Governance: Building an effective team

Written by: Ian Armitage | Published:
Image: iStock

The role of the chair of governors and governing body in a school is vital. Ian Armitage looks at the attributes that effective boards – and effective chairs – need to succeed

The governing board is a team, and like any other team needs to have the right players to play the game, the right skills and a shared vision and values.

As a nation we are fortunate that we have thousands of highly capable and committed chairs of governors and school trustees. They dedicate numerous unpaid hours each week to work with school heads and CEOs of multi-academy trusts for the benefit of the communities and schools they serve – and they do this to great effect.

Being a chairman of a board of governors or trustees is a difficult job. Mastering the softer skills of team-building and leadership is great way to start. Happily we are well served by extensive research into governance in other sectors of the economy which can act as a guide. So, what general lessons can we apply?

Let me start by addressing checklists. They are a particularly useful tool in risk management and compliance – in short to ensure that you cover the ground and do not miss anything. But using these lists is far from sufficient in matters of establishing good, let alone excellent, governance. Here the real focus must be on the performance of teams of people – in this case the board – which requires constant attention.

The chairman creates the conditions for the overall board and individual governor effectiveness. She or he demonstrates the highest standards of integrity and probity and sets clear expectations concerning the organisation’s culture, values and behaviours, as well as the style and tone of board discussions.

She or he also manages board dynamics, engagement and conflicts, leads its discussions concerning its composition, builds a healthy, constructive and balanced relationship with the head/CEO and is responsible for the performance assessment of the head/CEO.

To repeat, being a chairman is a demanding and difficult role that requires a set of skills different in many respects from those that underpin a successful executive career, notably in requiring high levels of emotional intelligence, clarity of purpose and drive.

What challenges do they face?

A key challenge is building a productive relationship with the head/executive team and the rest of the governing board.
In some cases, headteachers do not fully embrace the critical fact that he/she is 100 per cent accountable to the board for their performance – or do not appreciate that decisions on their tenure are the responsibility of the board. Similarly chairs might also forget that they are accountable to other governors and also taxpayers.

A poor relationship can manifest itself in a rubber stamp type board, often marked by poor and/or late information being delivered to governors, defensive controlling attitudes, and the executive team and board failing to leverage the skills and contacts that governors can bring to the party. These facts will normally discourage robust and open debate. Perhaps most important and damning is that a weak chair/CEO/board relationship destroys any potential to create a high performance team. So how can you avoid this obvious pitfall?

Respect, trust and candor

You must walk the talk and create a virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candor. Team members develop mutual respect which fosters trust and in turn allows them to share difficult information, challenge thinking coherently, and encourage “give and take” and better decision-making.

The starting point for this is the distribution of high-quality reports shared openly on time and in which all facts are clear.
Trust does not mean silence – its value is that it builds relationships that can withstand challenge and indeed dissent. Governors should always communicate openly between themselves, except in extreme circumstances, such as removing the chair. Convert these ideas into explicit, shared core values.

My starter for a set of core values would be:

  • Independence and integrity.
  • Openness.
  • Accountability.
  • Action orientation – a focus on getting the right things done, in the right way at the right time.
  • Mutual trust and respect.

Focus on the right areas

Fixed agendas, strict time slots and short meetings add no value. When you hear a chair self-congratulate with the six worst words for governance: “Good meeting, finished five minutes early,” it says all you need to know about the personal priorities of the chair.

Effective chairs limit time spent on presentations; they spend it on open constructive discussion. Agendas are set as part of an annual plan allowing the board to focus on the right areas in some depth.

Great boards own the strategy

It is essential that boards engage with strategy formulation and the analysis (e.g. SWOT) of the current position of the organisation. In too many cases, strategy is presented as the finished article, allowing only limited change. Accordingly much work is flawed, leaving the organisation weak.

Effective chairs encourage heads to understand that they should not fear losing control, they do not have to appear decisive at all times, and that others can make a valuable contribution.

Address the right information

You can block the effectiveness of boards by providing them with too little information or too much, too late. The latter option arising from the “Yes Minister” school of management confuses quantity with quality and places compliance above results. What is needed is:

  • A streamlined combination of information and data – a summary of big issues, highlighting the most important facts with detail in appendices.
  • Additional key information beyond financial and operations and risk, e.g. milestone reports on strategy execution, updates on legislation, recruitment and admissions.
  • Sources of information independent of management.
  • Clear feedback on the quality of information governors and trustees receive and suggestions on how it can be improved.

Build the right team

Good boards have a balance of skills, experience and background. Diversity is essential to build strength. Different experiences, perspectives and mindsets improve outcomes.

Schools suffer an inherent disadvantage compared with for-profit enterprises – they do not benefit from the instant feedback of customers (in this case pupils and parents) voting with their wallets.

As such, schools need to stay close to their “customer” and can look to governors, who represent parents, funders and the community, to provide essential feedback.

What about skills? I could write an entire article about this but suffice to say that boards need access to skills in education, HR, finance, legal matters, property, marketing and more.

At SGOSS we believe that leadership drives educational outcomes in schools. The appointment of the leader (head/CEO in a MAT) is a matter for governors or trustees. Accordingly the effectiveness of the board ultimately drives outcomes for pupils and the communities the schools serve.

The single biggest determinant of a board’s effectiveness is its chairman. Our role is to find your board the candidates that best fit your specific needs. Last year we placed 2,800 governors in 2,047 schools. Our service is free and our people are waiting to help you.

  • Ian Armitage is chairman of SGOSS Governors for Schools, a charitable enterprise offering a free governor search and selection service for schools which need to recruit governors or trustees. Visit www.sgoss.org.uk


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