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Board and director effectiveness

APRA’s review of CBA’s culture, the 2018 Hayne Royal Commission, the introduction of BEAR (Banking Executive Accountability Regime), and the rise in investor activism and class actions, have all combined to set a much higher bar for the effectiveness and performance of all Australian boards whether financial services organisations or otherwise. The changed environment resulting in increased scrutiny of boards across the globe is similar.

The lessons are many and include:

  • do not just go through the motions. Run a much more relevant and differentiated board agenda that focuses on your organisation’s main challenges and priorities
  • monitor your organisation’s culture ensuring that appropriate ongoing cultural change takes place – setting the right tone from the top
  • be much more rigorous in challenging management and each other
  • be more open-minded, seek out alternate views and be more open to change
  • help your organisation become more customer centric including more attuned to the views of dissatisfied customers
  • take a broader perspective as to what sustainable high performance for your organisation really means – including that the long term interests of your employees, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders are inseparable.

board and director effectiveness

How does your board’s effectiveness compare to others?

Because we have carried out and overseen in excess of 325 board evaluations for ASX and other listed corporations, private companies, government entities and not-for-profit organisations of all shapes and sizes we can almost certainly benchmark the board of your organisation against many comparable boards.

Our Executive Chairman, Nicholas Barnett, has been in charge of the Board Evaluation and Governance division of Insync for more than a decade. He is also Executive Chairman of Board Benchmarking, a former chairman of Ansvar Insurance, First Samuel and Ambit Group, a former director of Mission Australia and a former partner of KPMG Australia, He is also a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (FAICD).

Nicholas has carried out reviews of the performance and effectiveness of more than 180 boards including for organisations as diverse as Aruma, Australian Ethical, Ballarat Grammar, Bapcor, BNZ, Brown Brothers Wines, CareSuper, Chartered Accountants ANZ, Dental Health Services Victoria, Dexus, Employers’ Consultative Committee of Malawi, Federation University, FSD Uganda, GrainCorp, Green Collect, HESTA, Housing Choices Australia, Incitec Pivot, iSignthis, ISPT, Melbourne Water, NAB, NSW Business Chamber, Oz Minerals, Redbubble, Red Hill Football Netball Club, Royal Women’s Hospital, Ruyton Grammar, Suburban Land Agency, Telstra Super, Theta Edge Berhad and World Vision.

Clients describe Insync’s reviews as “unobtrusive, measured, practical and constructive”. Several directors of top ASX companies have described our reviews as “one of the best reviews we have ever experienced”. Others have said, “Insync’s review informed some really important actions for our board”.

Our deep experience, expertise and practical advice make all the difference.

A tailored approach to your external board effectiveness review

Most boards of larger organisations do an externally facilitated independent review of the effectiveness of their board every two or three years and more of a light touch review in the intervening years.

Whilst we tailor our reviews to suit your individual circumstances, most of our board evaluations comprise some or all of the following components:

  • Our benchmarked Board Effectiveness Survey and a corresponding benchmarked Board Effectiveness Report that shows you how you benchmarked overall and in each of the 20 factors that are important for a board’s effectiveness. This survey can include additional modules, including in relation to Board Committees, and is normally completed by directors as well as by executives that regularly attend board meetings.
  • A structured interview of around one hour with each directors and some or all of the executives who completed the survey. The interviews probe issues identified for improvement in the Board Effectiveness Report and the board’s alignment around strategic priorities and main risks
  • A separate expert report synthesising the views of interviewees and the issues identified by the survey with carefully crafted recommendations in relation to the three to five main areas for improvement
  • An interactive debrief of the board in relation to our findings and recommendations which is where much of the value lies
  • Ongoing assistance and advice on how to implement the recommendations made. This may include board workshops and other facilitated interventions to improve board functioning, effectiveness and value-add
  • The review can also include a review of board and/or committee charters, agendas, packs and minutes and observing the board in session although these review procedures are often only done when required following completion of the main review

Many larger organisations use the same or a shorter version of our Board Effectiveness Survey to carry out their lighter touch reviews in the years between the externally facilitated reviews. This saves them having to cobble together an in-house survey and report which is invariably cumbersome, unreliable and is not conducive to achieving candid responses. When a board uses one of our surveys for a second time, they benefit from being able to track their performance and effectiveness over time with the inclusion of comparable figures.

