Helping the board to help itself: is your board of trustees effective? After it answers these five questions, you’ll know

Helping the board to help itself: is your board of trustees effective? After it answers these five questions, you’ll know – People & Politics

Barbara Kaufman

For those helping to determine university direction in recent years, life has become increasingly complicated, and economic challenges have only made the job more (shall we say?) interesting. But that doesn’t mean that your board of trustees should be any less effective. In fact, senior administrators can help boards process business at the highest possible level of effectiveness, if they pose these five questions annually:

Question #1: To what degree is the board willing to test its assumptions, beliefs, and traditions in order to evaluate its own performance?

This first question is an overarching, strategy-level question; the following four are actually subquestions. But it’s important to know that university and nonprofit boards often perform poorly when it comes to testing assumptions, deep-seated beliefs, and traditions. In part, this is due to a natural tendency (especially among long-term board members) to maintain the comfort level of the existing status quo. And the resistance to self-evaluate can in fact come from overconfidence (particularly among alumni members) in their knowledge of the institution’s history and therefore perceived future direction and goals. Yet, the truth of the matter is that in honoring cultural expectations and habitual patterns of thinking that may be out of alignment with the needs of the institution, boards may be executing dated and ineffective strategies that can no longer be justified in today’s dynamic leadership environment.

Question #2: To what degree is the board willing to ask whether the mission must be revisited, or whether the board’s vision of how the mission will be achieved must be revisited?

To be truly effective, on a periodic basis, a board must:

* Examine opportunities, new conditions, and emerging issues that mayor may not change the mission, but will definitely change the pathway to accomplishing the mission.

* Ask what level of mission-based risk the institution should be willing to take. (Missions are often rethought after assessment.)

* Ask how it will deal with competing priorities, using a strategy that management guru Peter Drucker calls “purposeful abandonment.” (That is, it everything cannot be accomplished–especially in an environment of scarce resources–what sacred cows should be abandoned al this point in time?)

Question #3: To what degree is the board focused on governance rather than management?

Boards are most successful when they limit their activities to the strategy level. Only here can they can guide the institution, keeping it on a straight course for the long-term good of the whole.

Ways to achieve a focus on governance include:

* Devote ample time during board orientations to address and discuss the specific differences between governance and day-today management roles.

* Empower staff members with the responsibility for ensuring that board members do not blur the lines between appropriate policy-level inquiries and attempts to delve into management issues.

An effective board that knows the difference between governance and management is a prerequisite for a successful leadership team. A valuable tool for evaluating the board’s effectiveness is the self-assessment tool published by the Association of Governing Boards (, Presidential and Board Assessment in Higher Education: Purposes, Policies und Strategies (Richard T. Ingram and William A. Weary, 2000). It focuses on the effective execution of key leadership, management, and fiduciary responsibilities.

Question #4: To what degree does the board’s composition reflect the diversity of the campuses?

A 2002 AGB study found that at public universities only 23.5 percent of board chairs were female, and at private universities only 17.8 percent were women. A 2003 AGB study shows that as of 1998, only 19 percent of American college presidents were women. To work toward achieving a board composition that more closely represents the diversity of the campuses, boards might ask themselves these questions (and respond accordingly to the answers):

* Is the board always listening to the same “kitchen cabinet”?

* Is it listening to new board members?

* Is it listening to board members who bring in different values and expectations?

* Are junior board members mentored and oriented so that they can understand the institution’s unwritten norms and know what is expected of them?

Invest the time required to recruit of influence the appointment process of board members. This effort might involve developing a matrix of board needs and candidates’ profiles in areas such as diversity, sector knowledge, specialized skills, and fundraising ability. Such a tool provides a visual representation of the degree to which institutional needs and the individual “fit factor” are aligned among members. This helps reduce the likelihood of selecting board members based on the chemistry factor.

Question #5: What are the implications of new opportunities, new conditions, and emerging issues for succession planning?

Systematic and periodic assessment of the organization and its leadership is a primary responsibility of the board. It includes revisiting the mission statement, identifying challenges and opportunities, and evaluating the degree to which the organization is meeting customer or constituent needs. Only then will the board have a reasonable picture against which to measure a current leader’s performance, and upon which to evaluate the core competencies needed in a new leader. Boards should ask themselves:

* When was the last time the board examined the president’s or executive director’s role profile or position description?

* When did the board last ask whether the goals set for the current president of executive director have changed or will change for a new leader coming on?

* When was the last time the board revisited the core competencies required in a leader?

* To what extent is the board examining institutional fit in the hiring process?


After responding to the five questions above, and taking appropriate action, the board will need to see if change and improvement have taken place. To evaluate organizational performance, I suggest The Drucker Foundation Self-Assessment Tool: Participant Workbook (Drucker Foundation and Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1999), It focuses on five keys to mission, customer, customer values, results, and implementation.

Barbara Kaufman, Ph.D., is president of ROI Consulting Group, Inc. ( An executive coach and educator, she specializes in leadership executive coach and organizational development strategies for private and public sector leadership teams, and teaches courses in leadership effectiveness and succession planning at Claremont Graduate University.

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