HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Developing a Culture of Board Leadership through the Rigor of Assessment

by Ann F. Cohen Issue: Taking Measure

A nonprofit board, properly recruited, that institutes appropriate policies and procedures and has individual members who understand their legal duties and responsibilities is likely to be strong and effective. Combine that with accountability for vision-focused inquiry, transparency, ongoing assessment, robust discourse and mutual respect between the board and the head of school, and that board is on its way to high performance.

Assessments are the hallmark of high performing boards. Well understood by our students and parents as a report card, assessments provide insight to the board for the governance and oversight of our schools. Just as with our students, assessments involve the gathering of empirical data on defined areas of performance to make progress on expected performance and chart a course of improvement, refinement and/or further progress.

From a governance standpoint, the board of directors (sometimes called trustees and hereafter referred to simply as “the board”) of the school has significant assessment responsibilities. Assessments hold people and processes accountable. Generally, the people being assessed are the board members, the board chair and head of school (HOS), and the processes being assessed include board governance, strategic planning, committee work and the conduct of board meetings. Of course, many other aspects of governance can be assessed, such as the orientation and training processes or the development and fundraising processes. This article identifies several areas where the board must assess matters associated with their governing responsibilities but will focus on board assessments and the two critical assessments which help the board govern optimally: board chair and board member assessments. While each kind of assessment uses a set of standards tailored to what is being assessed, all assessments are designed to identify gaps between current performance and expected or hoped for performance.

Before any kind of assessment is undertaken there must be policies in place to guide the assessments. The board should agree on the process, frequency and accountability for conducting the assessments. Agreement on tools, methodology, timing, review and readiness to execute is critical to participation.

Board Assessment

In Leading with Intent, a national survey conducted by BoardSource, information was gathered from chief executives and board chairs on their experiences in the boardroom. Over 1000 boards surveyed gave themselves a B- in overall governance, with a strong desire to learn to do better. 51% of boards reported that they use a formal, written evaluation of their board. Use of the assessment process continues to gain momentum as boards seek to rise to higher levels of governance.

Assessment results identify strengths and weaknesses, create opportunities for robust dialogue around the standards to be applied, highlight priority areas of focus and also allow different views to emerge. When demographic information is also sought with the assessment (i.e... comparing responses of new and existing board members, parent and community members etc.), the assessment can also allow the board to understand the degree of consensus within the results and compare results from different demographic perspectives.

Many organizations offer assessment tools. Some resources are BoardSource, NAIS, public accounting firms and some RAVSAK members have shared their own tools on the RAVSAK Reshet site. For board assessments, a tool developed by an organization that understands governance as one of their core competencies is usually the best route. Such tools are based on standards of excellence in governance and, because they are widely used, they allow for benchmark comparisons. A comprehensive board assessment should address at a minimum the following areas:

How the board defines and charts the course for the school as embodied in its mission, vision, values and strategies, and how the board uses the assessment on an ongoing basis as a guide for deliberation, as ambassadors in the community, developing goals for the head of school and more.

Exercising oversight of the head of school, compliance matters and school finances.

Making sure there are sufficient resources to support the school through fundraising, enrollment and an effective development plan.

Ensuring the right board composition to meet the needs of the school with board members who understand their roles in the board room, in committees and in the public domain.

A solid assessment tool is a learning opportunity. In the asking of questions, board members learn the breadth of their role, and the tool helps to ensure that all board members have a shared understanding of what is expected of them. To be most effective, the assessment should be anonymous with plenty of opportunity for write-in comments.

Who completes the survey is not always obvious. Of course the board members, but query whether outgoing or incoming board members should as well. This is a question for each board to decide so that there is an accurate read on the state of the governance. Even if new members do not complete the tool, they should review it as a learning opportunity. In addition, the HOS sits on some boards as an ex officio member and thus should complete the assessment. Even where that is not the case in all but rare circumstances the HOS should participate.

Board assessments should be done every two to three years. There is no best time to start the cycle of assessment, but waiting for everything to be in place is a mistake. Bottom line: do it now.

Should you use a consultant? It is not necessary, but it can be very useful particularly as a school first gets comfortable with the assessment function or in a time of transition. The consultant will assist in the setup and customization that may be desired, work with the board to interpret the responses, analyze the data, tread through delicate issues and how best to present them, and create a broader context for the board. A consultant trained in governance provides recommendations on how to move forward with the results, knows how to present to the board, and understands how to enable the board to make the results their own. A consultant can also to work with the board on the sequencing and priorities of implementation.

Not every survey results in the creation of a governance task force to design and implement changes, but boards should not underestimate the importance of working with the results. Oftentimes, immediately following a board meeting to discuss the results, boards set up task forces, address the low hanging fruit and decide on priorities for change. The actions taken could be a defined statement of roles and responsibilities for board members, the creation of training to understand the role of the HOS and their staff and define micromanaging, training the board in development, understanding risk management practices, succession planning and more. The range is as broad as the areas addressed, and the nuances with such a study leave much to ponder. Governing is serious work, requiring a rigorous response to an assessment, using it as a guide to higher performance. Implementation cannot all be done at once, but the assessment results should not sit on the credenza with old personnel manuals.

Assessment of Individual Board Members

To improve board member performance, provide self-awareness of his or her role, determine board leadership, provide a guide for expectations of board performance, set an objective basis for renewal of board membership and more, board member assessments are critical. If a board member is not performing, a policy to evaluate all board members on a regular basis provides the opportunity to counsel, correct or not renew board service.

