There is a growing requirement or strong recommendation for link governors to be appointed for specialist areas such as careers, SEND, mental health, sustainability, cyber, etc. This has led some colleges to review their skills audits and recruit individuals with such specialist skills, to both meet these recommendations, as well as ensuring specialist skills as relevant to the future strategy, are present.
It is understood that link governors are appointed to take the lead on an area of their governing board’s responsibilities or to help monitor a specific improvement priority. This is seen as an opportunity to use an individual’s experience and skill set, as well as being a useful way for the governing body to develop positive links with staff and to maintain a visible and professional profile within the college. However, whilst rarely stated or understood, the primary responsibility of a link governor is to enrich the understanding of every member of the board on the area to which they are linked, to enhance informed decision making. It is therefore essential to ensure there is a defined opportunity and mechanism for such learning to take place.
Boards have collective responsibility, so discussions and decisions should never be delegated to or left for the ‘expert’ in the room to lead on. Neither should the expert or link governor function act as an unpaid consultant, getting actively involved in the operational work of that area. If a particular area of expertise is weak on the management team, it is all too easy for an expert governor to get sucked into that space, but they are simply not best placed to fill that gap effectively. I’ve witnessed such involvement leading not only to confusion on behalf of the Executive, but also the potential for a committee and/or the Board to be in a position of ‘marking its own homework’. As the saying goes, never appoint a governor for something you can get a consultant to do!
Governors are appointed to provide general oversight and strategic direction. Boards are best when they exercise collective judgment on each agenda item put forward, from appointing senior leaders to making key financial decisions. Value arises from each member having an equal voice and no person having power over another. Even board chairs are merely first among equals, presiding more for coordination than authority.
By law, every governor has the same fiduciary duty. Every governor must develop an ‘understanding’ and an ‘ability to assess’ the issues. The concept of expert or link governors could undermine these strengths. Whilst an ‘expert’ or link governor may be able to spot risks or opportunities ahead of other governors, if one governor is a board’s resident cyber or climate expert, others may unduly defer to that person, may skip doing homework or reading board reports, defer from posing questions, and create a false complacency. That hurts institutions. Instead, perhaps boards should look to develop thematic board members – people who recurrently offer a distinct perspective. While their expertise may shape their viewpoints, it is their experience, strategic ability, and business acumen—not their status—that adds value.
It would be good to have empirical research on the relationship between board member expertise and institutional outcomes, whether overall performance or the incidence of events , but there is limited research probing the relationship of board member expertise and performance outcomes, such as between cyber expertise and data breaches or between climate expertise and lower emissions.
Governors are generalists, charged with overseeing managers, who are specialists, so whilst there may be assumed merit in the appointment of expert or link governors, it is essential that they operate with clarity of purpose and responsibility, and that all board members remain clear on collective responsibility.