Is HE governance the best there is?

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Mary Joyce, Leadership Foundation governance and leadership associate, considers the dynamics and impact of good governance and whether boards should be looking beyond compliance.

What were your experiences of what it was like working with your board this year? How did you manage those strategic discussions before and after the vote to leave the European Union? Are you changing the composition of your board and its ways of working? These are live questions for many boards at the present time, in all sectors across the UK. They represent factors that are an additional disruption to the already delicate and largely unseen dynamics of work on boards.

A glance at the past year’s news stories reveals the extent to which ethics, unchecked egos, financial constraints and increased regulation dominate much of the anxiety felt by non-executives as they discharge their responsibilities on boards. Interest in good governance and its importance in organisational life is only set to increase as the pace and scale of change in the public, private and charitable sectors gathers momentum. And, as more stories of failing and dysfunctional boards appear in news stories and official reports, the typical response is to produce even more formal guidance and codes of conduct.

Yet, in 2009 when Sir David Walker published his findings on corporate governance in banks and other financial industry entities (BOFIs), he found that:

“the principal deficiencies in BOFI boards related much more to patterns of behaviour than to organisation.”

While the focus of the Walker Review was on the financial sector, many of its insights and recommendations for good governance and apply to all sectors. The best strategy for developing the capacity of your board to work well together and use all its talents in decision-making is one that focuses not only on technical know-how (legal, financial and sectoral), but also on boardroom behaviour and leadership. This will ensure you achieve more than simply compliance in the stewardship of your organisation.

Just over two years ago the Leadership Foundation designed a series of developmental workshop sessions on boardroom dynamics for higher education governors. They were well received, and we built on those foundations to design a special programme for university secretaries and clerks in recognition of their leadership role at the interface between the board and the executive – a difficult role for which there is generally less developmental support. In its launch year 28 people from 25 institutions attended this innovative programme from roles that included not only university secretaries, clerks and registrars but also, directors of strategic planning; the vice-chancellor’s chiefs of staff; and heads of governance.

The programme uses a psychodynamic approach to develop an awareness and understanding of group behaviour and its potential to either hinder or help the board’s capacity to work effectively. Facilitated learning sets offer a unique opportunity for clerks, university secretaries and those working in the governance field to work on their own organisational issues in confidence, and to apply new theories to their practice.

Participants on the programme commented that they were able to make sense of their experiences in a way that helped them to be more effective both in their role and with colleagues. They said:

“A valuable, thought-provoking, supportive and informative programme, putting the role into a wider context.”
Head of Executive Services

“(The action learning experience was) very supportive while being rigorous. It has helped me reflect on my approaches and practice which has been a very valuable element of the programme.”
Director of Strategic Operations and University Secretary

“Great course content and I’ve made great contacts. I would definitely recommend this to all clerks, whether they are new in post or have been appointed for some time.”
Clerk to the Board and Head of Governance

The Leadership Foundation is running the Clerks and Secretaries Programme again in 2017, starting in February, offering another opportunity for governance professionals to develop their skills and leadership. This higher education specific programme consists of three one-day sessions, which will include action learning set meetings, and two additional half-day action learning set meetings.

Join us as we take a look at how higher education governance’s behaviours, roles and remit compare to those of other sectors, and take the opportunity to consider whether higher education is at the forefront of governance as it continuously explores what good governance means and how it can be improved to meet the changing world.

Mary Joyce specialises in leadership development, group dynamics and organisational behaviour, and executive coaching. Her reputation for working ‘beneath the surface’ has developed through a variety of leadership and consultancy commissions in the public and private sectors.

Read our latest Governance Briefing Note – 25: The factors that influence whether governance is effective?

In addition to our highly regarded Governor Development Programme, the Leadership Foundation has a wealth of information, tools and tips on its Governance website, tailored to the specific needs of Governors of Higher Education institutions and colleges. Find out more at: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance