High-Performance Governance is All About the Quality of the Questions Asked

By William Donaldson and Joseph G. Burke    //    Volume 28,  Number 1   //    January/February 2020

Over the past 50 years we have served on or consulted with academic or business governing boards in the public and private, and profit and nonprofit sectors in both the United States and international arenas. Throughout our many governing experiences we have found that the ability to ask the most consequential questions about strategic institutional issues is the major characteristic of high-performance governance. Today it is critical for boards to do the following:

  • Identify the growing importance of this governing skill;
  • Describe the basic components of effective strategic questioning; and
  • Suggest best practices that boards can use to improve capacity within this area.

The Growing Importance of Strategic Questioning

We are living in a world of increasingly rapid change and uncertainty. Our society is growing more diverse, divided, and difficult to govern. We are seeing fundamental shifts in demographics, politics, economies, technologies, and cultures. Rapidly improving technologies are creating new markets, industries, and job skills. These revolutionary shifts have resulted in significant changes in our higher education outcomes, delivery systems, structures, and systems.

We have seen several new kinds of disruptions to the higher education landscape:

  • Increasingly diverse student demographics, changing student educational and support needs and expectations, expanding academic program and delivery systems, and emerging competitors;
  • The development of larger and more complex educational institutions; and
  • Rising institutional costs (especially in the traditional delivery models) that are causing society to ask fundamental questions about the role and the value proposition of its offerings.

Yet new economic models (including spiraling discount rates) are putting downward pressure on net tuition rates per student. At the same time, student expectations for faculty access, instructional excellence, and student services expansions are increasing. These conflicting pressures and trends are putting great institutional burdens on administrators, and ultimately on the doorstep of the governing boards.

During these increasingly challenging times, governing boards are called upon to assume new and groundbreaking roles. They are challenged to move beyond the traditional roles of oversight and simple approval of administration proposals. They are also being called upon to collaborate with the administration in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the institution, and the academic excellence of the curriculum, and to support the health and welfare of the student body. Finally, they are being called upon to challenge outdated assumptions and strategies, and revise the governance climate to one of openness, transparency, flexibility, and innovation. In short, they are being called upon to focus their attention on the strategic direction and goals of the institution.

This is requiring substantial revisions to outmoded structures, cultures, and processes of board governance. Boards are searching for ways to become more engaged and more resolute in seeking answers to current challenges and taking advantage of new opportunities presented by the changing world environment. Administrators are seeking to become more transparent and open to the probing questions of the board, and boards will need to become more effective in asking these types of questions.

This skill we call “strategic questioning.”

What is Strategic Questioning?

Strategic questioning is the capacity to ask questions that most affect the strategic future of a higher education institution.

What to Ask: Here are some of the major question categories that boards might recommend:

  • Issues that directly affect the long-term sustainability of the institution and the excellence of its programs;
  • Issues that affect the successful accomplishment of the strategic plan’s goals and strategies;
  • Issues that affect the security, safety, health, and welfare of students or employees; and
  • Issues that deal with academic, financial, enrollment, facility, employment, retention, graduation, and demographic trends.

Who to Ask: We suggest:

  • If possible, consider asking your question prior to the meeting to either an appropriate committee chair/staff member. If they do not know the answer, ask the board chair or president. This could save time during a board meeting or give the staff time to find an answer.
  • If the above strategy is not feasible, ask your question during the board meeting. If the answer will require more research and analysis, ask that further discussion be deferred. It is far more effective and efficient to take the question, gather relevant data, research and discuss alternative policy solutions, and bring it back to the board when you have the required background data and recommendations ready for board decision or discussion.

When to Ask: This question is closely related to the “who” question above. Our experience demonstrates that the ideal time to raise strategically important questions is prior to a board meeting, and if possible, during or prior to, relevant committee meetings. This allows sufficient time for data gathering, analysis, discussion, and proposal development. It also helps board meetings run more effectively and efficiently. Board leaders and administrators have time to gather data, conduct analysis, and prepare the board to engage in meaningful discussion.

How to Ask: We suggest that board members ask questions in a spirit of mutual respect and in an honest attempt to learn. Do not attempt to cast fault or ask your questions in an accusatory fashion. Remember you are working together with the administration as partners. If possible, ask questions that are performance critical in a private setting (at least until you are sure that you have all the correct facts).

