Creating supportive board environments for trustees to thrive

Recently the Forum Strategy published "Equality, Diversity and Inclusion amongst Academy Trust CEOs", a report which explored the lack of diversity amongst trust CEOs. Amongst other findings the report revealed that an obscene of diversity on academy trust boards can inhibit prospective CEOs from minority backgrounds from applying for leadership roles because they believe there will be implicit biases in recruitment and promotion decisions.

Although the Forum Strategy’s report highlighted significant issues with the status quo, there has been a recent spur for diversity at board level. This was acknowledged by Forum Strategy and we’ve seen it in our programme too. Increasingly academy trusts are coming to the Academy Ambassadors Programme because they’re seeking more diverse board compositions. As the wider call for a fairer and more diverse society becomes ever present, academy trusts are recognising that for too long, too many of their trustees have come from the same backgrounds.

The growing consciousness around diversity at board level is welcome; but if only it were that simple.

Board recruitment should and must be one step in a cultural shift, for all organisations, especially academy trusts. However, recruitment does not have a transformative power unless academy trusts foster inclusivity. If they weren’t doing so before, academy trusts are now starting to measure and track diversity, but owing to time restrictions and knowledge gaps, measuring and quantifying inclusivity remains few and far between.

It is incumbent for all academy trusts to create a collaborative, empathetic and healthy organisational culture. If a trustee does not feel able to contribute to decisions, they have little value to the end goals of the trust.

We asked one of our corporate partners, Vodafone, for their tips on measuring inclusivity prior to recruitment:

“Organisations need to educate themselves. Trusts can establish programmes to tackle biases and misconceptions for a certain group within society, but this has to be ongoing and there must be reviews of effectiveness.”

To effectively understand inclusivity, it’s essential to capture the attitudes and views of trustees and staff. Actively facilitating open dialogue is the best means to secure an academy trust which is continuously improving. Feedback from these conversations are a simple solution to conduct pulse checks: to test whether there are underlying issues which prevent trustees from contributing to discussions and decisions.

It’s also necessary to understand whether trustees are contributing in ways that suit them. Some trustees may prefer to contribute to decisions through written contributions, rather than the traditional verbal forums. Increasingly, technology is enabling assistive solutions for board collaboration and inclusivity - a wealth of board portal software has been used to help trustees share board materials and conversations.

For the board meeting itself there are also many actions which can be taken to leave all trustees empowered. Rotating the ownership of standing items amongst trustees is a dynamic measure to ensure all trustees feel equally encouraged to participate, and ensure that not one trustee has a monopoly of voice on open matters. Openly offering each individual trustee with an opportunity to contribute to discussion can be a powerful signal that participation amongst all trustees is open and welcome.

Outside of meetings, board level engagement with diversity must also be present across the entirety of the trust. Whistleblowing policies and employee engagement is critical. These measures require qualitative assessment of how communities, pupils and staff experience the academy trust’s culture in practice.

Board meetings are arenas for new discussion to emerge. Active debate amongst individuals should be welcomed. Challenging existing convention is a sign of good governance. The importance of a strong Chair in encouraging the wide sharing and consideration of all views is vital in order to secure a respectful and inclusive culture amongst the board. Every new trustee that an academy trust recruits brings a different energy, and exciting new opportunities as trustees make significant strategic decisions, on behalf and for the benefit of young people within their trust. Academy trusts must harness the potential that come from a new individual at board level. Actively creating an inclusive environment using some of these simple steps can indeed allow board members to derive gratification, meaning and inspiration from their deeply important voluntary work.

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