Is your board in a self-evaluation rut?

Has your board’s periodic self-evaluation process become a mundane exercise that generates little interest or results? If so, the board could be in a self-evaluation rut. Typical indicators include:

1. A nationally recognized self evaluation survey yields high scores every year.
2. The board spends hardly any time discussing survey results.
3. Some of the survey questions don’t apply or seem marginally important.
4. The board stopped doing regular self assessments because they weren’t productive.

Regular board self-assessment is like a regular physical exam by a physician. The test results might be fine, but missing scheduled check-ups could result in delayed detection of serious illness. A good physician doesn’t just check vital signs and lab values – she asks the all important questions: “Is anything bothering you? Has anything changed since the last time I saw you? Would you like to talk about ways to be even healthier?”

A good board self assessment process works the same way. A board needs an opportunity, every year or two, to step back and reflect on its work, makeup, structures and practices. I have rarely seen a board didn’t come away from a well-designed self-evaluation process with a number of ideas to improve itself. Great governance is a continuous journey, not a destination.

Here are six alternatives to “self evaluation as usual.” Some work better with a governance facilitator and some don’t, and all can enable a board to break free of the self evaluation rut.

1. Change the questions. National best practice questionnaires (I use the The Governance Institute’s very good survey most often) are invaluable, especially if scores are so-so, but what is the board learning if all the scores are high every year? Instead, in some years, why not develop a customized set of several open-ended questions about various elements of governance, such as “Is the board’s role clear?”, “Are we spending enough meeting time on forwarding looking, critical issues?”, and “What critical competencies will our board need in the future?” Compile the results into a discussion document for a self evaluation retreat or discussion. Challenge the board’s thinking in advance with articles on leading edge governance practices.

2. Establish the board’s work priorities and education agenda for the coming year. Most CEOs do a good job keeping their boards educated and informed. They’ll hit the mark even better if the board has the opportunity annually to discuss the major issues on which it wants to focus time for discussion and education. This discussion can often be coupled with discussion of either standardized questionnaire results or a customized survey.

3. Rigorously evaluate your committees. If your board relies on an active, working committee structure, ask each committee to conduct a rigorous self assessment and summarize the results for discussion at a self evaluation retreat or special session. Don’t re-invent the wheel- we published sample committee self assessment questions in the Summer 2008 issue of Great Boards.

4. Pick a focus. Who says self assessment must cover the waterfront every time? Why not pick just one or two big topics or questions to discuss, such as:

• How can we develop of culture of commitment and active engagement?
• How should the board carry out its responsibilities for quality oversight?
• As our organization and the environment change, what are the competencies we should seek in our “board of the future”?
• Should we evaluate individual trustees, and if so, how we can do it in a helpful, non threatening manner?
• What will the Form 990 mean for the way the board approaches its definition of independence, conflict of interest policy, and oversight of executive compensation, community benefit, corporate compliance, and financial integrity?

5. Ask a governance expert to “kick the tires.” Great leaders regularly invite outside experts to take an objective look their organizations, compare what they see to effective practices elsewhere, provide education and facilitate a discussion of opportunities for improvement. Hospitals often call in experts in such areas as revenue cycle improvement, physician practice management, clinical product lines and long-term strategic planning. A governance expert can do the same for the board.

6. Engage in a comprehensive governance assessment and redesign process. A comprehensive assessment usually involves not just kicking the tires but examining all aspects of a governance structure that has multiple, overlapping or large boards, redundant committees and meetings, and little turnover. Boards often want a top-to-bottom assessment a year or so after a major organizational change as a merger or major acquisition. Bringing on a new CEO is an ideal for either a “kick the tires” or comprehensive assessment.

Board self assessment can be a re-energizing and productive process. If it isn’t, don’t abandon the practice – improve it!

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