From good to great: Board evaluation

Governing, like managing, is neither an art, nor a science – it’s a practice*. An effective way to build governance skills is to reflect, assess, do differently and repeat. Board evaluation represents a process that helps board members enter this cycle. Especially if the process is well-designed.

One of the board’s core responsibilities is to build and sustain an effective governing body. To this end, conducting regular board evaluations is widely recognized as a governance best practice. It provides an opportunity to orient or remind board members of key roles and responsibilities, assess performance, celebrate success, and identify strategies for improvement.

While more boards are evaluating themselves and in some cases the performance of individual board members, not all processes succeed in moving the board from good to great performance. The process itself is often to blame, as many methods exemplify three common flaws.

Meaurement_manFirst, the majority of processes rely strictly on self-assessment surveys: board members are asked to rate the board, themselves or their peers on a variety of dimensions. While self-reporting engages board members in a reflective process, well-intentioned board members are not always prepared to constructively critique their own, or the board’s collective performance. Ratings generally tend to be overwhelmingly positive, with the odd outlier. Evaluations that solicit input from other organizational stakeholders, such as the senior management team, can provide an alternate perspective or reality check.

Secondly, few evaluation tools ask respondents to provide evidence to support their ratings. Instead, ratings generally rely on board members’ memory and perceptions of what the board has/has not done. Steve Bowman of Conscious Governance recommends conducting governance ‘audits’ alongside evaluation processes to assess if the board has in fact developed, implemented and adhered to key policies and practices (see Related Resources at end). In conducting these audits, he has often discovered a significant gap between what the board thinks, or states, it has done (e.g. maintaining up-to-date policies, conducting a risk assessment) and the evidence to support these assertions.

Last but not least, many board evaluation processes conclude with a cursory discussion of the data gathered, without determining how the board will act on the results. If commitments are not made to do differently and address performance gaps, the investment in evaluation delivers a limited return. Determining up front what the board is prepared to invest in in terms of follow up action is important, and translating actions into a board workplan or development plan is critical. Only then can the board be held accountable.

Key Design Considerations

Every evaluation process requires leadership. Rather than leaving the task to a single champion like the board chair, it can be a great project for a task force or governance committee. This group, with support from the CEO and other board members, can define the scope of, manage and promote the process.

A board’s interest in evaluation, reflection and learning is reflective of its culture. Having an honest conversation early on about the focus, potential benefits and how much time, energy and other resources to invest contributes to success.

InterviewIn addition to surveys, other data collection options warrant consideration. These include one-on-one interviews, focus groups, or group dialogues all of which enable the interviewer or facilitator to explore specific responses in more depth.

Multiple tools and templates for board evaluation are available online and they’re a great place to start. We recommend tailoring standard surveys so that they speak to a board’s specific questions and concerns – e.g. in addition to roles and responsibilities, your board may want to evaluate participation, contribution, governance structures, systems and processes.

Depending on available resources, a board may take a do-it-yourself approach or seek external support. An external consultant can help design and/or administer the process. A neutral party can assist a board in analyzing results and determining how to act on them.


What critical conversations and questions would help overcome common flaws and design an evaluation process in a way that will move the board from good to great?

Fiduciary (oversight) Strategic (insight) Generative (foresight)
  • What are our objectives for a board evaluation process? Do we want to focus on the board as a whole as well as individual directors?
  • What kind of process would enable us to achieve our objectives? What tools could we use to gather evidence-informed feedback?
  • How might others evaluate our performance – what measures might they use? Who else might we ask to evaluate the Board?
  • What dimensions and aspects of governance should we evaluate? What do we need to know about how we’re governing to know we can support our strategic directions and mission impact?
  • How might we assess the difference we’ve made as a board? What are other boards doing that we could learn from?
  • Acting on the results: What changes will we make – e.g. to our processes, structure, composition, focus? What do we need to ‘go to school on’ (individually or as a board)?
  • Do we really need to examine our performance… isn’t measuring organizational results and impact the most important outcome?
  • How might a board evaluation carried out by the senior management team and/or clients contribute to a deeper understanding of our performance?
  • If boards are expected to hold a big-picture perspective, how can we evaluate our role in the broader system?
  • How can we turn evaluation into a stimulating game?

The reward

We’ve seen well-designed evaluation processes deliver greater clarity around roles and responsibilities, engage board members more actively, result in more productive board meetings, and improve collaboration between the board and CEO.

Embedding evaluation into the board’s ongoing work

If your board is genuinely committed to continuous learning, in addition to engaging in an evaluation process, we recommend experimenting with the following strategies:

  • Make time at the end of board and committee meetings to reflect on one aspect of the meeting and identify ideas for improvement – e.g. agenda design, participation, decision-making process.
  • Ask each board member to identify one high and one low point experienced at the meeting.
  • Conduct mini evaluations of board contributions – e.g. after a significant organizational event, after a task force completes its work, after a major challenge has been addressed.

On the Horizon

Some boards are high performing because they have the “right people on the bus in the right seats” (Collins, 2006). Would you consider evaluating individual board members and the leadership of the board? Some boards have been doing just that, conducting peer-to-peer evaluations. Board members are asked to evaluate one another on a number of dimensions such as: “makes appropriate and meaningful contributions informed by his/her knowledge and skills”. A neutral facilitator and confidential feedback conversations are key components of effective peer-to-peer evaluation processes.

The executive or governance committee might use the results of such an evaluation to inform decisions about renewing appointments and officer selection. Early adopters are continuing to experiment with and refine this evaluative approach to move their boards from good to great.

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo

*Henry Mintzberg made this point in his book “Managing”.

Recommended resources and references

35 Questions that will transform your board. Society for Nonprofit Organizations. Nonprofit World Volume 24, Number 3, May/June 2006.

Board Evaluation: Creating Strategic Performance and Effectiveness (Board Guru Handbook) by Tracy E. Houston, 2012.

Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A monograph to Accompany Good to Great. Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2006.

“How Good is our Board?” How Board Evaluations Can Improve Governance. Tim Plumptre, Institute On Governance, 2006.

Individual director evaluations: The next step in boardroom effectiveness. Jay A. Conger and Edward Lawlor III. Ivey, 2003.

Managing. Henry Mintzberg, Barrett-Koehler Publishers. 2011.

The Problem with board evaluations. Steve Bowman, Conscious Governance Online, 2008.

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