5 reflections on the power of everyday governance practices

Following the AHUA's 2022 Spring Conference in Glasgow, Advance HE’s Victoria Holbrook, Aaron Porter, and Associate, Mark Adderley, Chair of Scottish Squash, list key points from their session: ‘Looking back to look forwards – do Boards need new ways of working with stakeholders?’

It is uncontested that the key actors of that vital governance triumvirate – the Chair, the Executive, and the Secretary/Clerk –  need to continually reflect on enhancing their ‘everyday’ practices and those of their Board.

This is where reflections from experiences across sectors can remind us of what can make a difference in getting governance right and in doing so, delivering for a wide range of stakeholders that includes students, staff, and regulators as well as local, national and international parties.

Mark Adderley* – having worked both in and beyond HE in a range of Executive and non-Executive roles and currently nearing the end of his term as Chair of national sports body, Scottish Squash, – outlines the following 5 key areas:

1. The power of informality

Board members are usually (hopefully!) passionate about the organisation, and they mostly want to ‘add’ more than just their attendance at Board meetings. After all it is their obligation to be an advocate as well as a challenge.

When I joined a health board as a non-exec, (pre covid) I did ‘back to the floor’ visits every couple of months, initially at the request of the exec team. This was good for me and the Board. It made the Board more visible. It also gave me much better insight to Board discussions.

While needing to keep away from operational decision-making, non-execs with a strong operational understanding can have a better understanding of the strategic issues and the range of stakeholders that need to be considered.

2. Board members are not done with development

Many non-execs are trying to develop themselves too, and their joining a Board can often be a part of their professional development.  So use their skills but also stretch them and help them to achieve their own development objectives – these could be clarified in discussion during an induction or annual review process for example.

Give non-execs something challenging and new for them – they will probably enjoy their role more, and will rise to the challenge. Ask them to chair a committee or get them into a committee that is not their own natural area – I’ve been on audit committees and often ask some basic and insightful questions and also learned and developed myself.

It also gives non-execs the opportunity to hear different thinking and perspectives than they may be used to, and a more rounded understanding of the stakeholders in scope.

3. Time for Board transparency?

HE should be as transparent as you need to, plus plus.

I was director of a water company, when FOI came in. We decided to not just respond to FOI requests within the 20 day period – but we started working under the assumption that everything is published rather than other way round. This actually helps attract new staff too who can be attracted by both the information and the culture that publishing so widely expresses.

This also helps regulators, customers, partners, and develops a culture of honesty.  There is often a debate about transparency and how much of Board meetings to publish.

I am a fan of not doing ‘full minutes’ but prefer keeping the gist of the discussion, and decisions and actions and then having development days or non-minuted sessions that are used for competitive or strategic discussion.

4. Conflict, consensus and cabinet responsibility as key to Board culture

Conflict should be seen as a good thing – and most governance codes emphasise the importance of challenge and open discussion.  Particularly if it is handled right, it shows high levels of engagement on behalf of the non-execs and a humility and listening by the executive.

I have done board reviews when governance is seen as ‘the thing to look at’ but as much can be gained by understanding the style as the content of discussions.  While conflict is important, two other ‘cs’ are equally important – building consensus in meetings through listening and discussing, and then cabinet responsibility for the decision outside the meeting, with the whole Board having one harmonious voice.

5. Relationships based on trust, triumph

Mark’s final observation is that the relationship between all non-execs and the Executive is important but the one between Chair and Chief Executive – or in our case the Vice Chancellor/Principal –  is critical. And this needs to be built on trust – professional trust is also not necessarily the same as personal trust, but often the two go together. Mark champions David Maister’s trust equation where trust is a function of:

Credibility add or times Reliability add or times Intimacy divided by Self-interest.

I have experience of being in both exec and non-exec roles where there have been both difficult and outstanding relationships between Chair and CEO. This relationship is a key driver of the quality of relationship between the exec team and the non-exec team.  Some key learnings have already been discussed above, but the need for regular communication should never be underestimated. Good informal communications, ‘how is it going’, ‘what else can I do help’, ‘how are you feeling’, ‘how are the [exec or non-exec] team feeling’ helps to build trust, understanding and enables that supportive and challenging relationship to strive.

Advance HE’s session explored how the stakeholder landscape is changing and how governance effectiveness practices are evolving as a result. What was clear was that a relentless focus on board culture, and the power of paying attention to everyday practices, is vital.

*Quotes are Mark’s comments from the conference