Assessing Toward a Better Board (or What’s Behind That Word?)

By Kevin Smith, Publisher, TEAM Resources

Let’s face it – when I hear the word “assessment” it takes me back to middle school standardized tests, some of which took days, and all of which raised anxiety for everyone in the building, students and teachers alike. No, “assessment” is not my favorite word. Flash forward to a graduate-level education course in assessments. There I learned why they’re so anxiety inducing. (I’ll skip that 16-week tangent for now. You’re welcome.)

I’ve found that credit union board members have some similar anxieties about board assessments*. It’s not a process that many are eager to undertake. The idea of it conjures up visions of people criticizing each other, hurt feelings, and defensiveness. And I think it’s safe to say that people are uncomfortable with criticism. So, now I’m here to talk to you about why credit union boards should undertake self-assessments and I recognize the natural response and why you might pushback or avoid this. But I’m also here to tell you that you’re missing an opportunity to do your job better, and to have a better relationship with your colleagues and the CEO.

*For our purposes I’m using “assessment” and “evaluation” interchangeably. Note that there may be consultants/products that parse that definition to mean different things. Here I mean anything that calls for reflections on the board’s performance as individuals or a group.

Are you still reading? You haven’t left? Whew! Thanks for the vote of confidence.)

Here are some things to keep in mind as you consider the board self-assessment process:

1. The self-assessment process doesn’t have to be anxiety inducing.

Handled correctly, this isn’t a harrowing activity. Yes. This is about uncovering strengths and weaknesses. You’re an adult and you should be able to handle some constructive criticism and you should be able to deliver the same in a sensitive way. Ok, maybe that’s going to take some practice, some work, some preparation . you know, just like everything else you do. In the end, with some preparation you will get valuable results.

2. The goal is continual improvement through introspection.

Credit union boards are teams like any other. The members need to work at being a team. It doesn’t just “happen” because you sit in a room together two hours a month and for two days at a planning session. Team building is an ongoing process. Self-reflection and analysis is part of that process.

3. This process isn’t a way to “get rid of” an underperforming (or annoying) board member.

Unfortunately, when I talk to a board member who is really eager and interested in board assessments, I do some amateur psychoanalysis to uncover two different scenarios:

The first scenario is where a board member is underperforming in a dramatic way. And as a result, the rest of the directors are looking to push out the underperforming member in the least confrontational way. Often the hope is that the difficult task will fall on the shoulders of the consultant hired to administer the assessment.

The second scenario is where one director is disrupting the flow of what would otherwise be a high-functioning (or at least low-conflict) group. Sometimes it’s that he/she isn’t falling in lock step with the entrenched culture of the board. He/she is asking difficult questions, or is simply derailing the process. And sometimes it’s just a matter of a bad “fit” in terms of personalities. Here again, the assessment process is a roundabout (and poor) way of getting at a problem.

In both of these scenarios a board assessment process isn’t the answer. Rather the chairperson should have candid and difficult conversations with the directors. This is in the best interest of the board and the credit union/organization. Egos need to be put aside. (Boy, did I really just plop that out there like it’s really that easy to do? I know. That can be a huge issue, but it’s a different issue, to be covered in a different blog, agreed? Good. Moving on..)

4. This does require honesty and willingness to give and get constructive criticism.

Undertaking the board assessment process can be hugely valuable. You will uncover weaknesses, not in order to shake your head with a “tsk, tsk,” but to work together to build and improve. You will know where to spend your time by identifying strengths and weaknesses. And in the exercise you will get to know each other better, and function more efficiently, at a higher level. But this requires that you all come with open minds, willing to be honest, and willing to hear, not what’s “wrong” with you, but where you have opportunity to be better. But of course, this is challenging to our egos. No one enjoys having his or her flaws pointed out. This must be done carefully and considerately, and when it is, it provides great benefit.

5. Establish the ground rules up front. Get buy-in. Establish goals.

To get to a place of honesty and open conversation, including constructive criticism, the group must spend some time addressing the elephant in the room that makes everyone squirm. You must talk about the need for honesty, and the goal of improving the work of the board. Discuss it. Make everyone agree before moving forward. (Yes, there will be some who pay lip service to this agreement, then do an about-face and balk at the honesty. You may have to work at this. It may take time. But it will be worth it.) If your agenda includes items from #3 above, then STOP! Evaluate what you’re trying to accomplish and deal with it. The time for self-evaluations is not when you are headlong into a crisis or when you are having critical communication problems. Self-evaluations are best implemented as part of the regular board process, during “average” times. When done this way, it’s not confrontational, or stressful, but just part of doing your work as a board.

6. It’s a best practice. We do it for all other employees. You should too.

The bottom line – every employee at the credit union gets evaluated by a supervisor at least annually. (Oy! Don’t get me started on that one.) And the board of directors evaluates the CEO. Why shouldn’t you need this as well? It’s a best practice in the industry. But since no one oversees the board, per se, and it’s not a “requirement,” it’s awfully easy to ignore it and move on. If you truly want the best for your members, then it’s time to do the hard reflection, because you know it will make you better. And it doesn’t have to be an exercise in anxiety-creation. It can be a smooth running path to higher performance.

Consider the corporate side of things: In 2000, only 25% of companies evaluated their own board’s performance. By 2010 that number had risen to 90%. This is for the board as a whole. Boards are slower to pick this up for individual directors, but even that has grown from 11 to 34%. (Boards That Lead, Ram Charan, et al.)

7. How often you perform the assessment depends on how it goes.

So, how often do you have to do this? The answer to any and all complex questions is, “it depends.” There are different kinds of assessments. Some are best annually, others have leeway. (My boss, Mr. Harrington advocates for annually, as does Les Wallace in his book, 21st Century Governance.) Your board assessment should have some follow up steps and established times for checking on progress. Measure it! If it’s not your first go-around with a self-assessment, then you may be able to follow up every other year. If you uncover significant deficits to work on, you owe it to yourself to revisit this regularly. Create a plan to address the deficits and hold the whole board accountable for implementing the plan.

If you find yourselves in a happy place, with unified voices, then give yourselves some slack. But don’t tuck it in a file never to be seen again, either.

Be careful of implementing assessments, with brand new members. Give them some time to get acclimated and become part of the team, if at all possible. But it’s not the end of the world if a newbie participates in this. After all, it’s an opportunity to establish the expectation of openness and honesty in your group. You may need to qualify the results for the new member, however.

Credit union board members take on a great deal of responsibility and liability. But we cannot use that “volunteer” status as a crutch for getting out of the heavy lifting. I see a lot of resistance to undertaking the assessment process and I understand why. Consider, though, that there are a wide variety of systems and tools out there available. Get your toe in that water and try something simple. Uncover the benefits. Most importantly, think of your members and what they expect/deserve of you.


Kevin Smith is TEAM Resources’ Publisher and does consulting as well. Before joining TEAM Resources in January of 2015 he spend almost 10 years at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) developing training programs for credit union executives, board and supervisory committee members.


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