Boards Need the Right Competencies

Most trustees come to the board table with no clue about what to expect. Cathy Trower and Peter Eckel examine the individual competencies they should have to improve how the board governs.

March 23, 2017
 
 
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Much of the conversation on effective governance looks at what boards do as a group, and that’s all to the good. The best boards are those in which the sum adds up to more than the individual parts. Boards operate as collectives of individuals.

But we don’t choose a group of people for board service, we choose individuals. And what are -- and should be -- the competencies of those individuals? This essay looks at the individual competencies of board members that will help improve how the collective governs.

Individuals matter to boards. While the trustees of public colleges and universities or state systems are usually gubernatorial appointees, private or independent institutions are typically populated in “self-perpetuating fashion,” nominated by current board members. Some college and university boards have constituent representatives -- for example, students, faculty, members of a religious order, alumni -- and therefore accept nominations made by others.

Whatever the selection process, people join boards for a host of reasons and with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise. Some trustees have never served on a nonprofit board, let alone that of an academic institution. Others have corporate board experience and may lack knowledge of higher education and shared governance. Some trustees serve to “give back,” while others have more personally motivated (looks good on a résumé) or political reasons, or a combination of these.

The point is that most trustees come to the board table with no formal training about board service, no clue about what to expect and little understanding of what’s expected of them.

Thus, the importance of a comprehensive orientation for new trustees. Too often orientations, if done at all, are quick and incomplete (and include a campus tour and lunch with a student or two). Effective orientations should provide an overview of the university or system, including budget, risk, mission and values; bring new trustees up to speed on the external environment and the context in which they must govern; and, finally, orient newcomers to how the board governs, the board’s culture and what it means to be an effective trustee. Unfortunately, this last element is often overlooked -- and with consequences.

One Bad Apple

We hear many stories about boards and governance gone awry, and oftentimes about a “rogue” trustee -- someone who doesn’t understand the practice of governance or disruptively violates the culture of the board. Although boards and presidents hope they never have a rogue in their midst, a small 2009 study of community college presidents reported that 97 percent of respondents had “personally experienced or knew of colleagues who had a rogue trustee on their board.”

The behaviors of rogues can vary, depending on who’s describing them, from relatively benign (meddlesome, micromanaging) to malicious (attacking or undermining the president). And although they can be elected or appointed, elected rogues are especially problematic because they typically can only be removed by the electorate or when their terms end. Therefore, they can do a lot of damage over both the short and long term.

Start With the Selection

It is common practice for institutions with self-perpetuating boards to build a roster of talented individuals. Distinguished alumni, community members and corporate and nonprofit leaders are cultivated for future board openings. Institutions typically match potential board members against a list of criteria that include: demographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender, race/ethnicity), geographic location (e.g., nearby, state, region, international) and expertise (e.g., financial, real estate, social media, IT, PR, health care and even higher education).

Some colleges and universities add other criteria to the mix, such as:

  • resource development capacity (e.g., ability to get/connections to resources, ability to give)
  • oversight expertise (e.g., risk management, compliance, legal, investment/audit)
  • knowledge of key audiences (e.g., current or former charity CEO; former college president; corporate partner; foundation/grant maker; large community-based nonprofit)

Boards with a range of expertise and characteristics tend to govern better than those that are quite homogenous. One governance consultant tells the story of a board in which half the members were lawyers and the other half were church leaders. They had limited expertise in or experience with key areas such as finance and audit, risk, real estate, capital projects, and higher education. And, as the consultant said, they were in constant battle, either arguing or praying.

For public universities, which must accept political appointees, it is good practice for presidents and board chairs to identify areas of strength and weakness in their board’s composition and meet with the governor’s appointment staff to discuss what to consider in making appointments. Some public institutions go a step farther and develop a list of individuals who meet stated criteria and take those names to the governor.

Then Add Competencies

Savvy boards and presidents are moving beyond individual demographics and expertise (and individual wealth) to get to actual individual governance competencies: in other words, the ability to do the job.

