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Building a High-Performing Board: Expanding the Skills Matrix

11 Apr 2019 | Irene Birrell Just as business schools are now focusing on the so-called soft skills their graduates will need to be effective leaders, we need to identify and look for the less tangible talents and abilities that will help our boards provide the support and leadership our institutions need and deserve.

Every university secretary I know has a file full of samples of skills matrices to use whenever the issue of member succession planning comes up. These might be self-assessed, peer-assessed, chair-assessed, committee-assessed (not often, I hasten add, secretary-assessed, although we would definitely have views!). They result in complicated Excel charts and beautiful colour-coded tables that list desirable areas of professional strength, and sometimes areas of diversity, usually with a grading scale as to how “representative” the board is and what skills gaps are missing.

All necessary, well and good. But not enough.

The outcomes of these exercises don’t generally tell you much you don’t already know. A quick review of CVs by the Secretary or the Chair could identify where the technical and professional skills gaps lie:

  • Not enough members with the financial savvy to fill the Audit Committee? Tell the search consultant we need members with formal finance training or risk management professionals.
  • Lots of capital projects for the institution for the foreseeable future? We need to find development or construction expertise.
  • Who knows anything about complex IT infrastructure governance? Or the implications of yet-to-be-invented but foreseeable digital disruptors for the higher education of the future? Not very many and they are hard to get because every board wants one!

These, and all of the other skill sets we look for are important. We need them to ensure the board is competent to deal with the multi-layered issues they will be faced with in a 21st century university and so that they are able to be intelligent, critical friends to our executives. But they are a starting point. They are not enough in and of themselves to build an effective, high-performing board that is more than the sum of its skill sets.

Just as business schools are now focusing on the so-called soft skills their graduates will need to be effective leaders, we need to identify and look for the less tangible talents and abilities that will help our boards provide the support and leadership our institutions need and deserve.

Following is a list of skills and abilities that I rate highly. You may have others to add or some that you might emphasise more depending on where your board is on its development journey.

  • Knowing when to help and when to get out of the way; understanding what a governor’s job is and what it is not. This is often hard for members who are all experts in something and are used to solving problems in their professional lives. But as governors, it’s not their job to solve problems. It’s their job to ensure that management recognises the problems and has effective responses to managing the associated risks.
  • Willing and able to take time to understand the university. For most members, the university will be very unlike their own business or professional milieu. If they are alums, chances are the university they knew as students no longer exists as anything but a fond memory.
  • Able to engage meaningfully, but respectfully, with other members of the board and with the executive on difficult or contentious issues and work to consensus. This can be difficult when there are passionate and firmly held views on the right thing to do. But in my experience, a board that is having to hold frequent votes that are determined by narrow margins is not working effectively and may need to spend some time reflecting on what the basic values and beliefs are that underlie their collective decision making.
  • Willing to take the hard, unpopular decision – with demonstrable understanding of the views of those in the community who may disagree and with empathy for those who may be adversely affected.
  • Being a critical friend, offering constructive challenge – and support – to increasingly beleaguered vice-chancellors and their teams. We all know that managing a university is one of the toughest jobs around. Members need to understand the challenges facing their executive teams and bring their wisdom and experience to bear in ways that don’t just add to the list of challenges.
  • Willing to take on roles outside of their comfort (and skills) zone to become a more rounded contributor and break down silos within the board. Members from particular professional backgrounds may come on to our boards with the expectation that they will focus largely on their area of professional expertise. And we often encourage that by only giving them assignments related to that expertise. That doesn’t help us in terms of developing board leadership from within or them in terms of an enriching experience.
  • Committed to showing up prepared and ready to do the work. Prospective members should be under no illusion that university boards are not working boards. We need their attention, attendance and engagement. We need them on committees. We need them on special panels and projects. Sometimes when we are wooing a potential member, we underplay the true workload in order to get someone to say “yes”. We should stop doing that and get informed commitment.
  • Willing to advocate for the institution and the HE sector. Being a university governor means more than a commitment to your own institution. It means supporting the sector wherever and whenever possible. Political astuteness, the ability to communicate complex and difficult ideas and issues to a range of audiences, and a willingness to defend against misinformed opinions and assertions are all key here.

Selecting for these attributes and abilities is not easy. It requires strong, skilled interview panels who can see beyond the CV – perhaps, for example, favouring a candidate with diverse experience on other boards or organisations over one with better professional expertise or connections. It also means looking at the board holistically and for the long term – thinking about leadership needs now and five years down the road, rather than just seeking to fill an immediate gap. In my view, every independent member brought on to the board should be a potential board leader, either of the board itself or of critical committees.

(The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author).

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