As we see sweeping changes to the FE sector, it is becoming increasingly important for College Governing Boards to adapt, to meet the needs of the sector. With ongoing mergers, increased financial support from Government, and the persistent changes to policy, this has led many leaders to worry about the longer-term viability of the sector.
As is widely agreed, the sector needs to change, and seek to evolve its operational base, to meet the needs of employers and students in a sustainable fashion. The business model, for successful colleges of the future, requires a dexterity in approach that is adaptable to changing policy, whilst delivering a tailored solution that employers want to buy. I am increasingly seeing senior leaders struggling with the operational challenges, with the need to raise standards, adapt curriculum and improve outcomes for learners, all with fewer resources and falling morale.
The role of the Governor has also changed beyond all recognition, with Boards needing to be more strategic, accountable, challenging, commercial, and speedy in their decision-making, whilst having the intellectual rigour to interpret policy to a better extent than has been required before. Adding to this, with the poor financial plight of many colleges and the need to invest in new learning technology, not to mention insolvency risk, and the need to either merge or specialise, you might ask the question; Who would you want to be a College Governor? Governors do it because they care about their regional community, and feel they have knowledge that will add value to the organisation. Sadly, that is no longer enough, and consequently, change at the top is now due. In some cases, there will need to be revolution but, in all honesty, well-managed evolution can have a dramatic and immediate impact on college fortunes.
Here at Dodd Partners, we have been recruiting, evaluating and supporting the development of boards for over 40 years. We see many traits that are good and bad, but there are some simple solutions that can genuinely support transformational change, and deliver the step-change the sector needs.
Understand the Skills that you need to Drive Change
Having worked with many leading organisations, across both the private and public sectors to recruit and assess Board members, we have developed an extensive knowledge of the key skills required, to constitute a fair and transparent team. The skills being sought by some of the more progressive colleges fall into the following functional areas:
Commercial Finance – the ability to understand the investment model, how to raise capital, align funding with longer-term strategies, and challenge the viability of an organisation. The need for effective commercial accounting that adds value, and delivers solutions, has never been more important;
Commercial Growth – knowledge of evolving sectors that are, or could be, a specialism to the college or region. This should facilitate the creation of revenue-generating opportunities, by adapting provision to meet the needs of employers. Such skills should fit with many governors;
Technology – how colleges will use and invest in technology, to inform operational efficiencies, to define the future learning experience, should have a strategic technical lead, and is a must for any board seeking to be more efficient, sustainable and relevant to student needs. This knowledge is hugely underplayed, yet essential;
Human Resourcing – as colleges seek to restructure and evolve, there are many challenges, not least from a cultural and operational change, but through mergers and downsizing, to dealing with unions. All aspects represent risk and as such the Board should have a strong strategic view;
Legal Services – given the complexities and changing structure of many colleges, through mergers and divestments, it will be important to have such competencies as part of the Board, to guide and shape thinking. Such skills could sit with the Clerk to the Corporation, but not in all circumstances;
Leadership – perhaps not the most obvious area, but leading an organisation, especially one dealing with change, needs many capable, experienced people, to challenge convention, and to foresee the challenges ahead. All members of the Board should add value in this area;
Large Employer & LEP Representation – an obvious inclusion, for all the right reasons, to include knowledge of future skills requirements, expertise in how to engage with employer groups, and the wider inward investment agenda just makes good business sense.
Importantly, like any well-governed organisation, Boards need to change over time, and you will not always need all the above skills, but by being mindful of the needs of the college into the future, you can plan ahead, and adjust in a fashion that matches your governance and corporate identity.
Understand the Skills you have and what you Need
Getting to understand the competencies of your existing team, is the next step in the evolution of your Board. It is important to map the existing skill-set, against what you need, to shape the Board to meet the demands of tomorrow. Dodd Partners works with many Chairs to achieve this objective, either by a simple skills analysis exercise, or by assessing the competencies through a more rigorous interview and assessment process. This affords the Chair the information to start shaping the future Board. The resulting confidential reports can be used to map and shape the direction of travel, as well as better understanding the performance traits of each Board member. Interestingly, some who participate draw their own conclusions as to their suitability to support a college in the longer term.
