Clarity of purpose sets the tone for the board success

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In uneventful times – when the external environment is benign, and the operation of an organisation is stable – the work of a non-executive board may seem quite routine. Modest new requirements of the organisation can be accommodated by minor adjustments to structure or process; the Board must remain alert, but pressures may be few.

However, in times of change, when significant external challenges emerge the capacity of the organisation is tested by those challenges, or by internal limitation, then the actions and attitudes of the board become crucial.  The accumulated ‘minor adjustments’ to structure or process, which seemed entirely adequate in peaceful times, may in sum look inadequate or even illogical under the new pressures. 

At such times it is helpful for a board to remind itself of its fundamental function: at the highest level it is simply to hold the executive to account. 

The subtlety is in the detail, of course. ‘Holding to account’ should never be interpreted as suggesting an adversarial relationship: the purpose is to provide constructive support.  Thus, the process of critiquing the plans and actions of the executive should be habitual for the board and its chair; criticism, on the other hand, should be made very sparingly, and only when more gentle interventions have failed.

Times of rapid or dramatic change can place a particular strain on adherence to an organisation’s strategy – and may suggest that a renewal of that strategy is needed.  

It may sometimes seem easier for an organisation to respond to the winds of change in purely reactive mode, but the most successful will use the opportunity to reassert their fundamental purpose.  A strategy is for the long term; rapid changes in circumstance are accommodated through an adjustment in tactics.

It is sometimes asserted that it is the board that is responsible for setting strategy, for implementation by the executive.  My experience is that this does not work in higher education, and I suspect that further education is the same.

The same diversity of experience and expertise that enables the ideally composed board to bring new perspectives to the assessment of executive actions, also limits its ability to initiate a specialist strategy for an educational institution.

The Executive, rather, should draft the strategy, drawing upon multiple sources of ideas, both internal and external, and ideally involving all members of the organisation.

The Board’s role is to consider that draft, make suggestions, query assumptions – indeed, it would be failing in its role if it did not.  The final version of the strategy will therefore reflect the board’s input while staying true to the principle that it is the executive’s initiative.  

The relationship between the chair of the board and the chief executive (CE) is critical.  It should be mutually supportive but also mutually challenging.  While it is often appropriate for issues or problems to be raised in one-to-one conversation between chair and CE, any suggestion should be avoided that this is a substitute for full board discussion.  

The appointment of a new CE – whatever the circumstances – represents a time of change that can cause instability. Typically, an organisation looks to the chair for leadership; this is most wisely executed through extensive consultation within and beyond the organisation, not only to achieve a strong appointment but also to ensure that the appointee enjoys the full confidence of colleagues.

Particularly in times of significant change, it is important that the role of chair is approached with confidence and sensitivity; there are important consequent benefits for the organisation – in encouraging collegiality, mutual appreciation of different contributions, and a common sense of purpose.

Simon Gaskell, QAA - Chair of the Board of Directors.

Simon has undertaken both executive and non-executive roles in higher education.  He was President and Principal of Queen Mary University of London from 2009-2017, and has subsequently served as Chair of the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and as a member of the Board of Governors of the University of Plymouth

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