From education to employment

Governing boards must develop their capability and performance to support and drive institutional performance

Fiona Chalk

In this article, Fiona discusses how and why boards must continually be learning and developing at a rate faster than the rate of change in the external environment, to be effective.

Further Education and Skills institutions have faced and continue to face considerable challenges. The sector is facing many new risks, opportunities, and challenges, and failure to rise to these challenges may well result in institutions no longer being sustainable.

Since boards have the ultimate responsibility for their institutions, such challenges are not only institutional learning challenges, but board learning challenges too. Increased uncertainty and complexity is challenging the status quo of boards, and their effectiveness. For their institutions to survive, boards must continually be learning and developing, and doing so at a rate that is faster than the rate of the changes and challenges in the internal and external environments.

Board members have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of others and so must keep learning to fulfil their duty. It is in the interests not just of our learners but of our communities and society at large that the boards of Further Education and Skills institutions continue to improve their ability to govern – making sound decisions in support of sustainable institutions.

The Status Quo

Typically, we observe that boards are predominantly reactive in the way they learn, learning on the ‘job’ which whilst understandable, is sub-optimal. Such learning is less effective than proactive learning, as it cannot match the speed of change necessary to meet the constant risks and opportunities institutions face. There are particular hindrances to board learning that show up repeatedly. The most commonly observed and stated by board members, are listed below:

  • Hubris and ego
  • Lack of self-awareness – “I do not need to learn”
  • Lack of accountability
  • Time constraints
  • Poor behaviour, lack of trust, poor relationships
  • Lack of clarity of purpose
  • Lack of evaluation practices

As part of my board consultancy work, I often encourage the Board and executive members to have a discussion to set out clearly their expectations of each other, to develop a shared set of values and behaviours. Not only does this save time and increase effectiveness as people no longer have to negotiate these in real time, but it is also a fantastic way to break down personal bias, boundaries, and hubristic behaviours that hamstring boards from learning, hindering their effectiveness.

Boards that have developed a learning mindset are not sidelined by challenges, rather they increase their effectiveness, through improved capability. But boards are often lacking such a mindset, usually because board members are time-poor and unwilling to add further to the already significant workload that comes with being a responsible board member.

What Effective Boards Do

Effective boards understand that they need to develop some key characteristics to continually strive to be the best they can be, and they recognise that they are never going to be fully formed – there will always be something new to learn or that they can do better at or more of.

  1. They understand the fundamentals of governance – that there is collective responsibility for the direction and sustainability of the organisation and that it is on behalf of others (they do not act in their own interests), and therefore to remain effective in governing, they have to keep learning.
  2. They embrace learning and development as a key input to effective decision making, so are deliberate and intentional in their learning.
  3. They develop a board culture of learning and continuous improvement by having a development plan; a learning item on each agenda; they use the governance professional as a learning co-ordinator; share learning experiences amongst themselves; evaluate at the end of every meeting; and actively create a psychologically safe environment that allows robust discussion to take place (and hubris to be challenged).
  4. Model positive board behaviours.
  5. Stay informed to ensure they are agile, responding to change at a rate faster than the internal or external change that is happening around them.

How Effective Boards Behave

I often consider what the most important skill is a board member can have, and I am currently settled on self-awareness – awareness of how one is coming across, of how their behaviour and communication style is impacting the dynamics of the conversation and group as a whole, of how others perceive their contribution. Linked to this, is a desire to self-evaluate and therefore desire to learn. The best board members are committed, enthusiastic, have a powerful desire to learn, embrace change, take responsibility, develop positive relationships, and have a willingness to show vulnerability.

Collectively, these boards have a strong chair, a diverse board membership, clarity of vision and purpose, regular succession, and persons with the relevant skills and experience to deliver the current strategy.

Effective Characteristics of Board Education

For a board to learn effectively, it must have:

  1. Motivation – this may come from the need to educate new members; acceptance that past decisions were sub-optimal; poor organisational performance; a rapidly changing environment; or simply a desire to improve
  2. Planned learning – develop a prioritised learning planning based on identified short-comings or gaps in knowledge in areas for which the Board has responsibility
  3. Right conditions – the boardroom must be a place where robust discussion and different opinions are welcomed and appreciated, and where people can speak freely without fear of repercussions and where active listening is practiced


Board members need to be both courageous and humble in order to critically reflect on their competency – their level of engagement, knowledge, skills, commitment, and openness to change. Chairs in particular, need to strive to build a culture of openness and positive challenge, where different voices are welcomed and a member’s fiduciary duty can truly be delivered, allowing members to proactively learn and thus steer their institutions safely through the challenges of uncertainty and complexity, and to maximise the opportunities these bring, to deliver for their learners and the communities that they serve.

By Fiona Chalk, CEO & Founder of Governance4FE

FE News on the go…

Welcome to FE News on the go, the podcast that delivers exclusive articles from the world of further education straight to your ears.

We are experimenting with Artificial Intelligence to make our exclusive articles even more accessible while also automating the process for our team of project managers.

In each episode, our thought leaders and sector influencers will delve into the most pressing issues facing the FE sector, offering their insights and analysis on the latest news, trends, and developments.

Related Articles