Assessing Board Readiness in 15 Questions

By AGB April 11, 2023 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

AGB recently published the book Assessing Board Readiness to Lead Change in Public Higher Education Systems by Barbara Brittingham, PhD, and James H. Page, PhD, which presents a thoughtfully constructed roadmap for public higher education systems to lead much-needed change in postsecondary education.

Particularly helpful, and the heart of the book, are the 15 board assessment questions discussed in Chapter 2. Taken together, the responses to these questions provide a comprehensive assessment of a board’s readiness to lead change.

1. Does the board understand its authority and the full range of responsibilities?

To best address this question, the board’s general counsel should prepare a review of governing state statutes and any other legally binding governance documents that establish the board’s foundational authority. This review might also include documents that help make clear any legislative intent in forming the system and creating its governance structure. Upon completing question 1, the board should have an accurate and agreed-upon understanding of its authority and responsibilities as well as an understanding of whether it acts on these matters or whether there are gaps.

2. Does the board have a culture of acting decisively?

Your board can objectively answer this question by looking at its history of decisions and actions. Identify a small number of important issues that have come before the board. Following appropriate due diligence, did the board act decisively in each case—taking clear, strong, and timely action that dealt with the matter at hand? If the answer is a consistent “yes,” then good; if the answer is “no,” then a gap exists that must be addressed.

3. Is the board forward-looking?

This question asks whether the board orients to the future—whether it is active rather than reactive or passive. One simple way to approach this question is to ask how the board allocates its time and attention. A board’s many responsibilities require substantial time to review what has been happening. Nevertheless, the best of its time and energy needs to be devoted to the future if it is truly to lead strategic change.

4. Does the board ensure frank and transparent consideration of difficult issues and worst-case scenarios?

The intent behind this question is to assess the board’s oversight of risk management, which is a core fiduciary responsibility. To test the readiness, pick an issue of ongoing concern. The ability to have frank and transparent discussions about difficult issues and worst-case scenarios is also a board skill, especially since such discussions can be quite fraught. Test this ability by asking your members if they believe they are able to have these kinds of conversations among themselves.

5. Can the board act as an aligned body even when it is divided in opinion?

A truly divided board cannot lead change. Consider two levels at which disagreements may arise. The first involves disagreements on something other than fundamental principles. The second level occurs when a board is deeply divided on fundamental principles. Consider the kinds of disagreements or divisions the board has recently faced. In each case has the board vacillated or moved forward? Or has it acted and then retracted its actions? Significant disagreements left unaddressed, vacillations, or retractions are cultural gaps.

6. Does board composition reflect the right mix and depth of skills, expertise, and perspectives?

A high-performing board requires a mix of skills, expertise, and perspectives. Every board member, for example, should have a degree of financial acumen; some members should be financial experts. Most will have a working appreciation of their state’s general social, demographic, and economic conditions and trends. These should include important diversity, equity, and inclusion issues as the board must be able to hear and give voice to a range of experience and opinion.

When adding members with needed skills is not an immediate option, staff members can often fill some gaps, and in some cases the board can expand committee membership to include nonboard members.

7. Does the board have a strong internal development program?

An obvious way to build board capacity is through a robust development program. A board that is always looking to sharpen its knowledge and skills is better positioned to advance its priorities. You can foster board development in several ways, starting with a comprehensive board orientation program. The board should also encourage its members to pay regular attention to the higher education press and to participate in professional seminars, webinars, and conferences. Boards also increase their understanding and capacity through relations with professional organizations and sister boards.

8. Is the board strategically staffed?

No board can lead change if it is not served by a well-resourced, highly competent executive staff with strategic vision and excellent implementation skills. Are the board and CEO aligned as to expectations, goals, priorities, and strategies? Does the CEO have a strong, effective partnership with the board chair or executive committee? And does the board have the staff support it needs?

9.Does the board have timely access to necessary data and information, and does it use them effectively?

Strategic decision-making must be data informed. That is true whether one is engaged in analysis, developing a strategic initiative, implementing that initiative, or evaluating the results. The relevant data must exist, they must be available in usable form, and they must actually be used.

10. Does the board have an effective communications strategy?

Assuring strong board communications is an increasingly necessary component of any change effort. Posting board minutes and issuing periodic press releases is not sufficient. Today, campus constituencies, policy makers, and the general public expect far more transparency and accountability from a higher education system and its board.

Consider the board’s internal and external communications for the past year. Did the board pursue a coordinated strategy focused on achieving its priority outcomes? Was that strategy effective? What were the constituents’ responses? Were the board’s processes for receiving these responses effective, truly hearing what its constituencies have to say?

11. Does the board have a history of effective strategic planning?

If a board is good at effective strategic planning, it will have a history of effective strategic planning. The plan may be a single document or a set of guiding strategic principles and goals under which a series of initiatives are carried out. But whatever approach is used, it should cover the following four stages: analysis, a design that includes measurable success metrics, implementation, and audit.

12 Does the board use quantitative success metrics for each of its priorities?

Identifying the right strategic priorities is highly context dependent. Nevertheless, as public systems pursue a public agenda using public resources, the priorities should be defined primarily in public terms—most generally, student and state success. Furthermore, every priority and every initiative undertaken to achieve that priority should have measurable success metrics or conditions that tie ultimately to those public outcomes. The board and its constituencies must know whether its goals are being met.

13. Does the board have and exercise appropriate control over resource allocation?

Broadly speaking, two kinds of tangible resources are of concern to the board: human and financial. Whether the board has control over its financial resources is a matter of its mission and core authority. If it is the sole fiduciary, as is the case with most governing boards, then it must exercise appropriate control over the entire system’s finances. Role clarity is critical. Who has the final authority and responsibility for finances? No system can succeed if it does not have and apply proper control over its financial resources.

14. Does the board hold itself and the organization accountable for achieving its priorities?

Lack of accountability is the major gap that boards most frequently identify in this type of assessment. While accountability starts with the board, it must flow to the system executive and then cascade to every level of the organization. The board’s work does little good if an initiative falters because of issues occurring several operational levels removed. Working with leadership, the board must ensure there is accountability at every operational level.

15. Are the strategic priorities and their success metrics reviewed regularly?

Are the board’s priorities and progress in achieving those priorities measured regularly, evaluated, and, when necessary, changed? A key word here is “regularly.” The time of the five-year strategic plan is gone; the challenges higher education faces are so complex and rapidly evolving that constant board attention is more or less required.

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