Many board evaluations also include:

  • a review of the effectiveness of individual directors by way of a very effective and unobtrusive Director Effectiveness Survey
  • a detailed or lighter touch review of the effectiveness of each Board Committee, with the latter being done by way of a Committee Effectiveness Module added to a Board Effectiveness Survey

A separate CEO development review is also available.

Three new Board Effectiveness Surveys available online through Board Benchmarking

Our Board Effectiveness Surveys and Reports were refined in early 2020, following a comprehensive review with the assistance of Deakin University. A greater focus has been added in the surveys to organisational culture and integrity, organisational purpose, crisis management and the better prioritisation of the board’s time.

Our three new Board Effectiveness Surveys can be acquired online through the website of our Board Benchmarking division. The three benchmarked surveys are used as part of Insync’s externally facilitated board performance review and can also be used by organisations as part of a light touch review with or without additional professional advice from us or one of Board Benchmarking’s Board Advisory Partners to interpret and act on the survey results.

The three surveys are available to purchase online and include:

  • a premium Board Effectiveness Survey and a benchmarked Report comprising 82 survey items, 20 discrete factors of a board’s effectiveness which only takes around 15 minutes to complete
  • a small to medium enterprise (SME) Board Effectiveness Survey and a benchmarked Report comprising 54 survey items, 18 discrete factors of a board’s effectiveness which only takes around 11 minutes to complete
  • a Board Effectiveness Survey and a benchmarked Report for Clubs and Associations comprising 34 survey items, 14 discrete factors of a board’s effectiveness which only takes around 8 minutes to complete.

Free Trial of our Board Effectiveness Survey

Our Board Benchmarking division has developed a shortened version of our Board Effectiveness Survey that you can try for free and complete in around 3 minutes. After you have completed it you will be sent a free benchmarked Board Effectiveness Report based on your survey responses.

Click here to do the Free Trial.

WhatWhoHowDo framework

Insync’s Board Effectiveness Surveys uses the world-class WhatWhoHowDo framework for board effectiveness. Once your board has completed one of our Board Effectiveness Surveys, we will either benchmark your board against more than 325 other organisations in our database or against the boards of similar organisations if you prefer.

The images below are an extract from the report for the board of Sample Company. This is how the board benchmarks overall:

board effectiveness benchmark









This is how the board of Sample Company benchmarks against other boards in each of the 20 most important areas of a board’s effectiveness:20 most important areas of board effectiveness table























Board effectiveness factors explained

The 20 areas of a board’s effectiveness are explained in detail below. Because many of these factors manifest themselves “behind closed doors” and because little is known about the effectiveness of boards at some of these processes, benchmarking using validated surveys supplemented by interviews by experienced governance experts can help boards more easily understand their effectiveness in each of the areas.

What – Board clarity

What – 1. Board role clarity

Board members should demonstrate a clear understanding of their role as being that of governance, to provide oversight and to add value. Importantly board members will also understand how their role differs from that of management and will act accordingly. There should be appropriate documentation of the role of the board, the Chair and of individual board members as well as of committees and the committee Chair.

Who – Board composition and renewal

Who – 2. Board composition and renewal

The size of the board should be appropriate to the circumstances and the process for recruiting new directors needs to work well. The board should have the appropriate diversity and ongoing renewal, including succession plans for the Chair, committee Chairs and the addition and/or replacement of important skills and experiences. Importantly, board members and the members of each committee will have the abilities, skills and experience that match the current and future strategic needs of the organisation and of the relevant committee.

How – Board processes

How a Board comes together to address issues and make decisions is a critical determinant of its effectiveness. How Boards act — or fail to act — is a complex interaction and the result of the nine factors set out in this section.

