Helping boards stay strategic
In my role of advising FE institutions on how governance can be more impactful, the most common complaint I hear from senior leaders about their Board, is that it is not sufficiently strategic – that they wish it had a more strategic focus.
As senior leaders, governors, and governance professionals, we all know that the role of the board is a strategic one, so why then is it sometimes so hard to achieve this? I detail below a few elements that I’ve observed in my board work, that I believe are key to enabling the board to function as it should, at a strategic level.
- Board reports should encourage it and make it easy for board members to remain strategic.
As I mentioned above, senior leaders often want their board to be more strategic. However, when I sift through board reports, they are often filled with operational detail. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that if the board is to have a strategic conversation, the material it is discussing should be strategic, not operationally focused. An easy solution, it to have each board report contain a heading: Strategic questions for the Board to consider or, strategic implications for board consideration, followed by questions/implications contextualised to the report.
This serves two purposes:
- Reminds the author of the report that they need to report on strategic implications, not just data or activity,
- Reminds the board members that they should be interrogating the reports they receive
2. Governors need to ask good questions to add value.
According to Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, good questions focus on something that matters, and usually take two forms – those which take us deeper and those which take us wider. In addition, the importance of training our boardroom minds to respond positively to organisational difficulties as revealed by management, and primarily to be future focused.
- What leads you to think so, what data do you have, what have you seen, where does that work?
- What have we missed, what other options might we consider, how might our assumptions be flawed, who has a different view?
- How can we help, what might we do about this, where should we go next?
3. Information received should be equally split between internal and external.
To understand the bigger picture and take a long-term view, it is essential for board members to have access to information outside of the internal reporting that is provided by senior management. Ideally, boards should be seeking a 50/50 split of internal and external information, and such information should be both formal and informal. Such information might be from sector bench marking, sector news, stakeholder feedback, a coffee with a union leader, a conversation with a staff member in the lift, or a partner at a community event. Such an external focus can keep boards out of the perennial weeds and instead work with management in driving forward the organisation to a brighter future.