I have previously written about what may make a person the “right” person to have on your board. I think it is equally important for people to consider if the board they are thinking of joining is the right one for them and conducting own due diligence. Below are some things you may want to consider when you are thinking of joining a board/governing body.
Values, ethos and culture
This is perhaps the most important. Make sure that the board and the school leadership share your values and ethos. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to work as an effective member of the team if you have different values. Visit the school, talk to the chair, vice chair, other governors and the head and other staff and try and see if they share your hopes for the young people under their care. Think about what your goals for the children of that community are and how closely are they aligned with the goals the rest of the board has.
Skills and experience
Every board member brings their unique skills and experience to the board.
- Ask the chair/vice chair how they see the board benefitting from your skills and experience. They should be clear that your skills and experience will be used by the board to carry out strategic functions and not operational ones. Some boards can make the mistake of thinking that appointing someone with particular skills means the school can get someone who can do pro bono work for the school/board.
- Ask them if a skill audit has been done and are there other governors with skills similar to yours. A board should be made up of people with diverse skills and experiences. Having too many people with the same skills will not help the board.
- Try and determine if and why the board needs your skill and perspective. You can then decide if you will make a valuable contribution or not.
Instrument of Governance
You should read this carefully. If you are thinking of joining the trust board of a single or multi-academy trust then you should read the Articles of Association. If it is a local governing body (LGB) you are thinking of joining then read the Scheme of Delegation.
Culture of the board
It would be very beneficial to meet the chair and talk about the culture of the board.
- How does the chair approach their role?
- What is the relationship between the board members and the board and the executive?
- Do board members meet outside of the boardroom?
- How do the board members communicate with each other, with the executive and with the parents and the community?
- Do you get the feeling the board challenges as well as supports the executive?
The way the board operates
After having read the instrument of governance, try and form an idea of what should a board which has to carry out those functions look like.
- Is the board too big/small to carry out all those functions?
- If it is too small/big then how would that affect your work as a board member? Will it mean that you have too much/too little to do?
- Try and get hold of minutes of few past meetings. They should give you an idea of the workings of the board and the challenges it faces.
- Do the minutes tell you how good the board is at asking challenging questions and the executive at providing answers?
- The role of the board is to govern and not to manage. Do the minutes give you the impression that the board is focused on strategic issues or does it have the tendency to stray into the operational?
- Do the minutes read like the minutes of a governing body or a PTA?
- Ask if the board has committees and if it does which one would you be expected to sit on.
- Would you be expected to do monitoring visits? How are these planned and structured?
- Does the board employ an independent clerk? A qualified, professional and independent clerk is very important and will support good governance.
- Do also ask if there is a possibility of observing a meeting before you finally decide. This is beneficial for both you and the board.
- How does the board help a new member settle in and get to grips with the work of the board? Is there a mentor scheme for new members?
Expectations of the board
You will need to find out how often the board meets and at what time. You should also ask
- How long do meetings normally last?
- What type of training are you expected to undertake?
- Does the board help you source this training?
Although all governors are equal, the chair does have additional responsibilities and can set the tone for how the board functions. The way the chair operates will give you an idea about how the board operates. Before deciding to join the board you should ask to meet the chair.
- Do you get the feeling that the chair is knowledgeable, approachable and open to new ideas?
- Do you think the chair is great at building a team and getting the best from the team members?
- Does the chair think strategically and with an eye on the long term future of the school?
Prospective new board members should be offered an opportunity to meet with the head/CEO. This meeting is for the benefit of the new member and gives them an opportunity of ask questions. The head/CEO should not view this as an opportunity for them to interview the prospective candidate. The appointment of new members is not their job.
Conflicts of interest
Try and determine if you will have any conflicts of interest. These do not necessarily rule you out but you and the board should be aware of these so they can be managed. If there is a chance of a related party transaction then serious consideration should be given to whether it is in everyone’s interest that you join the board.
Do ask the chair if the board has a governor expenses policy. Good boards will have something in place or will be willing to put one in place. Although this is a voluntary role and you are not legally allowed to be paid you should be able to claim expenses incurred during the performance of your role. You should not have to decide that governance is not for you because of the reasonable expenses you may incur.
To join or not to join
At the end of your due diligence you will get an idea if the board and you are a good match or not, whether you have the right expertise and the time to make valuable contributions and if there is a good fit as far as the culture and ethos is concerned. If you decide that, for whatever reason, this is not the board for you but you still want to help the school then there are other avenues you can explore. If you feel your skills are perhaps not needed by this particular board then do keep looking for one where your skills will be useful. If time is an issue, then perhaps look for a board where the timings work for you or leave it for a while and try again later when you have more time to devote to governance. Deciding to walk away because it is not the right board/time is the right thing to do because joining a board where you have these reservations won’t help you or the board.