Boards are (and should be) a group of people that changes regularly. You don’t want a static or stale setup, one that doesn’t regularly renew itself, otherwise its collective skills, knowledge and experience won’t match the developing needs of the organization.

On the other hand, you have to watch that good stuff introduced by one set of trustees doesn’t get lost when they all depart!

You want a board that keeps on learning, regardless of who’s sitting round the table. Maintaining a culture of learning and development is seen as one of the challenges of board effectiveness. Trustees don’t meet often, they have busy lives away from the board and developing as a team can be hard.

What really helps is to have systems and practices that endure beyond a particular Chair’s term of office.

At our recent seminar on Building Better Governance, a really enthusiastic and engaged group had a look at some of the ways to start building this culture. We looked at what trustees including the Chair need to do and how the Chief Executive can provide support.

We came up with the following:

The Chair needs to be:

  • really positive about wanting to review practice from a variety of perspectives and ensure that change happens
  • keen to leave a legacy of a high performing board
  • proactive in ensuring there’s time on the agenda for review and development activities – not having an agenda so crammed with items that there’s no time for reflection
  • aware of the importance of board development and continuous improvement.

Other trustees can support by:

  • being open to review and changing practice (not “we’ve always done it this way”)
  • taking personal responsibility for their contribution to the success of each meeting
  • wanting to develop in the trustee role and beyond the “specialism” they originally brought.

The Chief Executive can help by

  • ensuring that trustees have an opportunity to learn together (e.g. presentations at trustee meetings from time to time and development activities at away days)
  • allowing time on the agenda for debate
  • organising training
  • ensuring trustee role descriptions are comprehensive and regularly reviewed
  • making sure that systems and practices that are introduced are maintained, reinforced and not forgotten.

We agreed that a simple and really effective way to start to build a culture of learning and development is to introduce short end of meeting reviews conducted (perhaps but not necessarily) by the Chair. And not allowing this to get stale either; if you ask the same questions at the end of every meeting, it becomes formulaic and you’ll hear the same responses. Tailor questions to the contents of the meeting. Some questions (one or two) you might ask include:

  • What was the most (and least useful) item on the agenda?
  • What did we spend most time on and what does that tell us?
  • What have we learnt about (our organization) that we didn’t know before?
  • What have we decided (today) that will have an impact in 3 years time?
  • How well did we use our time together? What could we do differently next time?

But remember, starting to build and maintain this culture has to come primarily from the board – the executive team can’t impose it or the board won’t own it and will in all probability sabotage it!