Even with a friendly name like “feedback, check-in, or coaching,” a performance evaluation can be uncomfortable, or possibly downright scary.
It’s not surprising if volunteers are reluctant to scrutinize themselves in the mirror. That’s probably why more organizations don’t have a process for evaluating the board of directors, or if they do, that assessment is not continuous.
While the practice seems to be on the rise, these statistics indicate that regular temperature checks are not the status quo.
- Recent data from the global consulting firm Spencer Stuart shows that 98% of S&P 500 boards conduct a board evaluation of some type, although only about a third review the board as a whole, individual directors, and committees as part of the process.
- In 2022, 52% of companies in the S&P 500 disclosed that they conducted a combination of full board, committee, and individual director evaluations, up from only 37% in 2018.
- Approximately 24% of Fortune 100 proxy filers disclosed that they included individual director self-evaluation along with board and committee evaluation.
- A 2019 survey by the American Hospital Association found that 90% of healthcare boards conduct board self-assessments, but only 60% do so annually.
I’ll get on my Association 4.0 leadership soapbox here to say that a digital culture uses objective data to measure and evaluate all of its activities. That assessment should include taking stock of the board’s performance on an ongoing basis.
Along with the staff, the board is your most significant human resource. Evaluating its health should be a top priority.
Point a Compass to the Future
For executive directors, this may be a sensitive topic to introduce. But going out on a limb has benefits that far outweigh the potential risks. In fast-moving digital markets, regular updates on the status of governance can be a compass to help the group stay on the right path and adjust to unexpected challenges. Focusing on leadership dynamics and achievements also supports prioritizing consensus over individual agendas.
These are additional benefits that the willingness to explore accomplishments as well as setbacks can deliver:
- The National Association of Corporate Directors reports that boards that conduct self-assessments are more likely to have high-performing CEOs.
- BoardSource found that non-profit boards that conduct self-assessments are more likely to have a clear mission and vision, and they are more likely to be effective in achieving their goals.
- The American Hospital Association advises that healthcare boards that conduct self-assessments are more likely to have a strong culture of governance and they are more likely to be effective in managing risk.
- BoardEffect states that an annual board self-assessment may help the board prevent problems leading to liability issues and that the results of an assessment can highlight topics for future board discussion and consideration.
Get the Board on Board
There will always be one or two naysayers. But for the evaluation process to be meaningful, the majority of directors should be enthusiastic participants. Creating that buy-in will depend on the board’s confidence in the CEO’s judgment and ability.
In relationship building, trust is the place to start. As I’ve said before, without trust, you may have volunteers but you don’t have a team. If there is tension between the CEO and the Board, the contentious issues must be addressed before you attempt initiatives that require more candid dialogue. Otherwise, you will not have the transparent communication needed for progress.
A participant at .orgCommunity’s Leadership ColLAB event* made this comment about the importance of building confidence with your constituents. “Having to take over as a young leader for a beloved department head who passed away, the best advice I got was that I needed to build trust in order for the others to follow me.”
Launch the Conversation
If positive interpersonal dynamics characterize your group, the right ingredients are in place. Discussions about best practices, strategic planning sessions, or board development exercises can launch conversations about how and when to evaluate the board’s performance.
Individual talks with officers are another obvious route to introducing the topic. You’ll want to enlist directors with influence to champion the idea. The best-case scenario would be to use several different approaches to plant the seeds for this initiative.
Sometimes an outside facilitator can move members forward more quickly. When the California IT in Education Association (CITE) wanted to transition from a hands-on board to a more strategic orientation, they called on .orgSource Managing Director of Business Strategy, Sharon Rice.
“During a development retreat, the board discussed various governance models and how they could shift perspective to maximize CITE’s potential,” Sharon recalled. “We also explored their relationship with the staff and how it might evolve. To provide specific guidance, I attended the board meeting and presented an evaluation along with recommendations for how the group could lead more effectively.”
“Working with Sharon, we were able to create a governance plan that aligned perfectly with our life cycle stage,” CEO, Andrea Bennett, noted. “We had a roadmap for how to advance the organization and prepare for the next phase of growth.”
As Andrea advised, growth should be the objective for the board’s self-improvement initiatives. The idea is not to find fault but to discover opportunities for learning how to work together more effectively.
“Our new governing model makes us work smarter,” Andrea observed. “I took the analysis that .orgSource did and a year later, I was able to show the board their progress in every focus area. Those extremely specific goals kept us on target.”
CITE folded the evaluation process into their ongoing activities. Their example highlights the importance of clearly establishing goals and outcomes that align with the mission and strategy at the onset.
Once everyone agrees on the value of assessment, give the process legs. An annual survey is a good start. Review templates from other groups to find the format that works best for you. But no matter how perfectly you design the instrument, answering a series of questions will not provide the level of introspection that inspires real change.
Analyze the results and commit to a frank discussion. Review strengths and areas for improvement which could include activities such as communication, decision-making processes, strategic planning, or board member engagement.
Take a cue from CITE and find opportunities for evaluation in multiple board initiatives. Highlight the idea of continuous improvement with habits like these:
- Take time at the end of each meeting or activity to answer these questions:
- What did we do well?
- Was there anything that undermined our success?
- What could we have done better?
This exercise takes a little practice. But the effort can shine a light on the group’s unique dynamics.
- Set benchmarks for performance and accomplishments and highlight progress at each meeting.
- Engage a facilitator to work with the board on areas that are challenging or controversial, such as:
- Board/staff responsibilities and relationships
- Strategic thinking
- Meeting effectiveness
- Internal politics
- Use onboarding as an opportunity to hear fresh perspectives on governance. Ask new members to share their first impressions or experiences with previous leadership groups.
- Assign senior directors to mentor junior members to help them to become better contributors.
Reflect Positive Outcomes
Yes, it can be hard to put behavior in the spotlight. But receptivity to change and the willingness to learn through experience are important qualities of leadership in the digital era. The outcome of that scrutiny is well worth the effort. A board that looks in the mirror reflects a richer volunteer experience and a stronger mission.
If you need help supporting your board’s positive performance, call on .orgSource.