Three Steps to Governance Improvement

I am a strong advocate of board self-review but the challenge is to transform the process from an isolated, once-a-year event into one that yields ongoing governance improvement. We know that good governance has a positive impact on student achievement, so it is incumbent on boards to ensure they are governing as insightfully and skillfully as possible. But trustees are extremely busy throughout the school year with regular board meetings, committees, school visits and community engagement activities. Agendas are packed, meetings are long, and boards focus almost all of their time on student, school and staff matters. Who can blame boards for putting their own developmental needs last?

Part of the solution is to make use of trustee development programs offered by provincial associations, but to be most effective these activities should be part of a process that also identifies board learning needs and assesses progress – just like we would do for student achievement. The following is a brief overview of a three-step process that over the year only adds a few extra hours to the traditional board self-review process. This process is similar to my methodology for superintendent review – Performance Planning and Review – that turns stand-alone performance assessment into ongoing performance improvement.

Step One: Board Performance Planning – A Governance Growth Plan

This first step is somewhat similar to a typical board self-review activity that utilizes a number of tools to determine how the board is doing in its governance role. Good governance relies on a combination of structures and behaviours. These instruments help to determine which skills and structures are in good shape and those that may need greater attention. The outcome of this step is a governance growth plan for the year that identifies board learning needs and proposed actions to close the gaps.

Step Two: Check-ins

The second step is to agree on some check-in dates to monitor how the board is doing. Most boards routinely get updates from senior staff on how the district is progressing in its strategic plan, particularly in the areas of student achievement and finances. What is frequently missing is a check-in on how the board is doing in its governance growth plan. The check-in process does not need to be complicated or time-consuming – approximately a half hour, three times in the year should be sufficient. The check-ins help to keep the governance plan on track and allow for modifications if needed.

Step Three: Year-end Review and Back to Step One

Using selected governance assessment instruments the board reviews its progress on last year’s growth plan and carries these findings into its planning for the coming year (Step One). After the first year’s cycle, step one and three merge into on a single step.

This combination of yearly formal assessment combined with informal check-ins throughout the year keeps governance development part of the board’s regular business, as opposed to being an isolated retreat activity. This ongoing focus on governance skills and structures promotes continuous improvement and helps to address issues before they get in the way of board functionality. Board work is people work and can sometimes get messy. Having in place a process for identifying and monitoring good governance is the gram of prevention that can save kilograms of cure.

Stephen Hansen


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