A 2009 report entitled “Competency-Based Governance” from the American Hospital Association’s Center for Healthcare Governance provides an excellent distillation of some key competencies that should be sought in all hospital board members and that apply equally well to higher education trustees. They include: accountability, collaboration, innovative thinking, complexity management, organizational awareness, professionalism, relationship building, strategic orientation, information seeking, change leadership and team leadership. For each of these competencies, the report defines the individual trustee competency, lists behaviors associated with the competency and provides sample interview questions to identify the competency in a prospective trustee.

Let’s take innovative thinking as an example.

Defined: The ability to apply complex concepts, develop creative solutions or adapt previous solutions in new ways for breakthroughs in the field.

Behaviors: Makes complex ideas or situations clear, simple or understandable, as in reframing a problem or using an analogy; fosters creation of new concepts that may not be obvious to others to explain situations or resolve problems; looks at things in new ways that yield new or innovative approaches -- breakthrough thinking; shifts the paradigm; starts a new line of thinking; encourages these behaviors in others.

Sample interview questions: Think of a situation or situations where you were involved in reinventing or creating a new program, product or service.

  • How did you identify and help others understand all the factors contributing to the need to reinvent the existing resource or to create something completely new?
  • How did you help make complex ideas or situations more clear or understandable?
  • How did you help explain problems or obstacles in ways that may not have been obvious to others?
  • How did you help others involved in the creative process look at things in new ways?
  • Have you participated in a process of breakthrough thinking and what role did you play in the process?

The AHA report also provides an example from Presbyterian Healthcare Services of the competency-based governance model in use with sitting members where trustees are evaluated against expected individual competencies. Some of the items listed on PHS board members’ competencies and definitions table are as follows:

Competency: Team player.
Definition: Encourages and facilitates cooperation within the board.

Competency: Demonstrated commitment to the mission, vision, values and ethical responsibilities to the community served by PHS.
Definition: Uses Presbyterian’s vision, values, purpose, strategies and the PHS Plan as a basis for discussions and decisions.

Competency: Demonstrated willingness to devote the time necessary for board work, including board education.
Definition: Welcomes requests for work to be completed at other times than board meetings.

Another example comes from the YMCA, which has developed a Board Leadership Competency model. The model includes four overarching areas of importance: mission advancement, collaboration, operational effectiveness and personal growth. Underneath each of those is a set of competencies including definitions and checklists.

For example, a competency under collaboration is inclusion, defined as embracing contributions from a wide range of people; its checklist includes these (among others):

  • Embraces the differences of all people (i.e., culture, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, nation of origin, etc.);
  • Treats all people with dignity and respect;
  • Builds consensus by intentionally listening and engaging in diverse perspectives;
  • Promotes cooperation and collaboration with other organizations to achieve mutual benefits to all stakeholders; and
  • Advocates for and designs the strategic vision that reflects the diverse needs and concerns of the whole community.

Put Competencies Into Action

Some colleges and universities are already moving in the direction of individual board member competencies. For example, Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh has added a list of demonstrated inclusion competencies to its board composition matrix that includes more traditional characteristics such as alumni status, professional background and demographics. And, in fact, most higher education boards would be well served by adding an individual competency approach to their current trustee recruitment and screening efforts.

For instance, the governance or trusteeship committee could begin by determining and defining the competencies that are most needed for effective board dialogues and decisions and then seek feedback from the rest of the board members, key administrators and faculty leaders who interact regularly with the board.

The next step would be to identify the corresponding behaviors that demonstrate each competency or skill. The board could then use its list to assess both current board members and future board members against the competencies with an eye to where there are gaps (for prospective trustees to fill) and as areas for current trustee education or training and develop a plan to build trustee competence.

Boards are groups, and the best ones function like teams. But even the best teams understand the contributions of each team member and have expectations for the skills and competencies each must bring. Similarly, the best boards pay close attention to what each individual brings to the table -- not only in terms of background, skill sets, demographic characteristics and functional areas of expertise but also the competencies that encompass that person’s ability to function as part of a high-performing board.

Bio

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm; a board member at BoardSource in Washington; and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass. 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.

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