Board evaluations are the final step in your Handbook, the final link in the chain that closes the circle of good governance.
Board evaluations are not merely an assessment done on an annual basis without thought for actions to address improvement areas. You should treat this an exercise to improve the board and move towards high performance. Measuring board effectiveness helps to fulfill your accountability responsibilities and identify areas for improvement.
Just as with all diagnostics – including Director of Education and organizational performance evaluations – board evaluations are about helping us look through the windshield of the car informing the future, and not through the rear view mirror to point the finger of blame on shortcomings.
First, you will want to agree on WHY we’re conducting this board evaluation:
Education and Awareness: One common driver is to build awareness of, and educate on, the expectations of the board and individual members. By simply asking questions, participants gain a more fulsome awareness of what is being asked of them in terms of their roles and responsibilities. Another benefit is identifying skills gaps and therefore training and development opportunities.
Continuous Learning and Growth: Promotion of personal and organizational growth drives School Boards to embrace evaluation. Performance standards are set and raised over time, and compared against peer organizations and individuals in order to measure and reach for growth in performance.
Communication, Understanding and Commitment to Priorities: Using the evaluation process as a communications mechanism is another common driver. Processes are designed to open up lines of communication among board members and with management, toward the goal of building unity and trust, combined with a desire to reach consensus and commitment from all board members on the board’s priorities.
Audit and Assurance: Another basic driver is to provide assurance to the board itself, stakeholders, regulatory bodies and others of the depth, breadth and effectiveness of the organization’s governance practices. Conducting a comprehensive governance “best” practices audit is a tangible means to identify and deal with the strengths and weaknesses of governance structure.
Accountability and Compliance: Governance reforms and codes have mandated annual board evaluation for publicly traded companies in the U.S., and mandatory “comply or explain” standards in Canada, leading to rapid and wide adoption of the practice. These compliance guidelines are an accountability mechanism designed to ensure the board and board members are fulfilling their legal and governance responsibilities.
Value Added, Positive Change and Mission Accomplishment: The ultimate driver of board evaluation is the desire to add value to the accomplishment of the School Board’s strategy. If one believes that all governance practices should align and contribute to corporate strategy and mission, then this driver is a given.
A board is usually not seeking to accomplish all of these objectives during a single annual evaluation process: you will want to agree on which are, and which are not, sought after. Regardless of the motivation or the previous results, board evaluation, done well, promotes positive change and contributes to the creation of a road map to success for the whole organization.
Boards can choose from a number of tools for assessing governance effectiveness and conducting board evaluations: for example, documentation reviews, questionnaires, interviews, behavioural observation, boardroom and executive team cultural analysis and group facilitated dialogue. The tool you choose will depend on your drivers agreed on. Each tool tests and probes for differing aspects of structural, cultural, behavioural and relational governance and leadership issues.
Every governance process comes with potential challenges and pitfalls. Here are the main pitfalls commonly experienced with board evaluation:
- Unclear or Unarticulated Drivers: The drivers of the evaluation dictate the processes that will be used. Take the time to fully understand and agree on why you are conducting the evaluation and what you really want to get out of it.
- An Exercise in Compliance: Checking boxes to meet the letter of the law and missing its spirit may satisfy the rules and regulators, however it will not go beyond compliance to add value to the School Board or students. And it will leave you, whose time and energy are at a premium, feeling frustrated. Expect more of your process.
- Subjectivity: Because most evaluations are conducted via self-assessment surveys, these can quickly become very subjective. Based more on feelings than facts, subjective results can lead to misinformed solutions. Find ways to include objective facts, like peer benchmarks, into the evaluation.
- Working on the Wrong Problem: There is a tendency in evaluation to focus solutions on the symptoms rather than the causes, sometimes related to an over-reliance on questionnaires. Work to understand and address the underlying issues.