Work with the Professionals
Very few colleges use Search Consultants (head-hunters) to source Board members, and rely heavily on their existing networks and relationships, to attract the skills required. By their very nature, such networks are typically narrow, and rarely offer the breadth of skills that are now required to build a successful college Board. The options available, will be to continue the search independently, but look to network into new sectors, to broaden the portfolio of skills and knowledge you are able to tap into. Alternatively, to develop a working relationship with a search consultancy that has experience of attracting the skills you need. Importantly, this does not need to be overly expensive. Just recently, we conducted a search for a Deputy Chair that was so successful, three subsequent Board appointments were made with only a small increase to the original fee. If you strike the right deal, and set the search parameters to meet your needs, you can make the step-change in attracting the right personnel for your Board.
Develop a Culture that will Challenge
The role of the Board is to set strategy, and challenge the executive team to deliver the organisation’s strategic objectives, in line with its mission and values. Many Boards have so many conflicting issues, that quite often, they are unable to cut through to deliver against their stated objective. This firstly takes strong leadership from the Chair, who must ensure the Board has a clearly defined set of objectives. Challenge is an essential component to this agenda, but must be set in a context that allows all parties to engage and contribute without fear. Secondly: Who challenges the Chair? Uncomfortable perhaps, but colleges have not always had such governance structures in place. This is where the introduction of an Independent Director can help. This could also be the Deputy Chair, but the Board must collectively ensure there is a suitably capable individual, who can review the performance of the Chair, and tackle any aspects of negative behaviour or performance. It’s simply good governance.
Know your Value to the Market
One of the interesting aspects about recruiting Non-Executives, is that there is an abundance of talented individuals across all the sectors/functions listed above, that are seeking to develop portfolio careers, and we coach many such professionals. However, they all need to start somewhere, and pro bono work within the context of Further Education is hugely appealing. The reasons for this, relates to the opportunity to make a difference to the community within which they live, and secondly, support the strategic challenges faced by colleges today. Yes, it will be a learning process, but also a two-way exchange. Time commitment is an issue, but a commitment of around six to ten days per annum is manageable by most professionals. This may be their first step, and will involve learning on the job, but their insights and current experience will add value, especially given the financial and commercial challenges that colleges are dealing with.
To Pay or Not to Pay
This is an interesting question, and I know there are some who approve and many who do not. In the longer term, it will become the norm, as it is with other similar institutions from housing associations, the Health Service, NDPBs and central Government itself, as well as the many other organisations working under the guidance of the Charities Commission. The truth is that you will attract a stronger, and more diverse, group of Governors to select from. Interestingly, many potential governors will be happy with a nominal amount (circa £250-£500 per day), the perceived value of their contribution; and that it will be taken seriously is more important than the money. Conversely, if you pay, they are simply more accountable for the actions of the college and, given growing knowledge of the new insolvency agenda, attraction could be come more difficult.
We live in a truly mobile and technologically advanced world, with much of today’s communication being conducted electronically, or through various types of conferencing. For organisations with a strong regional identity, such as a college, new Board members are typically drawn from the locality,
and rightly so. However, there are skills that you will require, where the criticality of the locality should be less important and, as such, the use of technology as a tool to communicate, could open many new doors and opportunities. Our recommendation is to be bold in terms of your thinking, as a more diverse/alternative view could make a difference.
These are just a few suggestions that might help your Board evolve, and ensure you have the skills to govern the college that delivers for your community into the future. These are hugely challenging times and bold, decisive, knowledgeable and energetic governors are required to shape the agenda.
If you wish to find out more about where we have helped and supported the development and assessment of Boards, we would be delighted to hear from you.
John Dodd, Managing Partner
Tel: 07545 431 848