Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Remarkable board leadership through learning: The governance committee role

So we've empowered our boards to own their learning and development. They're ready and enthusiastic about not just filling seats at the boardroom table but actively leading and governing.

But where do they start?

In last week's post, I recommended using the governance committee (aka board development committee) as the locus of activity for this work. I offered a few general ideas there but came away feeling the need to outline a more detailed picture of the kinds of responsibilities that body must accept to make this happen.

Today, I attempt to offer a sense of that structure and process enacted through this committee. I'll acknowledge up front that board development is only one responsibility of a governance committee. Those other roles are not reflected here.

In terms of board learning and capacity building, I see three primary responsibility areas for this committee:

  • Identifying board capacity needs
  • Identifying board learning and performance needs
  • Evaluating success of governance learning and performance initiatives

Identifying board capacity needs

Nonprofit boards have a diverse range of ongoing needs to govern - and lead - effectively. The governance committee's work begins with ensuring that those needs are identified, tracked and addressed. This starts with facilitating regular discussions identifying the capacities and competencies required to fulfill their full scope of responsibilities.

As those needs are identified (an evolving process, never "done"), the governance committee leads the board in identifying which are highest priorities for the board's immediate recruitment goals. Those needs should drive the ongoing processes of identifying the best possible candidates for board membership. As they are cultivated, prospective board members should know exactly why you see them as the best fit right now. Clarity about their specific strengths and contributions they would be expected to make increases the potential that they will begin service ready to step up and expand the board's overall capacity immediately.

Identifying board learning and performance needs

What does the board need to be able to understand, and do, to lead in the next year? On an ongoing basis? What kinds of performance do we need from our board, collectively and as individual members? What does successful "performance" look like? With what impact on the organization? Where are the gaps in current performance and where we need the board to be? What do we need do to close those gaps?

This is another layer of assessment that the governance committee should lead on behalf of the board. I see that as happening in a series of steps:

  • Maintaining (and updating when needed) job descriptions for board members and board leaders that represent the full scope of responsibilities required of each role.
  • Facilitating an annual board goal-setting process grounded in the question: Where do we, as a board, focus our energy and attention for greatest impact?
  • Identifying the learning and performance needs that will ensure the board's success in meeting those goals.
  • Identifying the best vehicles for meeting those needs: training? Performance support? Access to resources in the board portal? Something else?
  • Scheduling and ensuring delivery of those needs, across the board year.

Evaluating success of governance learning and performance initiatives

Evaluation both brings closure to specific learning and performance efforts and informs/initiates the next generation. Leading that process is the governance committee's responsibility. Formally, that can take shape in these ways:

  • Evaluating individual learning initiatives and programs.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of performance support resources and processes.
  • Assessing the collective results of individual evaluation processes to identify places for improvement as well as new need areas.

Informally,  the governance committee can support board leaders in modeling reflective board practice: stopping to ask generative and strategic questions, like "what does this mean..." and "where would this takes us if...," before decisions are made. It also comes in stopping to reflect after the fact, on questions like "how did we advance the mission of our organization today" and "what could we have done differently to make the process even more effective?"

As with other posts in the 2015 Board Learning Environments series, I'll close with a couple of reflection questions for readers:

  • How can we empower our governance/board development committee to assume greater leadership in addressing our learning and performance needs?
  • How can we support that committee as it builds (or strengthens) a culture of learning and assessment as an essential part of the governance process?

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