So we have talked a little about attracting the right board members to help build innovation and expansive thinking but where is your board as a governance team operating now? I often think a little differently around what are the key skills boards need. The ultimate answers lies between individual contribution and the board as a whole.
As mentioned earlier we understand that board makeup can influence how the board works together, not just around individuals bringing specific skills but the dynamics created through difference. When we think of training, we often think of all the hard skills like financial literacy, governance, risk management and strategy, but effectively training and developing your board involves many more skills that can often be hidden.
In this light establishing the context, and thinking in broader term of how you are operating now is essential.
Ask what are the things that we need to have as an intrinsic or essential part of the board’s makeup and capabilities?
Also Ask yourself what skills can’t you outsource? These skills can include industry and technical knowledge, financial assessment, judgement, strategic thinking, governance and due process.
Other questions to ask are
what takes up most time in your meetings or dealing with the board, the organisation or stakeholders?
What are the most pressing or in demand skills the board is seeking?
Do you find it difficult to reach consensus, do certain activities and opinions always fall to one or a core group of directors or advisers, is information coming from committees incomplete or poorly presented?
If you are looking to build innovation and agility, these could include skills such as facilitation, presenting ideas, evaluating information, researching, debating options, tough conversations, questioning and listening. Thinking about all of these can give you an insight into development needs for the board.
I also ask boards about their current working environment.
Do they feel they are always in crisis?
Are they operating in the strategic zone?
Or are you somewhere in the middle?
Working in the Crisis Zone might include – Poor decision making, finances out of control, only focusing on the day to day, or wrong type of conflict happening at board and organisational level
While boards working in the strategic zone will prioritise strategy and involvement while having clear processes in place to ensure strong oversight of finance and operations. They will have a strong sense of how the board works together and provide time for discussion and debate.
This is where I work - developing the Chair as facilitator of that process.
So what skills does the individual board need? And What does the effective Chair and board member look like?
In my opinion there is a unique combination of skills that will make an effective board member. These include being an independent thinker, an effective communicator and an achiever.
But firstly we need to talk about the circle in the middle. Board members need to be grounded in themselves and in the role.
Being grounded starts with directors knowing why they are on the board and what skills they bring to the cause. They are also clear on what good governance means understanding financial frameworks, strategic intent and understand the operating landscape and context of the organisation.
Grounded in themselves includes not coveting the directors position and respecting the cause, its constitution and what it is trying to achieve. They are committed to working with the board as governance team while not being afraid to pose tough questions and embrace difficult conversations.
Looking broader then at the key skills, the independent thinking director is comfortable to stop, think, assess and identifies alternative views and arguments outside the board room. They are great questioners and interrogators while encouraging and often leading debate.
They are often self motivated with development and are not bothered by taking the road less traveled. Importantly the independent thinker does not think less of others who disagree with them.
The achievement focused director can see the big picture and can translate these into achievable goals. They devote time to the organisation and they don’t see financial results as the only measure of success. They link measurement and outcomes to client, society and the environment. They are flexible on how things are delivered and don't dictate personal process requirements on others.
The communicative director has well developed communication skills and can articulate their own ideas and thinking. They speak respectfully to each person, are good listeners and understand the need for others to speak and express their opinions and thoughts.
Importantly the effective communicator puts the client(s) at the centre of discussion and decision making. As these skills are developed through practice and directorship, we start to see innovation emerging, with directors questioning the status quo and being able to build disparate connections outside the immediate environment of the board.
These skills also develop the groundwork for collaboration opening up channels for partnerships, shared learning and harnessing of the groups collective knowledge and thinking. As horizons are broadened, new and exciting visions of the future are developed and the board becomes more focused on taking the organisation or cause into the future.
To foster growth we also need to create the right Learning environment.
When thinking about development take into account the 70/20/10 rule of learning. Most learning occurs during the doing, interacting and engaging part of development.
Only 10% of learning is the result of formal courses and reading, so boards that rely solely on external development that is not closely linked to current board work fail to maximise the learning opportunities for board members.
As 20% of learning arises from mentoring and coaching, boards that have a strong facilitative Chair and high board EQ can capitalise on these.
Importantly, 70% of learning occurs as people watch others and participate in tasks, so engaging board members in as many areas of governance is advantageous.
As an example information or proposals coming to the board for consideration should always be discussed and debated, even if coming from experts. Individual board members learn from questioning and listening, and the board as a whole develops as a governance team through the process.
So from this you should look to build learning into board work
Development opportunities can be linked to skills matrices, strategy, evaluations, vision and purpose while using essential board tools such strategic plans, budgets, policies and procedures that link into your decision-making processes helps to hone skills.
Informal learning can also include the posing of a question or article each month and discussing it as a regular part of board meetings or assigning subjects to individual directors to go away and research, then present back to the board can be beneficial as well.
For best practice, set training and development targets with directors and think about linking these to directors’ duties.