A useful tool for board self assessments

What happens at your organisation when you need a new board member?  Maybe the conversation goes something like this:

“How about John?  He is very credible and knows a lot about our sector.”

“Yeah maybe, but do we need another older white guy?  How about Marama?  She’s a dynamic young wahine who would bring some valuable new perspectives.”

“Yes, she’d be good – except I don’t think she has much governance experience does she?  How about considering Marilyn…”

And so the conversation goes, until eventually, often simply by deferring to whoever has the strongest opinion, the board agrees who they will shoulder tap for the vacant position.

This approach of simply brainstorming names of people already known to board members is not the best way of building an effective governance team, but it seems to be surprisingly common.  And what is actually happening in situations like the one above is that board members are really having two conversations simultaneously – one about whom to consider, and the other about which characteristics are most important.  In this case, different board members are putting value on credibility,  sector knowledge,  diversity, new perspectives and governance experience – all of which are valid considerations.  But, because the conversation jumps straight into debating the comparative merits of specific people, there is no opportunity to build consensus about which characteristics matter most and what is currently missing.

A better way of going about this is to start by explicitly identifying the gaps on the current board and prioritising these before going through a process to find the best-fit person. 

How?  Here is a Governance Self-Assessment worksheet which I have developed over the last few years which can be adapted for assessing where a board is at currently and what might be missing.  

You are welcome to use and adapt this as you see fit, and acknowledgement of the source and sharing any improvements you make would be much appreciated.

Here’s how to use this worksheet:

  1.  As a board, decide which overall skills, experience, behaviours and diversity you want your board to have.  The worksheet is pre-populated with suggestions in each category, and these are probably a reasonable start for most boards in Aotearoa NZ, particularly in the non-profit sector.  Adapt and add to these as appropriate, and decide whether each criterion is “Essential” or “Desirable.”  
  2. Ask each board member and your CE / manager to fill out the worksheet.  This involves each person assessing themselves against each criterion and also providing their assessment on how the overall board rates on each.
  3. Collate the results.  This can be done by the Chair or a board member, or it can be done confidentially through an external consultant.
  4. As a board, review the collated results.  What are the key gaps in governance skills and experience?  What are some of the common themes in how board members think governance can be improved?  From this, what are the key characteristics you are looking for in your new board member, and which ones are top priority?  (Again this conversation can be done internally, but sometimes it is useful to use someone independent, and consultants like me and others with good governance and facilitation experience can be useful for guiding this process.)
  5. Now that you have an agreed list of what you are looking for, you can decide whether to go through a formal recruitment process where the role is externally advertised, or whether you prefer a more informal process.  Best results usually come from spreading the net wide! (There are more suggestions which are particularly designed for philanthropic governance about possible ways to find and recruit best-fit trustees in my paper “Four steps to good practice family foundation governance“, published in 2018.)

A good board is essential to an effective and impactful organisation, so ensuring that you have the best-fit people on your board is important.  I hope this tool is helpful and I welcome your feedback. 

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