Tips for chairs to lead an engaging annual board assessment, by Bronwyn Pike, Chair of Western Health.

Governance Evaluator recently had the pleasure of catching up with Bronwyn Pike, Chair of Western Health. Bronwyn is regarded as an exceptional leader and is highly skilled and experienced in the health sector through her past role as Minister for Health. Bronwyn also has long-standing commitments to social justice, refugee health, community education, e-Health and environmental initiatives.

Governance Evaluator has worked with Bronwyn since she commenced as chair of Western Health in 2014, leading the board through their annual board assessment process. From day one Bronwyn stood out to Governance Evaluator for her commitment to the importance of annual board assessment and has never shied from this responsibility. Bronwyn has always modelled that the role of chair in leading board assessment is crucial for achieving an engaging process in which the board, directors and executives gain insights, learnings and plans for capability building both as a team and as individual directors.

Bronwyn shared with Governance Evaluator her own valuable experiences and tips for fellow chairs tasked with this important leadership role. This advice applies to chairs on boards of all types and sizes, as it is about your role for leading a team through their annual assessment and most importantly, setting the culture for continuous review and improvement.

GE: Board evaluation is now regarded as a key ingredient for building successful and effective boards. From your vast experience as a chair and director do you have any particular things you do to assist with this being the outcome?

Bronwyn Pike: I take the opportunity to have a one on one with each board member each year to ask them to give an honest appraisal of their own performance and the general functioning of the board. This supplements the written questionnaire. I also ask senior executives for their views, something not done very often. It is also useful to ask each member to take a turn at summarising the board meetings at the end and giving a view on how we performed.

GE: We understand you lead the board through their governance evaluation annually. What do you do and why do you think it’s so important for this process to be achieved annually?

Bronwyn Pike: We complete the questionnaire and that becomes the basis for a group discussion. Government boards change membership frequently and this has a big impact on the board dynamics, the quality of the conversation and the capacity for consensus decision making. You constantly need to refresh.

GE: We also understand that you meet with each director individually to chat to them about their evaluation results. What tips do you have for a successful director interview?

Bronwyn Pike: When conducting the director interviews, I ensure that people understand the conversation is confidential and then I try to be as honest as I can in the feedback I provide. It is usually quite easy to pick up what others are thinking about each board member and there is no point in keeping quiet if there are some behaviours which are having a negative impact. I always conduct the conversation by asking questions rather than making statements and this flushes the issues out quickly.

GE: You facilitate a session where the board goes through the themes from their interviews and set action plans. What tips do you have for a successful board planning session to discuss the evaluation results?

Bronwyn Pike: It’s important to use planning sessions as educational opportunities. Boards need to expand their thinking if they are to add value to the organisation, if they don’t, they are just a mouth for the administration or policing. I try to bring in external speakers, from both within and outside of the health sector.

GE: What tips do you have for ensuring throughout this process that directors also become aware of their own skills and development requirements?

Bronwyn Pike: I keep myself abreast of skill development opportunities and suggest them to individual board members. I also ask board members to identify areas they feel they need support in. We have educational board sessions on more complex matters such as finance, audit, coding, funding etc.

GE: Do you have any tips for chairs on how to manage good or poor director performance?

Bronwyn Pike: You can speak to a director who is being disruptive or dominating but I find it is better to enable other board members to provide feedback through board meetings. I do that by deliberately asking each member by name for contributions and, if necessary, feedback on any unhelpful ideas. I also try and ensure that I am not sitting opposite the disrupting or dominating person, so they are not constantly in my line of sight.

GE: Does your board evaluation process lead the board from ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ to ‘knowing what they don’t know’ and thereby choosing relevant contextualised training and education as opposed to a one size fits all choice?

Bronwyn Pike: My hope is that through the evaluation process my board members can be inspired to improve their capabilities and contribution as a board member.

GE: What are your top tips for chairs needing to assist their boards in understanding the importance of board evaluation and to get onboard and engaged in the process?

Bronwyn Pike:

  1. Make sure board only sessions are constructive and not an opportunity to whinge. Try and include the CEO as much as possible unless there is to be a discussion about their performance.
  2. Help the board to raise their sites above performance monitoring and policing to strategic thinking and visioning.
  3. Develop a shared desire to make your health service the very best by seeking innovative responses to complex issues.
  4. Cultivate a passion for supporting the most disadvantaged in the community and for excellence in service delivery.

Governance Evaluator would like to thank Bronwyn for her time and her invaluable insights and guidance for other boards on the importance of board evaluation and how to get the most out of the process for their board and ultimately their health service and its consumers.