your Mission

February 13, 2020

By Andy Greenawalt, Board Chair, Austin Achieve

Andy Greenawalt

In 2011 the founding board of Austin Achieve consisted of just four people. Since then, we’ve grown to as many as 14. Just as John Armbrust, our founder and CEO’s role has changed a lot through the past 8+ years of development and growth, so has ours. Just as John has had to develop new capabilities, so have we. We started with a keen focus on finance and fundraising. As we grew, we found ourselves acquiring real estate and building facilities. And while we kept a close eye on results, we did our best to let John develop and administer the academic plan.  

We’ve been fortunate to have John’s vision and passion as the driving force behind the school. We view our role as enablers to help him and his team to execute the school’s mission. In order to do that we’ve not only had to grow in numbers, but also be very intentional about the capabilities and demographics of the members we’ve added - acquiring finance, fund raising, real estate, education, and leadership capabilities as they were needed. We’ve worked hard to continually improve the effectiveness of our governance processes, including implementing recommendations from two consulting engagements focused on board performance and administering annual board self-assessment surveys. Some of the consulting recommendations were to:

  • Form committees to get the real work done. Push as much work as possible down from full board deliberations to these committees. (Which is especially important as you grow.)
  • Structure full board meetings around committee reports – where status updates are shared and recommendations for vote/action get processed.
  • Focus more on strategic issues. 
  • Never stop working on improving your governance processes.
  • Implement regular self-assessment processes to accomplish the above…

As board chair, I’ve worked closely with John to help him build consensus around all major decisions and advise him on some of the leadership challenges inherent to building a 200+ person organization. In this, our ninth year of operation, we’re serving nearly 2,000 scholars spanning pre-k through 12th grade. During our nine years, we’ve learned many lessons - here are a few I’d like to share:

  • Identify areas where your CEO needs help and focus on those - especially for startup boards.  Let your CEO run with his/her areas of strength. 
  • Be strategic. Focus on strategic issues. Don’t get lost in weeds of operational issues. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep track of operational performance. See below.)
  • Create metrics to track status of operational issues. This allows you to focus on strategic issues without losing track of what’s going on day to day. (I am especially fond of the idea of an organizational ‘dashboard’, where metrics describing all aspects of operation are tracked and reported – against pre-established targets.  It enables oversight by a quick glance while using ‘red/yellow/green’ type assessments.)
  • Remember that your school is like any other organization/company, and its performance can be managed as such. 
  • Foster and promote board/staff collaboration as there are lots of opportunities for both groups to participate in committees and task forces. 

This year, we’re working with John on a new strategic plan to refine our mission and determine the best path forward from here. While we experience the normal amount of push and pull between a board and CEO, we still view our primary role as enablers for the fulfillment of the mission of our school – one that John founded, but in which we are full partners.

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