PARN Blog: Performance Issues at Board Level

By Robert Pitts, Deputy CEO PARN - 24th August 2023

In this section of our quick canter through governance issues faced by many professional bodies we will look at measures of performance.
Increasingly boards are using evaluation and appraisal processes in order to ensure their boards remain, amongst other things, ‘fit for purpose’, relevant, efficient, capable and ‘on message‘. Within our recently completed survey of the sector (PBBS 2022) we identify a high number of annual reviews taken at both board and individual levels.
This undoubtedly represents good practice, but we would suggest that it is essential in securing sound governance practices. Nevertheless, there can be resistance to the introduction of such reviews. It can be difficult to test senior volunteers who are giving freely their time and expertise. Boards composed of highly experienced and knowledgeable individuals will inevitably question why it is necessary for their performance to be tested, the mere fact they are where they are is proof they can ‘cut the mustard’. 
Professional Bodies certainly want the services of what they see as the best people within their sector but that extended experience and intimate knowledge can come with baggage. 
Experience can lead to over familiarity and reinforces a reluctance to embrace anything new. Even within small dynamic groups the default to drop anchor and rarely if ever explore new waters can be prevalent. Experienced boards will take well-rehearsed pathways and whilst not necessarily being risk averse will only take on risks within their compass, frequently ruling out new ways of working and organising. A factor that was well amplified as recently as 2019 was during the onset of the Covid outbreak where lockdowns required an enormous degree of agility in order to successfully navigate unchartered territory. This led to much soul searching by well-established boards and some painful adjustments and the embrace of completely new ways of ensuring effective governance were required almost overnight.
This does perhaps suggest that board reviews need to include an element of stress testing and not simply a review of ‘how was it for you’. Stress testing to allow certain scenarios to be played out, both at group and individual levels, can prove to be enormously valuable – should you like further information on how this can be done with your board please do get in touch with me on [email protected]
In terms of practice, we also need to be aware of the sensitivities involved in reviewing senior volunteers (indeed any volunteers giving freely of their time); perhaps the use of anonymous returns and the employment of technology to capture peer reviews can help us here. But we suspect that whilst many professional bodies will profess to carrying out regular (annual) reviews these are closer to tick box exercises rather than a state of the art assessment using the latest systems and approaches. It is not enough to do it, it’s what happens next that is much more important!
Next week we will look at the use of technology and what role it can play in ensuring we have the best possible governance we can have.
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