Ask the Expert

Why evaluate your Board?

What is a Board? Well, it’s the engine that drives the organisation. It ensures the organisation is moving in the right direction, is working effectively, and is properly engaged with and protected from the external environment, including the protection of its reputation. It’s the body that is responsible for the well-being of the organisation, whether that’s taken to mean enhancing shareholders’ interests, or something incorporating a wider stakeholder group.

But who are they? Well, they usually extremely skilled and experienced people, who potentially bring those skills and that experience to bear on the organisation in question. Just because people are skilled and experienced, however, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily use those skills and experience in the best way. Nor does it mean that, together, they deliver improved performance – they may all be operating as individuals, rather than a team that can genuinely take the collective responsibility that they really ought to.

Board evaluation can tell you whether your board is working at its optimum for your organisation. It gives you the chance to examine whether your Board members are bringing their skills and experience to bear in a way that benefits the organisation. It can tell you whether the group that constitutes the Board is just a group of people or is actually a team, knitted together, and driving high-performance across the piece. And it can tell you whether the direction that the organisation is going in is well thought through, and the information that the Board gets to monitor progress is what it really needs.

So, why wouldn’t you evaluate the Board?


If you are a good Chair, why do you need peer support?

Is your Chair perfect? Probably not. They will be able, skilled, experienced, and they may be good at engaging Board members to drive the performance of the organisation. Chairing a Board is a significant task, however, and can be isolating. Chairs need somewhere to talk about the kinds of issues that they encounter day by day. It’s not always appropriate for them to talk about those things with the rest of the Board. After all, some of those things may be about Board members. And they might need the kind of encouragement that they don’t get necessarily from their own Board members. They line manage the Chief Executive on behalf the board, so they can’t always talk about things with the Chief Executive either, no matter how good this relationship. And they might just need new ideas, different ways of doing things, inspiration. Peer support can offer these sorts of things. It can offer confidential environments in which people with similar concerns and issues come together to support one another mutually. It can reduce that sense of isolation. And it can help to generate new ideas that can then be tested back in the organisation by talking to board members and the executive team.

That’s one of the reasons why a group of us came together and established the Association of Chairs. Peer support, along with improved understanding of what makes for good Chairing and effective Chairs, is the ambition of the Association. And the positive welcome that we have had from Chairs, funders, headhunters, and many others in the third sector, just emphasises the importance of this issue for third sector Chairs.


Do non-executive directors need training?

NEDs will often be highly skilled and experienced Board members. They will have been chosen not only for their skills and experience in a particular area, but their wider capacity to contribute to the work of the Board, and their ability to fit in with and contribute effectively to the Board as a team.

Of course, NEDs will need induction into the organisation if they are to do their job effectively. They need to know about the organisation’s stakeholders, its processes, its particular business challenges and so forth.

But Boards take collective responsibility for the decisions that they make. That means that a NED needs to know enough about an extremely wide range of topics. It’s okay to allow those with more experience to guide the debate, but it’s not enough to abdicate responsibility to them for the decisions taken. And it’s very hard to be Renaissance woman these days – there is such a wide range of issues to cover. Many topics can’t be parked squarely in one expert area – for instance, arguably social media is a digital thing, but it has a massive impact on customer service, employee engagement, quality – you name it!

Some people don’t like the term training – they think training is beneath them. But whatever we want to call it, it’s important that NEDs develop and broaden their skills and experience for the good of the organisation for which they are responsible.


How can you future proof your Board?

The organisation’s Board is responsible for its performance and well-being. It sets the strategic direction for the organisation as well as monitoring its performance and protecting its reputation. In order to set the strategic direction, the Board must understand something about what the world will look like in the future. There’s no point in having a strategic direction based on now, when the world is changing around you – anyone who developed a strategy in 2007 will be aware what a difference a year makes. And when you’re thinking about three or more years and, importantly, ensuring that the next three years or so will take you towards the twenty-year future that you’re hoping for, you need Board members who are able to scan the horizon effectively and draw in expertise from outside to help them.

It’s not that you need perfect prediction skills – that’s wholly unrealistic. But you do need to be visionary about where you want your organisation to be given likely changes in the external environment. So it’s important to include people who are working at the cutting edge now when you’re selecting Board members, as well as those that bring the experience of history (after all you don’t want to be doomed to repeat it!). But you also need to give your board time to explore the future, time to scan the horizon, and time with other visionary future thinkers to brainstorm the things that will be critical for your organisation. That way, at least you can keep an eye on changing circumstances and note whether you’re going in the direction you anticipated. You might even be able to take advantage of, or protect against, those obscure outlying events that you would not otherwise have noticed.


Why do inclusion policies fail?

For lots of reasons. Simply having a policy in place whilst necessary, is not sufficient to create an inclusive organisation. To start you need to have a clear vision of what you are aiming for and how it will be manifest in your organisation. Importantly to be effective, buy in is vital from senior management and well as a well planned implementation process.

Change only occurs when the decision makers implementing the process make more inclusive decisions. The initiative must encourage this by making them acountable and shifting their thinking and behaviour.

Accountability should be built into the inclusion strategy as part of the initial design. The design phase can be structured to help achieve this from the beginning. All the stakeholders in the process must choose to accept accountability for things with which they agree and that help them attain their key objectives.