When to flex your governance arrangements – and how to do it

Why your college should consider governance innovation in response to specific circumstances – even if it doesn’t fit your leadership culture

Why your college should consider governance innovation in response to specific circumstances – even if it doesn’t fit your leadership culture

18 May 2024, 17:00

Every college governor and governance professional is aware that there is some flexibility in governance arrangements among the regulatory and legal musts. But when is it right to make use of that flexibility? And how?

Colleges that are performing well don’t typically pursue it, though there is a compelling case for those seeking elusive ‘Outstanding’ judgements to consider governance innovations. For colleges that are not performing well, the argument to change or flex governance is clearer.

How to go about it depends on the nature of the underperformance.

The safest bet here is to focus mainly on quality or financial shocks (or even nasty surprises), staying within areas that are short of triggering an ‘Inadequate’ judgement or central government intervention.

The first step a chair might want to take in these shock or nasty surprise circumstances is to review their meeting frequency, those with the principal and chief executive, and those of the college triumvirate.

Those meetings might need to increase, bearing in mind that face-to-face meetings are more effective when it comes to holding senior leaders accountable. Working with their governance professional, the chair might also want to document these meetings.

A second step would be to draw together a group of governors with the skills needed to work through the issues, ideally including some of the committee chairs and the vice chair. This ‘turnaround steering group’ would work closely with the executive leadership, either informally or formally, and its meetings would be action-orientated and – critically – time-limited.

Properly, significant decisions should not be taken outside of existing governance. However, by documenting the discussions and any proposed actions, decision making could be progressed more swiftly with the support of your director of governance through the full corporation.

It is also important to note that this new grouping is not designed to replace any existing committees. Indeed (and this is a third step the chair might consider), if a ‘Carver-type’ model of governance is in place it could be best to suspend it until the issues are worked through.

The approach governors decide represents a key leadership moment

At the same time, a relevant committee could be established. (For example, a finance and resources committee, a quality committee or both). Full corporation would of course continue to meet, although its agenda would most likely be tailored to prioritise the issues in question.

The purpose of the steering group is two-fold: to manage through the specific issues but also to satisfy key governors as far as possible that there are no other shocks on the way. In some situations this will effectively amount to restoring damaged trust.

There will be all sorts of reasons why this approach might be resisted: the chair worrying that they are creating a ‘two-tier’ board, anxiety about increased workload for volunteer governors or the executive team being uncomfortable with the proposed arrangements. Of course, care should be taken to ensure governors are not overstepping the line into the executive realm.

In our work as consultants for Rockborn, we generally see governors working effectively with the college executive. However, there is no doubt that the accountability profile for governors has changed over the past decade.

Governors know that central government holds them as well as the executive leadership accountable for a college’s performance. Following reclassification, there is also now a good chance it will be prepared to intervene at the governance level.

In high-performing colleges, it will usually be right that the board sets the vision and strategic objectives for the college and monitors progress against them. In colleges where something has gone wrong, it is equally right that governors reflect on the balance of their time spent on this versus a more forensic approach to areas of concern.

They may well need to get more ‘hands on’ or ‘lean in’ to the business. And working with the governance professional, the chair may need to sponsor time-limited changes to allow for this to happen.

This might not fit with your leadership culture. Increases in governor workload are also a valid concern. But insisting on an improvement plan is an entirely legitimate and conventional response to serious issues.

In any event, the approach governors decide represents a key leadership moment. After all, failing to make timely changes following a serious issue could result in government flexing your governance for you.

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