There are tools or simple checklists that can be developed to assess performance based upon the articulated roles and responsibilities of the board members.  Some examples are assessing committee work, board preparation, attendance, meeting conduct, and the giving policy. Depending on the use of the board member assessment, it could be a self-evaluation, an evaluation by a designated committee (in a high performing board it would be the governance committee), or a combination of both, which I consider a best practice. Some self-evaluation implies ownership of the results. It allows board members to look at their own accomplishments and judge whether they have lived by the articulated roles and responsibilities, to see if the orientation and training worked and to provide a basis for ongoing reflection and learning.

Frequency is important. It should be expected and used to enhance board engagement and participation. Often boards rate their own performance at the same time that they rate board performance. At a minimum, individual assessments should be done with new board members after the first year to help them govern and learn, and also for those being considered for another term if multiple terms are permissible in the bylaws. Individual assessments can be a rewarding experience as board members commit themselves to governance and learning; it can also be a delicate and difficult experience which may provide the basis to terminate or not renew a board member. In any event, the school deserves effective leadership, and a process to continually assess and coach performance helps achieve that.

Chair Assessment

Boards need a chair that will facilitate a productive leadership culture, ensure effective dialogue at the board table, keep the focus on the mission, work to engage each member, select committee leadership and help the board as a group feel appreciated and able to rise to high levels of leadership. The chair has a significant influence on the organization. When a person assumes the role of chair, it should be clear that there is an assessment process in place, designed to coach and guide the chair for the good of governance and the board. Just because a member is elected to chair does not mean they are equipped to lead, and like all assessments, the process should be a learning opportunity measuring, among other matters, individual member engagement, facilitation, mission focus, and appointment of board members to tasks.

Clearly, not all chairs come with a built-in desire to receive performance feedback. The process of giving the chair the coaching and feedback needed is critically important; it should be done privately, not with the full board. Ideally, the assessment would be done annually by the governance committee, with board members providing input anonymously. It may also be useful to have the assessment done external to the organization, by outside counsel, the audit partner, a consultant, coach or past chair. Because this feedback is so personal, the process should be agreed to with the designation of the chair so that the elected chair values the process and the results.

Head of School Assessment

It is the responsibility of the board, usually the full board, to participate in the assessment of the HOS. This assessment process is one of the key board responsibilities as the entity to whom the HOS reports. HOS assessments have been addressed elsewhere in HaYidion (see “Head Support & Evaluation Committee: A Win-Win-Win Strategy” by Dr. Steven Lorch, Summer 2009); it is beyond the scope of this piece to describe the process, but it must be included in any mention of critical assessments undertaken by the board.

Assessing Committees, Board Meetings, Strategic Planning

Each function of the board benefits from assessments; three others are highlighted below.

For committees the assessment should be very specific to the tasks, and address such matters as, Did the committee achieve the purpose of its portfolio? Did the committee advance the work of the board? Did the committee work effectively with staff? Did the committee chair lead effectively and engage the board members? Such assessments should be done on an annual basis and completed by board members and associated staff. The results inform the committee as the portfolio is refined and each yearly agenda developed.

Board meetings should be assessed at the conclusion of each meeting and even after some conference call meetings. Questions might include, was the meeting focused at the right level? Did the board member feel his/her time was valued? To what extent did each of the specified agenda items fulfill its purpose? Were pre-meeting materials useful? Did each board member feel engaged? Did the time for the meeting flow well, with sufficient and diverse discussion throughout? Suggestions for board follow-up and discussion should always be made. This can be done with a simple survey tool. The critical piece is to seek the feedback immediately following the meeting.

There should be tools in place for ongoing measurement of the schools’ strategic planning. Many organizations are now using dashboards for a ready look at enrollment and retention, finances and other factors which lend themselves to numeric and graphic representation. Increasingly, sophisticated metrics, surveys and logic modeling are also effectively in use and now being required by funders. All these measures should point towards the mission and goals of the school as developed by the board in strategic planning.

The idea of assessing a strategic plan is to ensure that it is not static, but rather a directional document that mandates learning, improvement and progress assessments. Schools must continue to learn and be receptive to changing needs in their community, even as they pursue specific strategies. Strategic planning assessments are a key function of the board on an annual basis. Each year, whether in a meeting or a retreat, the board should look at the data to determine progress on defined areas of performance, demographic and other environmental changes, and chart a course for improvement, redefinition and further progress. While not the classic assessment tool, any discussion of the board’s role in assessing the organization would be incomplete without this mention of strategy assessment.

In closing, just as a school’s mission and vision describe where the school wants to go, assessments tell the school how it is doing on that journey against goals set by the board and against industry standards adopted for good governance. But while “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” (William Bruce Cameron), a board that views assessments as tools in the learning process is prepared to embrace the rigor and  professionalism of board service that our schools deserve.

Ann Cohen is an executive business consultant who founded Ann Cohen & Associates in 1999, combining her business and nonprofit experience to enable nonprofits to identify and achieve their strategic goals. Ann is also a BoardSource Senior Governance Consultant, where she provides consulting and strategic advice to boards, their key leadership and executives seeking to rise to greater levels of high performing governance. afcohen@erols.com

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Taking Measure

Assessment is a critical function at all levels of day schools. From the classroom to the boardroom, the faculty to the head, every stakeholder and every aspect of school operations stand to benefit from evaluation. Nonetheless, thinking about assessment, and the vehicles for achieving it, are changing in many ways parallel to other aspects of school design. This issue offers reflections about assessment, various and novel ways of achieving it, and discussion of outcomes that can result from successful measurement.

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