Taken together, these four questions are meant to identify the basic components of what makes for effective strategic questioning.

The First Step: Setting the Board Strategic Agenda

To carve out the necessary time and energy to concentrate on strategic issues, a board must first identify the most consequential issues facing the institution. The institutional strategic plan identifies key goals that the institution must address within the immediate future to ensure its long-term sustainability. Therefore, to set the stage for a board and its members to focus attention on strategic issues, we recommend that the board start each year with a general discussion of the following questions:

  • What actions must our institution focus on in the year ahead in order to accomplish our institutional strategic goals?
  • What unique experiences, skills, and capabilities does our board have that has the greatest potential to help our institution achieve these strategic goals over the next year?
  • What two to four annual board goals should we establish for the year ahead that will enable us to focus on the most consequential issues affecting the long-term success and sustainability of our institution?

Once these critical questions are answered, board leadership should assign these goals to appropriate committees. The committees will then work with their administration counterparts to identify the key questions and issues to be addressed, gather and analyze the required data, and develop and review recommendations for board review, discussion, and decision.

These initial board planning actions are steps to establishing a foundation from which strategic questioning can flourish.

Other Governing Best Practices in Enhancing Strategic Questioning Skills

Other effective ways boards can enhance member questioning skills include the following:

  • During orientation of new board members, include an initial introduction to the importance to good governance of knowing to ask questions that most affect the strategic future of a higher education institution;
  • Having the board chair begin each year with a reemphasis of a governing culture that emphasizes a strategic focus, encourages strategic questioning by all trustees, and values multiple perspectives, and welcomes consideration of alternatives approaches, strategies, and solutions; and
  • Incorporating into the board’s annual assessment process questions regarding how well the board has performed in this area and what it can do to improve upon this skill during the next year.

New members can rapidly gain strategic questioning skills during their orientation by quickly learning the importance within their board culture of focusing on strategic issues and thinking, and the value of considering multiple perspectives and approaches. These areas should be addressed in addition to the governance expectations of roles, value added, organizational fit, and behavioral guidelines. A final set of orientation activities might include a basic introduction to the institutional mission, values, organizational structure, leadership, and current and future challenges and opportunities.

Each year the board chair should reemphasize the cultural importance of these same skills, as well as the commitment of the president and chair to be open to alternative perspectives, approaches, and hard questions. During these annual sessions, examples of effective and productive strategic questions taken from recent board meetings might be provided or solicited. This will help members better understand this skill.

Finally, we suggest that you include in your annual board assessment review questions regarding how well your board has performed in this area, and what you can do to improve this skill during the next year.

Boards that follow these suggestions over a few annual cycles will find that the board’s strategic focus capacity, as well as that of individual members to ask insightful and strategic questions will be greatly improved. This improvement will reap benefits across the governance domain. It will result in more effective institutional problem solving, leadership, visioning, and policymaking. It will also result in more widespread board engagement as members will be encouraged to express their own thoughts, ideas, suggestions, and perspectives. This will all lead to better board decisions, strategic direction, and long-term sustainability and educational excellence.

William M. Donaldson, PhD, is assistant professor of management in the Joseph W. Luter School of Business at Christopher Newport University. He is also president of Strategic Venture Planning, a management consulting firm that assists boards, investors and senior management teams to maximize results. 

Joseph G. Burke, PhD, is a senior AGB fellow and consultant. He is also president emeritus of Keuka College, where he served from 1997 until 2011. 

Takeaways

  • The ability to ask the most consequential questions about strategic institutional issues is the major characteristic of high-performance governance. It is critical for boards to identify the importance of this skill, be able to describe to basic components of effective strategic questioning and suggest best practices to improve this skill.
  • As the landscape of higher education changes with a more diverse student demographic, a change in the needs and expectations of students, and an expanding variety of academic programs, the costs of education are continuing to rise making society question the value of higher education. These factors are causing governing boards to take on new roles and responsibilities. One of these new roles is being able to ask administrators more probing questions.
  • Strategic questions are questions that most affect the strategic future of an institution. Before asking the questions, boards must identify the most consequential issues facing their institution and the key goals that the institution wants to address to ensure long-term stability. Asking these questions and engaging in strategic thinking will lead to better board decisions and long-term effects for the institution.
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