Governance isn’t one of those words you’d typically associate with ‘enthusiasm’ or dare we say it ‘excitement’. Strange as it may seem, governance is something that we (Kate and Chris) do get excited and enthusiastic about. We probably spend more time talking about it than might be considered reasonable.
There are good reasons for this. We both have an interest in how we all create a decent, sustainable society for us now and future generations. How people make ‘good’ decisions (now and for the future), how we wisely use the resources we have available and how we create responsible, caring communities is all linked to good governance.
One of the things we’ve become involved in (nudged by our good friend Diana Reynolds, link) is facilitating a Community of Practice. Somewhere for people involved in governance to share knowledge and do some peer to peer learning. It is deliberately low key, diverse and not the ‘usual suspects’. Something that links people who are involved in governance from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.
Diversity (in it’s widest sense) is not just a ‘nice thing to aim for’, it is essential. We want to be part of a peer to peer Community of Practice that we hope, will help people keep learning, and open the door to others who would like to get involved.
To explain some of what we’ve been talking about, we’ve written it down. Here are some of the questions we’ve been asking each other following our first attempt at some action learning and trying to support a Community of Practice.
Chris to Kate: There’s already lots of guidance available on how to organise Boards. What difference will a Community of Practice with action leearning make?
Kate: Board members are often seen as the “finished product”. Many are experts in their field with successful careers. And I wonder if this is why the role isn’t offered more support. Are we afraid to suggest someone at the top of their game still needs development?
Lots of people become Board members because they constantly seek new learning and challenges. Yet, induction, training and development for Board members is inconsistent. It’s usually around things like risk management – rarely on issues such as climate change or the impact of digital on future generations.
In addition to this, the pandemic has really highlighted the need for something new. Organisations have been heroic in their response to keep good governance by bringing meetings online. In my view this has brought many benefits. But it has also made it harder to connect at a more human level as we miss out on the chats over coffee and the chance to get to know each other. And if there is one thing that good governance stands or falls by, it’s the quality of relationships.
For example, Board members rarely get to meet outside of formal structures and yet are juggling:
- the relationship between the Board and the Executive.
- culture of the Board and relationship between members themselves.
- individual relationships
Creating a space safe to explore and better understand human behaviours and the psychology of Boards, as well as the practical delivery of good governance, feels like something that’s urgently needed.
A Community of Practice can connect people at all stages of their governance journey, across sectors. It can provide peer to peer support in effectively managing the challenges faced. And the Action Learning Sets offer a more focused space for two or three people to reflect on specific dilemmas and their own development. It has the potential to support knowledge-sharing by connecting people and letting them learn from each other.
It creates a network of support.
Chris to Kate: There’s a helpful prompt for Board members along the lines of “nose in, hands out”. How do Board members know if they’ve got the balance right?
Kate: Oh, you’ll know! If you’re listening at all, you’ll know when you’ve got it wrong.
Has anyone worked out exactly how best to get the balance right?
It is tricky because what’s needed or expected varies so much from place to place. This becomes really apparent within the Community of Practice because it draws from organisations of all sizes. And it makes for a really rich and helpful conversation. For example; it makes sense within grassroots organisation with little or no resources, that Board members get stuck in to get stuff done. But the moment that organisation starts to realise an ambition for extending its reach and impact, you don’t want to be in the position of checking your own work. The boundaries can and do blur. Particularly as we’ve already highlighted that Board members are often appointed for their expertise.
Let’s face it, we’ve all had times where executive teams have pumped you for knowledge and information only to go in a completely different direction. Get comfortable with it, that’s the advice from people who’ve been in this position. Being a subject matter expert does not automatically make you best placed to know what’s best for an organisation. Executive teams should be in the position of having far better knowledge and understanding to know how things will play out. A good executive coach considers clients their own best experts, facilitates reflection and, when useful, introduces new concepts or tools. Good Board members can do the same, confidently holding a mirror up to the organisation, shining a light on what’s good and supporting healthy development.
Our job is to ask the questions that support that growth, strength-tests what’s in front of us and has the common interests of the organisation and the people it is intended to serve at heart. Because that, after all, is what community is about.
Kate to Chris: Where do you think the balance lies between ‘following process’ and being flexible when it comes to effective Boards?
Chris: The short answer to this is ‘it depends’. Sorry if that isn’t immediately helpful.
What I’m trying to say is that you need both parts, process and flexibility, and it isn’t one size fits all. Some processes are absolutely necessary most of the time. Things like safeguarding policies, health and safety, financial regulations etc, they have all been created for very good reasons. There is a quote, apparently a favourite of President John F Kennedy, along the lines of “never take down a fence until you understand why it was put there in the first place” (link).
I think the point is important. You need to understand why there are rules and processes in place before you do something different. This links to something I’m also quite enthusiastic about and that’s the idea of continuous learning and even the idea of looking at being involved in a Board as an ‘apprenticeship’.
Learning how things work, carefully, sometimes even failing (safely) are all part of the process. At the risk of quote overload, the idea that you need to “learn the rules like a pro, to break them like an artist” (attributed to Picasso & others, link here) is something worth thinking about, and practicing.
So, if you are going to pin me down; I think you need to properly understand why rules and policies exist (fences), before you start acting flexibly to work around them (like an artist). It’s all about hard work up front (your apprenticeship), being aware of context and recognising how things can be constantly changing. Easy!
Kate to Chris: What role does the Chair have in getting that right?
Chris: Thanks, another easy question. This is huge topic which I’m going to boil down to two things, which I hope doesn’t over simplify what is an important role. First is the role of a Chair as the facilitator. From my viewpoint, for any Board to function effectively there is a ‘process’ to follow. Basically, getting the business done. Seeking assurance, providing challenge, setting the strategic direction, monitoring performance, providing support etc. All of these things need to happen and the Chair has a role in helping that to happen.
Beyond this there are the relationships that help to make all of the processes function as effectively as possible. As you’ve said in your answers, people are appointed to Boards with all sorts of background and expertise that ‘add’ to the mix. This might not always be because they admire and ‘get on’ with each other. I’m not suggesting the Chair needs to be everyone’s ‘best friend’, but knowing about people and what makes them tick is helpful. The Board is effectively a Team, and getting the best out of the team in large part is influenced by the relationships between the individuals. I think a Chair has an important role in understanding the board members and helping to build those good working relationships. Sorry, no quote for this one, although, you might want to have a look at what I’ve written here on the importance of Beer Committees as a cornerstone of governance.
We hope that gives an idea of the things we have been talking about, and maybe lights a small fire of excitement?
You can be part of this Community of Practice; you can get in touch however works for you or by providing your email address here.
Useful resources: Diana Reynolds has a number of ‘quick tips’ available on the Welsh Government Academi website, link here.
A good one to start with is Peer-to-Peer Networks in Support of Wales Audit Action Research. (It’s what got us to here)