Why does your board need a health check?
Michael Iannini CIS Affiliated Consultant

 

By Michael Iannini, CIS Affiliated Consultant and Paul Smith, Founder and CEO of Future Directors Institute

 

We all know the importance of health, in every aspect of our lives. Focusing on the physical, mental and emotional health of individuals leads to a happy life. And, when you consider that a board of directors is simply a group of individuals, doesn’t it stand to reason that focusing on good health applies here too?

In this article, we’re going to detail exactly why your board might need a health check/evaluation, the benefits it can provide, and how to go about conducting one.

 

There are a large number of benefits that come from having your board evaluated, such as checking progress against board performance metrics, (or setting board performance metrics), identifying strengths and areas for improvement, and allowing you to improve on the positive impact the board has. But there are a few moving pieces in this process, so first, let’s discuss who is generally involved.

Typically, the parties, or stakeholders, who are involved in an evaluation are:

  • Members of the Board
  • The Head of School, who is directly impacted by the board’s activities and can be considered the ‘center’ of the evaluation
  • Management, whose activities are reported to the board
  • The accrediting bodies, who provide a framework for evaluation
  • Staff and Community, who are the pulse of the school

These parties all bring different—albeit equally important—things to the evaluation. The Head of School is first and foremost because he/she is the most privy to the work your board is doing and will be able to provide a more in-depth view. Accreditation bodies may not be directly involved in the evaluation process, but keep boards accountable by providing the framework that boards can mimic and follow. Taking into account both the staff and the community of the school can allow you to see how the decisions you’re making on a board-level can impact staff effectiveness, as well as the welfare of the overall community.

Once you’re clear on who is involved in the evaluation process, the next thing to consider is the framework. And generally speaking, such a framework will look like this:

  1. What are the objectives?
  2. What will be evaluated?
  3. Who is going to be evaluated?
  4. Who will be asked what questions?
  5. Who will conduct the evaluation?
  6. Which techniques will be used for the best effect?
  7. How will the results be actioned?

By following this structure, you can ensure that any time your board is evaluated (because it’s not just a one-off occurrence!), it’s done with the same framework, and you can better track board performance and other necessary metrics, plus improve on the benefits.

So, what sort of benefits can be expected from conducting board evaluations? As mentioned previously, there are a number of them, including setting a better performance tone among the board, improving the culture of both the board and school, provides clarity around all the director roles and the connection between the directors and the community, builds better relationships between the board and governing bodies, improves stakeholder relationships, and creates accountability, among many more.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that can be found from an evaluation of a board that is doing well. These are highly positive statements, and can provide a good aim for you if you feel your board could be doing better:

  • “We do not have an excessively high or disruptive turnover of governors within the board”
  • “Board members demonstrate a positive attitude, outlook and enthusiasm for working on the board”
  • “Our chairperson is completely trustworthy”
  • “I never dread having to attend a board meeting”
  • “We make far more good decisions than bad ones”
  • “I'm not thinking about leaving the board, and am unlikely to do so in the next year”

If, after an initial evaluation, you find your board isn’t in the most positive state, there are things you can do to begin turning that around. The best way to do this is to take into account 13 key performance indicators, which are looked at when conducting an evaluation and should be the main focus in your own boardroom.

These 13 key performance indicators are:

  1. Balanced roles—Each board member understands their role and level of authority
  2. Clear objectives and purpose—Agreed clarity around your reasons to exist as a board, namely; why you do what you do
  3. Openness, trust, and conflict resolution—Placing transparency and honesty at the forefront of all board decisions and conversations, and knowing how to solve any issues
  4. Interpersonal communication and relationships—Negative interactions between board members can create flow-on effects throughout the board and organisation, but these can be avoided through clear communication and healthy relationships
  5. Individual and board learning and development—Knowledge is the key to growth, and there should be a continual desire to learn and grow for every member
  6. Inter-group relations and communications—Being able to connect and communicate effectively with other various groups and organisations
  7. Appropriate management and leadership—The pinnacle of a great board is the person/s leading it
  8. Effective Board procedures—Recognising the procedures that work, and being able to fix those that don’t
  9. Output, performance, quality, and accountability—Ensuring every board member is performing to a predetermined standard and the board is realizing its purpose
  10. Morale—A high level of enthusiasm and confidence is necessary for an effective, positive board
  11. Empowerment—Allowing board members to feel strong and sure about their role
  12. Change, creativity, and challenge the status quo—Being able to evolve as a board, challenging the way things have been done in favor of a better way
  13. Decision-making and problem solving—When problems arise, it’s important to be able to solve them in a fast, effective manner

Putting these indicators as the primary focus will allow any board to be able to make vast improvements, which will be tracked effectively from evaluation to evaluation.

While it can be tempting to use this framework to conduct a do-it-yourself approach with a board evaluation—and certainly it can be done that way—it’s better to undertake a proper evaluation through a third-party. This is the best way to avoid potential confirmation bias, echo chambers, and self-justification, which are things that can occur when taking a DIY approach.

Board evaluations can be a great tool to encourage the conversations that must be had but otherwise may not occur. It allows you to begin talking about the important things that keep both a board and their governing organisation ticking along, and placing it under the guise of a ‘must-do’ instead of a ‘may do later’. It’s a great opportunity for reflection, and it will make outsider stakeholders very happy—another key aspect to board evaluations.

In conclusion, board evaluations are not just about understanding if the board is working optimally or not. It is an opportunity to have a third party facilitate the discussions board members begin to avoid when its health may be deteriorating. This deterioration can be the result of complacency, lack of purpose, or never explicitly defining and executing the remit of the board. If you sense everything is ok, use the board health check as an opportunity to benchmark your board’s performance against peer schools. Paul and I have a wealth of experience benchmarking organisations and would be happy to share with you that experience.


This post was first published by PDAcademia.

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