Fresh challenges demand new capabilities on FE boards

Today’s FE landscape presents an unparalleled set of challenges for FE colleges. On one hand, increased funding for the sector and supportive government policy offers colleges exciting new opportunities for growth and innovation. At the same time, increased scrutiny around the performance of FE colleges – both financial and educational – makes for a tough operating environment.

Faced with this new operating context, chairs of FE colleges must consider how they can ensure the non-exec board can help the chief executive and their team navigate these challenges and what, if any, changes need to be made to ensure the board continues to provide effective oversight and good governance. A good starting point, given the breadth and nature of the new challenges faced by FE colleges, is to consider whether the current board is made up of the right individuals to support the institution and its future needs.

While it is important to assess what new skills or knowledge will be needed on the board for an institution facing a merger or dealing with increased financial or organisational complexity, this is only part of the task. Chairs must also question whether the non-exec team has the diversity of backgrounds and thinking which will allow it to consider challenges from new and different perspectives. Doing this will minimise the risk of ‘groupthink’, improve governance and ensure the board is best placed to appraise challenges from the perspective of all stakeholders.

A second related area to consider is the behaviour of the board.  Like any team, boards can get locked into patterns of behaviour where dominant individuals can overshadow the views of others. There is a particular risk of this happening where governors serve extended terms due to mergers or other exceptional circumstances. Non-execs cannot properly fulfil their duties of oversight and governance unless they are able to challenge, critique and work together effectively. Equally, a board which is stale or imbalanced will be poorly placed to deal with emerging pressures in the sector and may not make the most of the talents that new board members might be able to bring. It is for the chair to assess the extent to which current behaviours need to change and how that can happen.

Chairs should not overlook the new challenges they will face themselves. The relationship with the chief executive is likely to change and will certainly be tested if there is a need to work together more closely or to accommodate higher levels of scrutiny. Working on board succession, ensuring a new board can quickly work together and maintaining board health may require new approaches. In all of these areas, it is critical for chairs to understand strengths, weaknesses and blind spots which will have an impact on board performance.

While an experienced chair can ‘self-audit’ the gaps and opportunities to a certain extent, systemic mapping of these areas through an independent experienced partner is an act of good governance in its own right and one every chair should consider.

Jody Goldsworthy, GatenbySanderson – Executive Director, Leadership & Talent Consultancy

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