View from the Board Chair: The Importance of a Board Chair Assessment

By Janet Lebovitz    //    Volume 31,  Number 1   //    January/February 2023

Simple outreach from the chair of the governance committee was how it began. It was the summer of 2020 and I had just completed my third year as chair and tenth year on the board. We were discussing the results of Wheaton College’s annual assessments of trustee and committee performance, and he let me know that it seemed time to undertake a board chair assessment. There was nothing pointed about the request. The prior chair had initiated the practice in 2017, and while that survey had been neither brave nor ambitious, it did set a precedent.

I considered the recommendation with some trepidation but managed to move past the hesitation over inviting deep personal scrutiny; the role of the chair is an important one, and most of us aspire to excellence when we take it on. I became hopeful this could be more than just an assessment of my performance. What else might we learn from the exercise that would improve board performance and positively impact the college?

A subset of governance committee members agreed to shape a survey, and I offered my full commitment to a detailed and meaningful assessment.

As chair, I completed the full survey as a self-assessment. The president of Wheaton, an ex officio member of the board and the governance committee, chose not to complete the survey, but engaged with the committee to detail how he and I worked together and partnered on behalf of the college.

Members of the governance committee directly responsible for the survey reviewed the responses and drafted a report of the findings. I had the opportunity of a report preview and discussion with project leaders and the governance committee chair, and I would encourage others to consider this a valuable part of the process. It allowed me to refine my own insights and takeaways before discussing them more broadly; if I had seen anything worrisome in the report, then I would have had an opportunity to voice concerns.

As board chair, I felt it was critical that the governance committee receive the most detailed report. Together we engaged in substantive conversation about the findings and the implications for me, but also for the committee when considering future board chair candidates.

For the full board, it was important to convey the integrity of the process and assurance that their voices were heard along with a summary of findings. This took place during an executive session during which I offered observations on what I learned and hoped to do with that learning. The chair of governance presided over further discussion without me present.

Now, as I complete my fifth year as Wheaton’s board chair and reflect on the process and outcome of the assessment, I can say that the college, the board, and I, all benefited from this effort, which pinpointed several areas needing attention, such as:

  • While acknowledging that it had been necessarily preoccupied with pandemic challenges, the board wanted a shift in focus to the future with an expectation of having a larger voice in shaping institutional strategy.
  • Trustees sought more robust and meaningful discussion at committee and board meetings, and better leverage of their experience and expertise by college leadership.
  • Trustees expected the board chair to actively partner with the president to expedite these changes.

These insights came at a particularly important time as the board was embarking on a presidential search and, ultimately, they shaped the focus and relationship of the new president and leadership team with the board chair and the board.

The understanding and alignment that we gained as a board due to the survey was further evidenced in the first phase of our 2022 full board assessment, based on the AGB Board Self-Assessment Tool, which highlighted one of our most positive attributes to be: “The board elects a chair who can effectively lead the board and build a partnership with the chief executive.” For me, that outcome confirmed the value of the assessment beyond the personal learning that I experienced. Our board was stronger, and a better partner, in leading the college forward.

As you consider initiating a board chair assessment, note that the guidelines for conducting one are not well established, but Assessing Board Performance can be a helpful point of reference. I would encourage you to design a survey that elicits substantive responses and provides an opportunity for reflection and unsolicited comment. You will find, and can explore, the inevitable nuggets of criticism and advice that lead to fresh dialogue, learning, and actionable feedback that will benefit you, your board, and your institution.

Janet Lebovitz
is the chair of the board of trustees of Wheaton College.

Resources
AGB Board Self-Assessment Tool, https://agb.org/board-self-assessment-tool/

Assessing Board Performance: A Practical Guide for College, University, System, and Foundation Boards, Bobowick, Marla J. and Merrill P. Schwartz, 2018

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