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The importance of building a school board dream team

While working with school boards, we still occasionally hear language suggesting that the board should consider itself lucky if an existing director elects to stay. The logic underlying this presumption may be that it is the decision of the board member to choose to stay on the board. However, increasingly school boards recognise that they not only need a solid mix of skills to provide effective governance, but that the skills make-up of the board is dynamic and must be responsive to the challenges the board is facing at the time. Boards are also charged with anticipating challenges they will face in the future such as the school’s strategic direction, government funding arrangements and demographic shifts.

Why is the skills mix of a board so important? A study by the Curtin University Not-for-profit Initiative identified a range of factors which contribute to the extent to which boards add value to their schools.Two factors key to this discussion were: 

  1. governance skills appropriate to their schools’ needs; and 
  2. processes to actively manage the board skills composition. 

Put simply, to really add value, a board needs to have members with previous governance experience, and they must actively manage the board composition to ensure the board has the depth and diversity of skills needed.

This seems like a simple task, but how does the board decide what skills are ‘needed’? 

There are a number of key factors to consider in deciding the desired board skills:

  • Does the board have the breadth of core skills necessary to meet the demands of any school board?
  • Are there upcoming challenges which may require specific skill on the board? For example, If the school is embarking on a major building program, do they have the skills on the board to understand the construction industry?
  • Does the diversity of the board match the diversity of the parents and students served by the school?

That leaves one key question, how does the board understand its current skills mix. The Curtin University research was clear that self-assessment is not particularly accurate in answering this question.The research indicates self-assessment is strongly affected by an individual’s experience and expectations. This may be true, but unlike corporate boards, which are becoming more used to an annual externally conducted skills analysis, few school board members will be comfortable with independent testing of their skills. We suggest a self-assessment with clear description of levels of capability in each director skill set. Directors can then understand what defines a level of capability '1' versus a level of capability ‘5’ (or a similar scale) and can assess themselves against these clearly defined levels. This approach minimises the impact of individual experience and expectations whilst improving consistency.

In summary, the skills of a board should not be the result of chance, but rather an active process which understands the current skills of the board and proactively plans board succession based on the skills required based upon the changing demands of the school.3 Without this approach the board value add may be significantly reduced.

Please feel free to contact us should you require any further information on skills analysis or other governance advice regarding school board succession.


Footnotes

1 Gilchrist, D. & Knight, P. 2015. Research into Developing Highly Effective School Boards for Independent Public Schools. A Report for the Department of Education, Perth, Western Australia. Accessed 19 July 2021, https://www.education.wa.edu.au/dl/69o64e

2 Ibid, p. 31.

3 For more information on skills analysis, see Kiel, G., Nicholson, G., Tunny, J. & Beck, J. 2018. Reviewing Your Board: A Guide to Board and Director Evaluation. Sydney: Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Authors
Ian Doyle
Specialist Advisor – Culture and Conduct Risk
Ian Doyle is Human Resources Professional with over 25 years’ experience in HR roles in the Banking and Insurance Industries. Ian started his Human Resources career in Westpac ultimately having responsibility for Senior HR portfolios across the Qld...