Recruiting excellent board members should be a high priority at every institution of higher education. Boards have the high calling to determine, sustain, advance, and review the mission and strategic direction of their institutions. Board members provide financial support, oversight, and high-level wisdom. In most institutions, they hire and evaluate the chief executive — and occasionally have the sad duty of ushering out an underperforming leader. The board typically has the overall responsibility for the institution’s legal and financial health. So having the right people on the board is essential.
When the board of trustees at Asbury Theological Seminary approved a strategic plan to take the seminary from now to 2023, one of its key goals was to strengthen its board governance structure and systems. The board knew that to improve board governance, the seminary needed a more robust recruitment and vetting process for new members.
But board recruitment was only a surface-level challenge. Digging deeper, the board realized that all board-related systems, policies, and practices needed to be refreshed so that future board members understand what is expected of them and what their unique contributions to the board might be.
The board chair assembled a task force and invited them to address seven key governance areas:
1. Board responsibilities. The task force was charged with developing a concise list of critical responsibilities that both meet accreditation requirements on governance and make the greatest difference in the board fulfilling its missional and fiduciary responsibilities.
2. Board member commitments. The task force was further asked to develop a set of expectations for new and ongoing board members. The goal was to help new board members answer the question: “What is expected of me and why are you inviting me to join the board?”
3. Board self-evaluation. To establish an institutional culture in which board performance is assessed annually, the task force was asked to develop an online form for board self-evaluation, aligning it with the already-developed lists of board responsibilities. Later, the seminary president or the governance committee would be able to use the self-evaluation tool to facilitate conversations with each board member about their effectiveness, satisfaction, and fulfillment in board service.
4. Strategic gap analysis. The task force was asked to recommend a process in which each committee would conduct a periodic “strategic gap analysis” of that committee’s competencies (e.g. areas of expertise or access to key networks).
5. Board composition. The board expressed that when recruiting new members, the top emphasis must always be finding trustees who understand and believe in the seminary’s mission statement, statement of faith, and guiding values. Yet a secondary emphasis, not to be ignored, is expanding beyond its current demographic matrix (with regard to gender, geography, nationality, denomination, vocation, race, ethnicity, alumni status, resource capabilities, and age).
6. Recruitment process. The task force was asked to recommend ways to revamp the board recruitment process. They decided to cast a wider net to attract nominees based on a clearer profile of desired characteristics and unique contributions of potential new members.
To make sure that board candidates are committed to the seminary’s mission and values, and to ascertain potential members’ specific skills and their place in the demographic matrix, the task force created a new information-gathering form for prospective candidates. But the rest of the recruiting process was also reconceived, including who should take part in candidate interviews, whether final candidates should visit with the board before a vote, and how due diligence could be carried out without overburdening candidates or current board members. The task force also carefully considered how to involve staff members so that board members might be relieved of administrative work.
7. Testing the new processes. Finally, the task force was asked to identify ways to pilot-test the new processes.
Short- and long-term payoff
At Asbury, this work has already produced some short-term changes. First, in a trial test of the new Annual Board Member Self-Assessment Survey (completed by 95 percent of the board members), the board members identified eight specific areas for board improvement. One of those discoveries led to the revamping of board meetings so that more time was given to board education and strategic discussions, while a more effective “consent agenda” process fulfills the essential fiduciary work of the board.
Second, the board voted to pilot-test its new policies and procedures to recruit three new board positions in early 2018. Initial results indicate that all of the key goals were met. A more formal debriefing of the three interview teams will take place to identify the lessons learned so that the new recruitment processes can be continually improved.
But the real goal of this work is long-term change. It will take several years for the Asbury board to build a stronger-than-ever version of itself. These more robust board processes recognize the high value that each board member brings to his or her role, and underscore our belief that a strong board is critical for a school to achieve mission vitality with economic vibrancy.
A four-phase board member recruitment process
Asbury Theological Seminary’s recently revised recruitment process is mapped out in four phases:
Phase 1: Get organized. The board prioritizes and finalizes the profile for the board position to be recruited, assigns an interview team, develops a customized recruitment plan with deadlines, and meets by conference call to review the plan and answer any questions of the interview team.
Phase 2: Attract qualified nominees. The interview team casts a wide net to attract nominees, identifies and researches the top nominee, identifies two back-up nominees, discusses the opportunity with the top nominee, and collects and reviews a candidate information form completed by the top nominee.
Phase 3: Select a top candidate. The interview team talks to the nominator(s) of the candidate, interviews the candidate, and presents the candidate’s credentials to the leadership committee chair, president, and board chair. If the team then decides the top candidate should not move forward in the process, they return to Phase 2 and invite one of the back-up nominees to consider board membership.
Phase 4: Elect and orient new member. During this phase the interview team invites the candidate to sit in on the first day of a board meeting, get acquainted with the board committee on which the candidate will serve, and enjoy some fellowship with the board. After the candidate leaves (after day one), the board evaluates and votes. If voted onto the board, the new board member is welcomed, is assigned a board mentor, and undergoes orientation.