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?
If this is a bit of a foreign concept for you, you’re not alone. Board health is a relatively new phrase, but one that – if given the proper attention – can positively change the way your board operates.
A healthy board is vital for numerous reasons. It holds your board accountable, keeps the board focused on what matters by ensuring it stays aligned with the values and mission of the organization, and to make sure the board is complying with all obligations.
Conducting a Board Health Check
So, what do we mean when we say ‘board health’, and why is assessing it necessary?
To put it in the simplest terms, board health enables you to gauge how well you’re doing in all aspects of governance; ranging from relationships within the board to the broader stakeholder community as well as decision-making processes and meeting effectiveness. It’s essentially an assessment that helps you identify positives and opportunities for board growth plus identify negatives or potential risks your board is facing – especially with respect to how a board attend to their fiduciary responsibilities and balances these responsibilities with management – which are two of the most important aspects to an effective board.
A board health check will help your board realise perceived weaknesses, definite strengths, and use this intel to raise standards and improve function. This in turn creates a waterfall effect that better serves the stakeholders of the school – everyone from the community the school resides in to those your board serves directly (i.e. students, parents, teachers and accreditation associations).
Conducting a board health check will also help you to see how efficient and effective the governance for the entire organisation is, how appropriate all its offerings and services are, and to ensure it’s meeting all necessary obligations.
You might be thinking, “Okay then, what does a ‘healthy’ board look like?” Well, there’s one very good way to tell.
At the heart of every board, there are three very important themes. They are:
- Intergroup Relationships
- Relationship with the Head of School
- Performance relative to Vision and Strategic Planning
If your board is healthy, a health check (otherwise known as an evaluation) will show that the board and school’s progression is tracking in alignment with those themes. But if your board is experiencing unhealthy symptoms, you’ll be able to see a disconnect between the themes and the way the board (and overarching organisation) runs.
Make the Board Health Check a Priority
Often boards are time-starved and don’t dedicate the necessary energy needed to engage in an evaluation process like this. But, the health check should be at the top of your board’s yearly ‘to do’ list. Not doing so will be detrimental to the board and school, because ‘bad’ board health can often lead to things like:
- A dissonance between the actions and aims of the directors and the community
- Micro-managing, or alternatively a distinct lack of management
- Mistrust among directors, and an overall lack of transparency
- Long-winded, seemingly directionless board meetings
- Directors being unclear about what’s expected of them
- Decisions taking too long to be made, and/or not being followed through adequately
- Inconsistency, and a lack of communication
- Relational challenges, with conflicts arising often
- Lack of effective leadership
- High turnover of board members
So, if your board is exhibiting any of these symptoms, what are some things you can do to improve it?
- Make sure your board members are intermittently briefed about how they’re expected to contribute to the board. Make their roles clear, to avoid any uncertainties from your directors. Take every opportunity to remind them of the school’s core values and core purpose.
- Create a solid structure for board meetings, including the need for decision-making if applicable, and provide enough information to all board members to make sure they can adequately make such a decision when it’s required.
- If conflicts arise, try to keep discussions on topic and rooted to the core values and purpose of the school. If conflict is purely personal, does it happen between the same people each time? Perhaps it’s a simple matter of a personality clash, or is it something more in-depth?
- Make sure you’ve got a great facilitator. Some Chairs will need to build their skills through training and external guidance. At a minimum, a good facilitator distances themselves from the topics and is constantly directing discussions to ensure equity in terms of board member input, as well as keeping everyone on topic. Check out this related article on what makes a great Chair.
- If you experience frequent board turnover, try to find out why through private exit interviews. This can help pinpoint any unhappiness within the board, so you can treat it at board-level. Perhaps the problem results from your recruitment mechanisms. Look into profiling ideal board members and recruit based on that profile.
There are plenty of things that can impact the health of your board, but by far the most important thing for good board health is knowing who your stakeholders are. This can be done through stakeholder mapping, which is essentially a visual representation of your stakeholders. Stakeholder mapping can provide a beneficial analysis that helps you identify stakeholders, their dispositions, and categorise them on a scale of direct or indirect involvement which can allow you to assess your performance relative to their specific needs.
In conclusion, the health of the boardroom is a direct reflection of the health of the organisation it oversees, and feedback through a health check is one of the most effective ways to track such metrics. Further, you don’t need to be a large or prestigious school in order to have viable results. Your board can be in tip-top shape, even if your school itself is deemed as ‘small’, so good health is always something to aim for. After all, prevention is better than cure, and conducting a board health check is the best way to do that.
Michael Iannini, Council of Internationals Schools Affiliated Consultant
Paul Smith, Founder and CEO of Future Directors Institute
Michael Iannini is based in Hong Kong and Paul Smith splits his time between Australia and New Zealand. You can learn more about the work Michael and Paul do by joining their School Governance Network LinkedIn Group or visiting www.pdacademia.com where they archive all their School Governance webinars and articles.