Governance and the art of the possible

I think about governance every day – not surprising, really, given the Boards I chair or am involved with – and my reflections have been heightened recently, as, together with Matthew Savage, I have been putting the final touches to our 5 week flexible online course for international school Board members, #betterboards, which is launching in January. Our mission is to help school Boards to become as effective as they can be, and this starts with their values, their boundaries and their practices – all areas which we look at in this course. Governance is hard, and Board members deserve support! And governance is never finished, or ticked off – as I say to anyone and everyone who will listen, I firmly believe that governance is not an outcome, but a process; governance is how we act as Board members, not what we achieve.

One of the areas we cover in our course is about how much Board members need to know about the organisation on whose Board they sit – ie schools, in the case of international school Boards – and this is something which I reflect on frequently, in coaching sessions with prospective Board members in a range of different industries and professions. The answer is: something, but not everything – one of the mistakes I see again and again in role descriptions for non-executive posts is a heavy emphasis on executive experience, and – often – very little reference to non-executive skills such as assimilating and synthesising information, asking insightful questions, maintaining an appropriate bird’s eye view of the detail, challenging executive action, and so on.

A little learning is a dangerous thing – and not just in education, where Principals, skilled professionals, are unfortunately used to everyone being an expert on the profession simply because they went to school many years ago, and think education is a very good thing … And this learning is particularly dangerous in a governance relationship, because it risks blurring the boundaries between governance and leadership, between non-executive and executive; when this happens, the value of the Board diminishes, and it can no longer offer the same degree of insight and oversight … it becomes, in the worst-case scenario, little more than a glorified Management Committee.    

Great Boards have a clear sense of purpose and of their role, and this is what makes them so impactful. Good governance is an aim for which they need to keep striving, and building reflection time into Board discussions – inside and outside Board meetings. Governance is a journey and an art … ultimately possible, it requires hard work, energy and reflection.

You can see a trailer for our #betterboards course here – do watch and please do share the details with any international schools you know. Great schools have great governing bodies, and a great governing body will keep reflecting, growing and developing … just like the young people in our schools.

Good luck in your quest for good governance!

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