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How Public College Boards Can Best Approach Evaluations

College and university boards are facing a multitude of new issues in an ever-changing environment. Regular board evaluations are a valuable resource to improve group processes within the board. Board self-evaluations may indicate potential problems and significant differences of opinion before they upset board dynamics. The process, results and implementation should revolve around the board’s objectives in pursuing self-evaluations. The objectives should factor in the changing environment in higher education and the board and managers’ ability to cope and adapt, while providing strong leadership.

A Seven-Step Framework for Board Self-Evaluations

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation recommends a seven-step framework for board evaluations that add value. The seven steps are the following:

  1. What Are Your Objectives?

Every step in the board self-evaluation process should refer back to the evaluation’s objectives. Boards can generally classify their objectives into two categories — conformance or value-adding.

Public boards that are required to conduct self-evaluations will get more from the process when they establish clear objectives.

Whether evaluations are required or not, all boards will benefit from a focus on value-added objectives. Examples of this are evaluating the board’s intentions for board development and bringing new talent into the boardroom so the board has the proper balance of skills.

It’s also appropriate for boards to take a hybrid approach with dual objectives of conformance and value-adding. The purpose of this step is to make sure boards have a solid rationale for doing evaluations.

  1. Who Will Be Evaluated?

Boards should refer to the objectives when deciding whom to evaluate. Most often, boards evaluate the whole board and the committees. Some boards also evaluate individual board director performances. Other boards invite key people, such as the CEO and the Corporate Secretary, to participate in individual evaluations as well.

  1. What Should Boards Evaluate?

Board evaluations can be relatively short or lengthy. The depth of evaluations largely depends on the objectives, time constraints and available resources that boards have. Topics may be general or specific and cover issues such as board processes, board director skills, competencies, motivation and board director relationships.

  1. Who Should Boards Ask for Feedback?

Feedback can come through internal or external resources. Internal feedback comes from board directors, the CEO and senior executives. External resources include shareholders and key stakeholders such as government departments or agencies, major clients and suppliers.

  1. What Techniques Will Be Used?

Boards can take a more quantitative or qualitative approach to their evaluations or some combination of both. The interview method works with small groups as well as one-to-one. Board meeting observation is an appropriate process to use when the objective of the evaluation focuses on boardroom dynamics and the relationships between individuals.

Another option is to take a document analysis approach and review board packets and policies. Most boards find the best value in using a hybrid approach using online questionnaires with follow-up interview questions to clarify their answers and make inquiries about issues that the online questionnaires don’t cover.

BoardEffect has an online survey feature that works well for doing board self-evaluations easily and efficiently.  Boards can complete the whole process and monitor and track results inside the safety and security of a board portal.

  1. Who Will Facilitate the Evaluation Process?

Almost any person with board knowledge can facilitate board self-evaluations. Boards may enlist the help of the board chair or the secretary. Boards that desire a more objective approach may consider hiring a specialist or consulting firm. Some boards find it cost-effective to alternate between internal and external facilitators.

  1. What Will the Board Do With the Results?

Boards should review the results, which may be provided to them in the form of a summary. Once again, boards should review their results as they relate to the board’s objectives for the evaluations. Public boards submit their evaluations and make them public for compliance matters. Other boards may share their conclusions on their websites, or just share them with the board and management.

Reframing Executive Evaluations

When evaluating the CEO or other executives, most boards take the approach of basing questions on how they performed in the past. This approach assumes that things will likely be the same moving forward. Because of the numerous new challenges that college and university boards have, it makes more sense to base questions on how well CEOs can adapt to a continually changing environment. The primary question is more of whether they can lead the right kind of change during rapidly challenging times.

Evaluation questions for CEOs may include questions about how CEOs can use social intelligence to create positive change. CEOs for today’s higher educational institutions need to be adaptable, resilient and willing to work with the board and the academic community, while staying in tune with the most critical leadership challenges they face.

Implementing Outcomes Based on Evaluations

After the evaluations have been completed and the results are in, the board has to decide how to implement actions from what they learned and monitor changes moving forward. They’ll need to set some milestones, add the items to their agendas and track their actions at each meeting. Boards should heed a word of caution. On occasion, boards can get back to their normal routines rather quickly and not give the self-evaluations the due diligence they deserve. Boards that fail to draft plans and monitor implementation may end up feeling that the process was nothing more than a waste of time.

Final Words on How Public College Boards Can Best Approach Evaluations

College boards will continue to face challenges with enrollment, online learning, relevant curricula, innovation, freedom of speech and more. College boards and leadership can expect to work in a volatile, evolving climate. The basic tenets of board evaluations, like maintaining confidentiality and changing up the format of the process so it’s not so rote and routine, still hold. College and university boards can get the best value out of their annual self-evaluations with an approach to their questionnaires that takes a quick look backward and a thoughtful look forward.

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