Board assessments: trash or treasure?

A family of treasure hunters from Sanford, Florida spent 13 years scouring the Florida coastline and finally discovered gold from a 300-year-old Spanish shipwreck worth $350,000. While most of the proceeds went to the state and the company that owns diving rights to the site, the parents say the greatest treasure was spending time with their son and daughter during the treasure hunt.

Board assessments are a lot like treasure hunts. Bear with me. I know one sounds like pulling teeth while the other sounds like fun in the sun. Successful discoveries in the ocean or on land are the result of working together as a team and using every tool you have. And much like treasure seekers, when board members engage in evaluation, know they’ll find incredible value if they’re willing to put in the time and enlist good resources. Unfortunately, most boards don’t have their eyes on the prize. Instead their eyes are on “checking the box” and moving on.

We’re featuring a game-changing book in our summary library about governance by Cathy Trower. When I asked her how The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership genuinely adds to the body of resources we have on the topic, she answered with this:

Trower: In this book—a practice-based field guide if you will–readers come to better understand the theories that underlie the Governance as Leadership (GaL) model (e.g., critical thinking, individual behaviors and group dynamics, cognitive errors, teambuilding, leadership) but more importantly, they hear from actual board chairs and CEOs about what happened to them while putting the ideas into action. Readers learn how to get started, gain traction and actually sustain a new norm for board performance.

More to point of this blog, I also asked Trower to weigh in on board assessments:

CausePlanet: In chapter seven, you assert that board self-assessments alone do little to affect board performance. What advice do you have for boards that are guilty of using only this tool?

Trower: There are several important issues embedded in this question. First, a primary reason I assert board self-assessments do little to affect board performance is because too many boards see them as a “check-the-box” experience. Oh, yes, we did a self-assessment; we do one every year (or every other year). Yet, no one can really recall where the findings went or what happened as a result. Self-assessments can only drive higher performance if the board takes the time to discuss the findings as well as what needs to improve and describes a path to do so. Then, it re-evaluates and conducts another discussion, all moving toward continuous improvement.

Second, as your question asserts, this is only one tool; so even if used effectively where there is reflection and learning, a self-assessment can become stale and routine. Board members complete the form without real thought. Thus, boards are well-served to consider other forms of assessment, such as having an outsider observe board meetings and report on what he/she saw or assigning an “on-the-balcony” board member who not only is engaged in the board conversation at meetings but also reports after the meeting about what he/she observed (in terms of group dynamics and dialogue).

Third, it is important to have the staff members who regularly interact with the board assess the board’s performance (anonymously), not just board members. Staff members sometimes see the board’s effectiveness quite differently.

Fourth, some boards are utilizing 360 reviews where each member rates all others and him/herself against observable behaviors. This ups the ante for individual performance. The main point is that great governance requires self-awareness about performance as individuals and as a collective. Self-awareness increases with measurement, discussion, and learning about areas of strength and weakness, and board performance increases when there is deliberate attention paid to how to improve and concrete action to do so.

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

The Nonprofit Leadership Team: Building the Board-Executive Director Parntership

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