Kirsti Lord, Deputy Chief Executive, AoC

#LoveOurColleges - The importance of diversity on college boards 

Over the past few months I’ve blogged about the importance of diversity on college boards. The impact of role modelling leadership for staff and students to drive aspiration, providing a more representative view of the communities that colleges serve and offering cognitive diversity is clear to see where this is working well.

There are many challenges to recruiting governors with the right skills to enhance the current board make-up; further education is a complex landscape and with a need for a mix and balance of skills across finance, HR, legal, enterprise, industry and education; it can be a tough task for a search committee to find expertise combined with an ability to commit the time to supporting the leadership of a college.

What has become increasingly apparent through conversations with leaders committed to ensuring a strong, supportive and challenging board is that there is another dimension to ensuring the benefits of cognitive dissonance and different perspectives. Of course, it can enhance the decision making of the board, but getting the right people in the room isn’t enough, retaining them and ensuring you access their knowledge views and expertise is essential.

Over the past few years it has been my privilege to deliver sector updates to inform strategic planning and to support sessions as part of board away days. Pre-covid, where it was appropriate, I would often spend half or a full day with the board. There were some amazing sessions on shaping the mission, vision and values of the organisation which demonstrated exceptional practice in ensuring the voices of all governors; experienced, new, staff and student were all actively invited and included.

What these demonstrated to me were the behaviours which had been developed over time, role modelled by the chair, vice chair, the governance professional and CEO to ensure a respectful and inclusive environment where difference of view was encouraged, articulated constructively and regarded as a positive challenge or suggestion. To see independent, staff and student governors excited and confidently engaged in prioritising and shaping the vision and values of the college, owning this work because they understood their input would have an impact demonstrates the power of good governance.

Developing these behaviours across a board does take time and commitment and a clear framework within which governors are able and willing to call one another out if they don’t adhere to their agreed commitments. Inducting new board members into that framework is just one step, seeing them routinely demonstrated in meetings is key.

So when considering the diversity of the board you currently have, the divergence of views you see, the robustness of discussions, it is worth asking whether a new or student governor would feel confident their contribution to discussions was welcome, or indeed whether they would feel comfortable to challenge a peer if they are not exhibiting the behaviours expected. Part of this will always be down to the individual personalities within your board, but a huge part is also the culture you, as a chair, as a governance professional, as the chief executive, as a governor, create.

Whilst always advocating for the strength of a diverse board, it is equally important that an environment is fostered where that diversity can be harnessed for the benefit of the whole college community.

Kirsti Lord, Deputy Chief Executive, AoC

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