From education to employment

The role of the board in engendering the college of the future

Fiona Chalk, National Head of Governance Development, Education and Training Foundation

With the recent publication of the #CollegeOfTheFuture report and the imminent White Paper, it is quite apparent that there will be many and significant strategic decisions to be made on the purpose, place, and governance of colleges and post-16 providers.

This raises the question of what is the role of the governing body (the Board) in this process?

As a result of growing stakeholder intolerance of poor college performance, together with an increasing recognition of the role colleges are going to play in the post-16 education landscape, conventional and ceremonial governing bodies of previous times are necessarily being supplanted by increasingly active boards that are asking more of senior leaders and taking a closer interest in their institution’s business.

We know that Boards have three key roles; three lines of sight:

  1. Hindsight – reviewing past performance, audit committee work, compliance, and external reporting.
  2. Oversight – where are we now compared to where we thought we should be? What’s happened and what needs to change?
  3. Foresight – where and what are we aiming for, and who and how are we going to get there?

It would be fair to say that a significant number of boards have typically spent 65% of their time on hindsight and oversight, and about 35% on foresight. Yet most governors say that they would like to see that change or are making that change happen. That is because boards have far more potential to add value when they focus on strategy than when they carry out policing activity.

How do Boards add value?

Boards are well versed in policing – being the critical friend, delivering robust challenge, etc. and, with a few exceptions, do that pretty well now. So, it seems timely that Boards should refocus and prioritise foresight (strategy) and consider how they can add value.

So how do Boards add value? Typically, this is done through the passing on of extensive business experience and wisdom gained from having done certain things, and having been in certain places at certain times, so they can add to the management team’s intimate knowledge of the operational and strategic environment, by adding perspective.

But how much time do Boards invest in exploring perspectives? This is what the experts call the ‘knowledge exchange’ that must take place in the boardroom. Effective governance is evidenced when Boards positively influence management’s performance, thereby positively impacting on organisational performance.

Strategy should be the Board’s bread and butter.

Yet when organisations go through a crisis such as the pandemic we are now experiencing, the Board’s key role on focusing on strategy can be a cause of tension in the boardroom. When management are under pressure like they’ve possibly never experienced before and are heavily involved in fire-fighting on many different fronts, being asked where you think you might want to be in five years’ time, may not be a very welcomed question. Who knew nine months ago that we would be where we are now?

However, the risk of the Board slipping into the trenches with management, no matter how well-meaning, is probably not welcome by management either, and brings the risk of when they both climb out, that the landscape around has changed so significantly, the organisation is ill-prepared for the challenges coming over the horizon.

We know from our conversations with the sector, that management are keen for Boards to be more strategic and governors themselves are keen to be more strategic, so how can this happen?

Both the Chair and the CEO have equal roles to play:

  • The Chair in ensuring agendas are forward focused, that governors have spent time understanding the college’s business and stakeholder requirements, that external training and development on strategy formulation, process and analysis is encouraged, and governors are recruited to skills needs aligned to the institution’s risk register and strategic plan.
  • The CEO in ensuring that reports supplied by management contain strategic information, not operational detail – if the board is to have a strategic conversation, it requires strategic information. If management supply operational information, the Board will have an operational discussion. Encouraging senior leaders to develop their skills on report writing for the Board, rather than supplying reports with similar content to the reports that went to management committee, can have considerable impact on the quality of boardroom discussions. Such a targeted report is often shorter and will usually reduce requests for further information from governors, thereby reducing overall the time that management needs to invest in board work.

A focus on organisational strategy

The Education and Training Foundation supports the above recommendations through its senior leadership and governance programmes, run primarily through the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, the resulting alumni networks, and other supportive activities to disseminate effective practice and encourage innovation. It is currently in conversation with SaÏd Business School, at the request of alumni, to develop a further module for Chairs. This will be primarily focused on organisational strategy.

The new programme for Governance Professionals also contains a strand on strategic leadership in governance, to add further capacity and support to Boards as they seek to negotiate with management, and to find new collaborative ways and models of working to meet the needs of people, employers, and the communities in which they operate.

Fiona Chalk, National Head of Governance Development, Education and Training Foundation

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