- Lack of Independence: Using internal resources like the Board Secretary or Legal Counsel to conduct board evaluations puts these individuals in a vulnerable position. These people rely on the board for their jobs, so face a dilemma when difficult messages need to be delivered. Having the Board Chair or other lead board member report on the results also lacks an independent view of what is really going on, and may actually feed undiagnosed dysfunction in the boardroom. Find ways to build independence into the board evaluation.
- Lack of Expertise and a Disciplined Approach: Using an experienced external consultant or governance professional brings rigour, expertise, objectivity and peer benchmarks to the process and ultimately increases the evaluation’s impact. A caution, though: choose your advisor carefully for this very sensitive and impactful work.
- Minimal Investment: As the old adage says, “you will get out of something what you put into it.” When making decisions about how to use scarce financial resources, boards are tempted to conduct their evaluation “on the cheap”. A healthy investment of both time and money in board evaluation should actually pay off in terms of heightened efficiency and effectiveness, and alignment of effort to strategy.
- Using the Wrong Tool: Using the wrong tool for the job can create more problems than it solves. Link back to the drivers of the evaluation and match the tool to those.
Despite the pitfalls associated with board, committee, chair and individual evaluation, which can all be mitigated through effective methodology and implementation, there are significant benefits to be gained.
Post-Board Evaluation: Development and Actions
Perhaps the least well-done aspect of board evaluation, yet the most important, is taking corrective action:
- Identify skills gaps, resource and undertake training and development opportunities.
- Institute appropriate changes in any area where the board and members are not fulfilling their legal and governance responsibilities.
- Disclose outcomes and changes to owners of the evaluation: the board and senior management.
- Communicate with and coach individual board members in filling identified performance gaps. It is common for the Chair to take the lead in this.
- Give stakeholders, regulatory bodies and others assurance that the board has undergone a rigorous evaluation, by disclosing the process.
- Use the results to feed into next year’s planning process, objectives, priorities, and resource allocations, and board and committee work plans.
To effectively tackle the issues and opportunities a School Division may face, the board as a collective must possess a range of competencies. No board member will know everything about governance and everything about the education sector. So boards often use a “Board Matrix” or Profile to identify competency gaps that can then be filled through orientation and ongoing education and training, or through the use of outside experts in specifically identified areas of weakness..
The matrix compiles the skills, experience and other capacity attributes of a board. The matrix below includes general competencies, although you should discuss and agree on the attributes sought after for effective board functioning and governance for your board.
This competency matrix, which is often completed in conjunction with the annual board evaluation, is usually done through a self-assessment process with each board member self-reporting their proficiency related to a given competency, or it may be completed by a board Committee or Chair in collaboration with board members. You should agree on the appropriate process and rating system.
The combined results of the board evaluation and attributes matrix are then used to bolster and inform the on-boarding process for new board members, and ongoing education for all.
Tips for on-boarding new Board members:
- Commences upon election and takes place over a few months (hold three different sessions, three months apart, not just one overwhelming one)
- Includes orientation both to the institution (operations) and the board (governance):
- SSBA Governance Handbook
- School Board functioning
- The Education Act 1995, legal duties, powers, accountabilities and implications
- Governance Manual, Board level policies
- Board and Committee structure, charters and work plans, agendas and meetings
- Combination of reading material, meetings with key board leaders, Director, senior staff:
- Facilities Tour with Director
- Orientation meeting with Chair
- Expectations of you:
- Meeting participation
- Committee service
- Conduct, confidentiality, conflicts of interest and fiduciary duty
- Expenses and travel
- Training and education
- Align orientation and ongoing education with identified capacity needs/gaps, consider making these prescriptive and mandatory
|Top 10 Benefits to the Board member, the Board and the School Board of Ongoing Governance Education|
1. Board members add value to the School Board and students
2. The School Board has a reputation for good governance
3. Effective oversight of the direction and control of the School Board
4. Reduced risk and increased capacity
5. Common frames and healthier relationships
6. Board members know what they are doing
7. Board members hit the ground running
8. Board members stay current
9. Board members obtain certification
10. Board members have instant credibility