Do you belong to a board? How healthy is it? With the kick off of a new year, I invite you to encourage your board to conduct an annual leadership effectiveness assessment (if you haven’t already). Regardless of the type of board(s) you belong to (corporate, private and/or non-profit), your board(s) will heighten its/their effectiveness by committing to this process.
I began conducting board leadership effectiveness assessments at the request of a CEO client over a decade ago. In my role as a trusted confidante to CEOs, it has been very common to exchange about the dynamics and climate of the board and how to best support his/her effectiveness as a director and leader of the organization.
My clients and I agree that it is extremely beneficial to work with a 3rd party. It has helped my CEO clients to engage me with the support of their Chair or Governance Chair to be a trusted partner to the board. And, Chair and directors are often my champions for engaging with this process. In meeting everyone on the board, I can share insights that sometimes are not easily addressed within the board, between the directors, with the CEO and/or with the Chair.
While an internal general counsel could conduct a process to assess their boards, this approach may not be as objective as having someone who is totally detached from the outcome and has no preconceived judgments. Besides, I personally believe that it is important that the general counsel not be the facilitator but be included in the process so that his/her observations are also taken into consideration, given his/her important role with the board. Similarly, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and the Chief Human Officer (CHO) need to be polled.
The Board Performance Assessment that I have developed helps my board clients to be more proactive in evaluating how they execute their fundamental role as a board, evaluate the interrelationships within the board, assure that they attend to governance priorities, and are actively involved in the development and oversight of the organization’s business strategy and goals.
Not every board’s dynamic is the same. Here’s what to consider when choosing how to approach an evaluation for yours:
- Don’t conduct an assessment just to check off getting it done. If you are a Governance Chair, a Board Chair or a CEO, take a few minutes to reflect about your board and honestly take note of how healthy it really is.
Are the dynamics as healthy as they should be? Is communication within the board (including between the Chair and the CEO/Executive Director, as well as between the directors and the CEO/Executive Director/Chair) fair, good or outstanding? Are there sticky issues overdue for examination? Is the board’s composition great or just ok? Is diversity of skills, experience and talent optimal and in alignment with the strategic trajectory of the organization? Is the board clear of the boundaries with management, investors and shareholders? Is the board’s composition due for refreshment or augmentation? Etc.
- Be clear that there should be a director self-assessment as well as a peer evaluation. Stay away from associating “assessment” with “criticism.” Rather, consider assessment as a powerful approach to constructively examine how each director is effective individually and collectively. No one should feel threatened. Everyone should feel eager to be part of the process and empowered as a result of it. Ensure that governance will be examined in a constructive and helpful manner. Ask your CEO for what s/he would like to know more about regarding his/her effectiveness wearing the director hat.
- Refrain from filling out a questionnaire online. Rather, invite a conversation—ideally in person, but at least over the phone. It is ok to have some questions answered by email in addition to a verbal exchange while cognizant of total confidentiality and security. There is enormous value to including a 3rd party, such as myself, in this process to probe during the moment when any insights are being shared.
- Ensure that the results are effectively summarized according to the priorities.
- Make sure the outcome includes a list of next steps for the committees, the Chair, the CEO and individual directors.
What results should you look for?
- Clear identification of what works well with the board, what needs improvement and what is missing.
- Surfacing of delicate and important role and responsibility issues.
- Clarity or greater clarity of Chair, CEO and committee roles and alignment on the roles and responsibilities.
- Identification of any unconscious split between board members with a long history with the organization and newer board members. (Opening this up for discussion clears the air and explains some previous attitudes and opinions on issues.)
- Clarification of expectations amongst all directors.
- Succinct recommendations in areas of board dynamics, board composition, roles and responsibilities, succession planning and other governance issues.
Conducting a leadership effectiveness assessment ensures that no assumptions are made about the board, that elephants get out of the room and that sticky issues are addressed with an attitude of maturity. It is an opportune time to agree to what works and to applaud the people who are really taking the lead in their individual roles. It is also a time to get insights about how leadership, opining during meetings, deliberation, process adoption and priorities can be better addressed. This is a wonderful opportunity to take the board to a new level of effectiveness, collaboration, cordiality, respect, trust and openness. It is the time to have a breakthrough to welcome positive change and make progress in the needed direction.
Remember, a board need not be dysfunctional to commit to a board leadership effectiveness assessment. It is good governance to adhere to an annual process either as a stand-alone assignment or as a precursor to gathering the board for a strategic planning session to align the board on strategy.