The Five Pitfalls Of Board Assessments

board assessmentsEnsuring that boards complete annual self-assessments sounds terrific on the surface—but too often these required assessments end up as just another box to check, their real value diluted. So, set aside any less-than-stellar experiences you have had and consider this: A thoughtful assessment process can be the catalyst that makes a good board GREAT!

Done well, an annual assessment is one of the most powerful tools a board has to set its own stage for doing outstanding work. Its an opportunity to evaluate what is working well and the degree to which the board is constructively engaged, effectively overseeing management, and able to deliver relevant and strategic guidance.

A poorly organized assessment, on the other hand, is not only a source of frustration to board members, it’s a missed opportunity to help the board keep growing and adding value to the organization they serve. To help you get the most of your board assessment, here are five pitfalls to avoid.

Not asking the right questions

The information you get will only be as relevant as the questions you ask—so use the opportunity to seek meaningful data. The best assessments include a comprehensive set of topics ranging from board structure to culture, information sharing, member preparedness, committee effectiveness, and more. There’s a real art to framing questions at the appropriate level—not too deep nor too shallow.

Many boards also use assessment season as a time to step back and consider any challenges or unusual circumstances the board is likely to face, and then ensure these topics are covered objectively. Most circumstances fall within the core question set, allowing for a high degree of consistency between assessments, which enables the board to revisit topics and track its progress. Assessments that include quantitative and qualitative questions, not only give boards more data, but reinforce a tone of candor and objectivity.

Having “an insider” conduct assessment interviews

At first glance, it would seem to make sense that a board member or general counsel is well positioned to make calls or meet with people to collect assessment data. After all, these people can be trusted, know the personalities involved and are already aware of the challenges the board faces.

Nevertheless, many boards find that when they move to a third-party process, members are more candid with their feedback and reveal previously undisclosed issues, especially those that may be uncomfortable to bring up in conversation with a colleague. A more structured process also eliminates the risk of the assessment being unintentionally shaped by the interviewer—as conscientious as any of us may be, we can’t help but listen and ask follow-up questions through our own personal filter and may unconsciously downplay opinions that we don’t share.

Regardless of how your assessment is conducted, make sure that the same questions are raised with everyone and that feedback is recorded as intended. If an important issue comes up mid-process, revisit the input received from board members who weren’t asked about it initially with a modified assessment – it’s never too late to ask good questions.

Not ensuring and emphasizing confidentiality

We all know that personal dynamics can be quite complicated—and when confidentially is not scrupulously protected, those dynamics can distort assessment results. To get accurate, candid information you need to design a truly confidential process and explain to members the identity-protecting measures you are taking, giving them confidence that they can participate freely and that their responses will be protected. Attention should be paid not only to how data is gathered, but also to how it is summarized and delivered.

Before results are shared, have a trustworthy reader review comments with an eye to protecting confidentiality. Remove any identifying information without altering the substance of any comments.

Not taking an analytical approach

Since the point of the assessment is to understand where the board is performing well and where it could do better, it’s immensely valuable to consider feedback on a relative basis. A truly analytical assessment – one that uses a scale and requires participants to provide an answer – allows board members to understand how their peers evaluate each issue and to pinpoint areas where there is a real divergence of opinion.

Don’t let people off the hook when it comes to sharing their views. An assessment that delivers all middle-of-the-road answers or “high-fives” doesn’t help even the strongest of groups identify new ways to contribute. In fact, it can breed complacency or suggest apathy.

Failing to share or act on the results

Knowing how the results will be used can bolster the confidence and interest of participants. For instance, if everyone assumes that the assessment isn’t really going to be looked at, no one feels compelled to take it very seriously. Conversely, if the board schedules time to go through the results together, members get a very different message.

As part of the planning process, the governance committee or board chair should determine how the results will be delivered. Who will share the feedback? What timing is being committed to? Will members receive a report showing the data, the detailed findings or a summary presentation? Who is on point to make the feedback actionable?

To get a great return on time spent, commit not only to sharing the results, but to resolving any issues the assessment raises.

Read more: Getting Real Value From Board Assessments