“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” said Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics. While he wasn’t speaking specifically about governing boards, his quotation is apt. How well prepared is your board for the future, predictable or not?
Boards must work concurrently across three points of time: past, present and future. The oversight work of boards by definition is historical. Boards look to the past to understand how well the college, university or state system is performing against plans and goals. Events happen in the past that the board reviews. Did we meet our institutional objectives this past year? How accurate was the budget projection, or were there shortfalls or overages? Did the institution hit its enrollment goals?
Boards also live in the present. How is the university responding to a crisis, such as student protests, or how well is it addressing pressing issues, such as the employment conditions of adjunct faculty? What are the financial costs of a new tuition and aid policy?
Finally, boards must work in the future. They approve a five-year strategic plan, for example. But they also are stewards of the university and long-term guardians of its mission, looking well into the future. It is this third area that is most difficult, given the flux in which most colleges, universities and state systems find themselves.
While it is impossible to “futureproof” a board, assessing its strengths and potential vulnerabilities can go a long way toward ensuring that it is prepared for what’s ahead. Such assessments give board leaders and the administrators a sense of the board’s strengths and the areas where it is potentially vulnerable, and can provide a road map for improvement.
We know that boards vary in their level of functioning, in the scope of their work and in their level of sophistication. Governance is rarely uniform, and different boards will find some approaches resonate more with them than others. But here are some general ideas you might consider to help your board be prepared for the future.
Certain key fundamentals support governance, and most boards should already have these in place. But some boards lack these elements and, without a firm foundation, will struggle to address future challenges.
The board chair and institutional president should easily answer the following questions, which are intended to help a board determine a baseline of its effectiveness.
- Are there written expectations for trustees?
- Are there mechanisms for orienting new board members?
- Are board members asked to prepare for board meetings so they can contribute to the discourse? (For example, are key documents sent out 10 to 14 days in advance?) Do board members actually prepare for meetings?
- Do board members physically attend all meetings, with rare exceptions? How many join by phone? And how many simply don’t show up?
- Is it possible to tell what is most important for the institution by looking at the board agenda?
- Does the board have a set agenda, and is it designed to promote discussion and debate about the most pressing issues?
- Has the board (or a board subcommittee) reviewed the board bylaws within the last five years?
Boards need to know where they are performing well, where they have blind spots and where they might need to improve. As they discuss their ability to navigate the whitewater ahead, boards may wish to consider the following:
- Time spent on meaningful issues. There are many complex issues to address and time is limited, so a board must spend it effectively and efficiently. Does the board have clear goals and objectives for each meeting? To what extent do discussions allow it to explore complicated topics? Is the meeting efficient? Does the board take the necessary time to deliberate important issues? Does it have the information it needs to govern well?
- The use of board member talent and knowledge. Board members should be intentionally selected or invited to participate based on their talents, skill sets, knowledge and ability to work well together. To what extent is the board composed of diverse thinkers? Are the areas of expertise that the institution needs reflected in the various members of the board? How well does the board tap into the collective wisdom of its members? Does the board work together as a high-performing team? Does the board add value?
- The relationship between the board and the president. The board-president relationship is complex, in part because of the multiple roles involved: the board oversees the president as boss, serves as a strategic thought partner and is also a coach. Does the board play these three roles well, or is it predisposed to one type of work over the others? Does the board regularly and effectively evaluate the president? Does the board listen to the president? Is there mutual trust, respect and accountability? Is there open, two-way communication and transparency?
- Board integrity. The board should evaluate its sense of integrity as well as that of the president and college, university or system. Does the board have the capacity to ensure that both it and the institution or system it oversees are operating within the boundaries of applicable laws? Does the board have and uphold a conflict-of-interest policy? How transparent is the board in its decision making? Does the board maintain confidentiality?
- Board member satisfaction. It is important to understand the extent to which board members believe their work has a positive impact, their level of overall satisfaction with the board, and the degree to which they find the experience rewarding. After all, these roles are voluntary. And boards want to ensure they are getting the most from their volunteers.
Other categories of possible assessment include the participation and engagement of board members, the effectiveness of board education, and the depth of board knowledge.
Furthermore, boards can assess performance in a number of ways. One approach is to look at simple yet potentially powerful questions as presented in a two-by-two matrix defined by frequency and value or impact.
Finally, to understand how well it is prepared for the future, the board should assess its culture. While it is important to understand if the board carries out its functions effectively, it is equally important to ask how the board does what it does. Its beliefs and ways of working and engaging are passed on to new trustees and can become deeply engrained, often without examination. The group itself becomes the “invisible director,” as Clayton Alderfer astutely noted 30 years ago (Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1986) of the influence it can exert.
Effective governance demands that board members ask two questions: To what extent do we have the right board culture, given: 1) the work we have to do, and 2) the context in which we are working?
A board must also confront two challenges when assessing group culture. The first is to make something that is often invisible to those people immersed in it observable (“fish don’t know they’re in water”). The second is to find a shared language to describe culture in ways that can become actionable. This is difficult work and something with which boards and other groups have long struggled. We have designed a board culture self-assessment that accomplishes both of these. For more information, see the Penn AHEAD or Trower & Trower websites. Organizational culture is a complex phenomenon and difficult to describe succinctly and consistently. Without agreement about what one is seeking and a strategy to do that, boards will struggle on this dimension.
While it is important to assess the dimensions described here at the board level, board leaders should also identify variances within a board, because understanding the differences that exist across board members may be even more telling. How cohesive is the board and its culture? Do people have vastly different assessments of their experience, the board culture or how well the board is working? Do those differences vary by a trustee’s length of service, gender, race/ethnicity or membership on a specific committee?
Finally, boards can conduct the assessments themselves, but they may be better served by having outside experts help craft questions and make sense of the results. People with fresh eyes who are able to call things as they see them can help surface assumptions and keep blind spots in check. (Remember that reference to the fish and water?)
“The future ain’t what it used to be,” said Yogi Berra. Ensuring that your board is ready for that future begins with an understanding of where it is today.
Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass. Matt Hartley, associate dean and professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at Widener University, also contributed to the ideas in this article.
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