April 23, 2018

A Trustees’ Retreat | Trustees’ Corner

On one Sunday afternoon in September, the board on which I serve held a retreat. It took a while to organize; we’re a 12-member board, and although we are all generally committed to our monthly meetings—not to mention outside time spent working on various committees, attending library programs we sponsor, or showing up at town budget meetings to advocate for the library—it’s difficult to find time when all of us are free.

The retreat was suggested by one of the trustees to our current chair. He thought it might help us work together as a board. I have to admit that the idea of having a retreat for a day was not one that most of us thought overly worthwhile or necessary—at first. Our chair saw that it might have value, and she worked hard to make it a useful endeavor. I’m glad to report that in the end it was, largely because of how it was planned.

What made it work was that we met with a trained facilitator/­executive coach who asked us beforehand about how well the board interacts and what we felt we wanted to get out of the retreat. From talking with each of us individually, she was able to put together a program that had relevance for the particular issues with which our board has struggled.

We worked on three main goals: building trust among our members, developing more clarity around our purpose as trustees, and deepening our partnership with the director. All of these have been problems for us, sad to say. For reasons I’ll get to, the 12 of us don’t always trust one another (ironic, considering the name of our office). That makes it harder to decipher our purpose at times, and, of course, that can affect our joint relationship with the library director. The facilitator was spot-on when she identified the goals we needed, and she designed the retreat with them in mind.


The main part of the retreat centered on an activity called a 50-card exercise. In pairs and then in groups we selected cards that had sentences on them explaining what we consider the most important aspects of being on a board. We ended up with a list of five main points. Although I will share them now, I stress that these were the points that resonated with our board; your board might find other things to be more vital.

We chose behaving in a fair, reasonable, honest, and respectful way toward one another and our work; doing what we say we will do and doing it well; working toward common goals through an inclusive process and respecting decisions; giving each of us a role that balances individual interests with library needs; and showing up. This list is useful, but what was even more valuable was going through the process that led to its development. By engaging in small group conversation, we were able to cut through some of the muck that had been holding us back from telling one another what we felt our problems were.

One of the reasons this retreat was so valuable is that, as an elected board, none of us chose our ­colleagues—nor did a central authority, such as a mayor, choose us. Consequently, we all come to the job with our own agendas, and sometimes that has made it difficult to find common ground. In fact, since we are a political board, we often find ourselves working hand in hand with colleagues against whom we were just competing in a ballot.


At the end of the retreat, the facilitator asked what we each felt we would take away. I replied that I wanted to get to know my colleagues better. We don’t get to know each other personally very well, and what surprised me most was hearing how much libraries meant to my fellow board members. It had never occurred to me that they would also have “origin stories” like mine, stories of going to libraries as a young child or having their life path guided by a ­librarian.

Before the retreat, many of my fellow trustees seemed to be skeptical as to the value of the retreat but willing to go along with it. At the conclusion, though, all of us felt we had gotten a lot out of it, even though it’s too early to see how helpful it actually was.

If your board is having difficulties working together, you might look into doing a retreat, as we did. I can’t guarantee that it will solve all your problems, but, at the very least, it will help you understand and approach them in a new light.

Michael A. Burstein has been a Trustee of the Public Library of Brookline, MA, since 2004. He chaired the board for two years and is the author of I Remember the Future (Apex Publications, 2008).

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