Assessing Our Board Assessment

Posted: February 24, 2015

244051_jfa1705_hiI’ve made the case for board assessment here in my blog. As a board member of a Hudson Valley nonprofit, I’ve pushed for an assessment within the organization. Given my advocacy, I’ve welcomed serving as chair of the governance task force and as chief liaison to the expert who developed our survey. If you’re thinking this background is buildup to a “but…,” it is, of sorts – though certainly not a rethinking of the inherent value of board assessment. More so, I want to share my initial lessons on the assessment process.

Go Deep on Board Buy-In

Naturally, you want complete agreement to conduct a board assessment. But achieving buy-in is a two-step process. It begins with the initial “let’s do it” vote. That’s the surface agreement. You also need to be certain that everyone has the same understanding of what “assessment” means and entails – the purpose, what will be covered and how. That’s a whole other discussion, and reaching that level of agreement is the kind of deep, solid buy-in you want.

Talk Board Renewal

Assessment conveys all kinds of connotations – from criticism and judgment to the avenue that brings recognition and reward. Be aware of differences in interpretation and how they affect understanding of your intention. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the better phrase to use is board renewal. It speaks more directly to the purpose. You’re gathering reliable information to make decisions for a board and organization in a new period – the next year or a few years ahead. It’s like saying, before we move forward, let’s do a check of how we think and interact. Let’s renew – hit the refresh button – to ensure our systems are working as well as needed to carry us into the future.

Recognize Board Culture

A board member or two suggested that we might have talked out some of the questions, rather than using a survey instrument. I’m a networker by nature, so exchanging information and viewpoints is in my DNA. Still, a discussion cannot replace a survey when your aim is to obtain unvarnished responses. I serve with fine people, so I say this not in terms of one board but as a reality of all boards: discussions are influenced by the personalities in the room. It takes a very trusting board for all to feel comfortable speaking their mind and truth. It takes a very equitable and patient board to give everyone a turn in equal fashion. These are definitely attributes in a board to develop. But until you do, you need the anonymity and equal opportunity of a survey. You need the science and art of phrasing questions that elicit unbiased answers.

At the same time, reflection triggered by a survey can be invaluable: Are these questions we should be discussing among ourselves? Am I satisfied with my board service? The process has surely encouraged me to reflect – and to believe all the more in the importance of board assessment.

Looking to plan an assessment? Let’s talk. If you missed my dashboard on building board trust, read it here.