These factors include hard and soft elements of “Board Process” or the “How” the Board carries out its tasks. If a board has good processes it will significantly assist the board to carry out its task (the Do) well.

How – 3. Chair leadership and effectiveness

The board is unlikely to be effective if it doesn’t have an effective Chair. This section considers the extent to which the Chair sets high standards, exercises sound business judgement and drives key priorities. Whether the Chair builds healthy boardroom dynamics, conducts an effective decision making process, ensures that discussions don’t get side tracked from key issues and is respected and trusted by all directors are also considered.

How – 4. Committee leadership and effectiveness

Board committees should be used effectively to support the work of the board, including by spreading the board’s workload effectively. Committee Chairs need to be effective in their roles, including by setting clear agendas and clear expectations of management and providing useful reports and recommendations to the board. The effectiveness of committee Chairs in communicating with the board and ensuring they have a positive working relationship with the relevant members of management is also considered.

How – 5. Performance management of the board

It is important that the board acts independently of management with board members and committees forming their own judgements and expressing their own opinions. Appropriate action should also be taken if there is an unsatisfactory commitment or performance or undesirable or questionable behaviours by a board member. Good performance management of the board will also ensure that time is carved out to assess the effectiveness of the Chair and committee Chairs as well as individual directors.

How – 6. Boardroom dynamics

It is important that the board works constructively as a team and that boardroom discussion are constructive, with directors disagreeing without being disagreeable. The extent that directors communicate well and feel free to speak out openly and honestly without fear of criticism, even when voicing a minority position is also considered. It is also important that directors value and respect each other’s contributions.

How – 7. Board delegations

Determining the views of both board members and executives as to whether the extent of the financial and non-financial authority delegated by the board to management and committees is appropriate is important. Management should also be clear about what matters must be referred to the board or to a board committee, whether that be for approval, for endorsement or for information.

How – 8. Board/CEO relationship

It is unlikely that a board will be effective if the chair does not have a constructive working relationship with the CEO which is supportive, collaborative, yet independent. The board should also display confidence in the overall performance of the CEO and the CEO’s performance should be managed effectively on behalf of the board with the appropriate input being provided by all directors.

How – 9. Board/Management relationship

The board and management should have effective working relationships that are collegial, respectful and with an independence of thought. It is also important for the board to have robust discussions with management that go into the appropriate detail. The board should provide clarity of direction to management and management should promptly communicate bad news to the board. Good boards will also enhance management’s thinking and decisions with appropriate reflections, advice, encouragement and constructive challenge.

How – 10. Information management

It is important that the board receives the relevant, clear, concise, timely and forward-looking information it needs in the appropriate format. This will include appropriate information on the organisation’s performance and with important strategic issues presented to the board with adequate time for reflective thought. Board member requests for information should also be handled well.

How – 11. Meeting management

Discussion time during board meeting should be maximised with management not unnecessarily repeating what board members have already read in board papers. Management’s involvement in board meetings should contribute to the board’s effectiveness and the board’s in-camera sessions (without the MD, CEO or management) should be effective. The company secretary, or equivalent, will assist the board to fulfil its responsibilities and there will be clear written and verbal reporting from committees.

Do – Board tasks

The Do describes what the board does in terms of its main tasks.

If the board carries out its most important tasks well it can significantly enhance the organisation’s overall performance and its sustainability as well as protect and enhance its reputation. If the board does not meet some or all of these fundamental responsibilities the organisation will almost certainly suffer as a result.

Do – 12. Vision and strategy

The board and management should be committed to a common vision and purpose for the organisation with the board setting the broad parameters for management to prepare the strategic plan. This section will all consider whether the board takes into account the “big picture” external factors that may influence the organisation’s performance and the extent that the board understands the key drivers affecting the organisation’s performance. Also, the board should only approve the strategic plan after conducting a rigorous review.

Do – 13. Board priorities

Ensuring that the board spends most of its time on the most important issues is not as easy as it sounds. It requires boards to be aligned around their main priorities and objectives for the year ahead. The board will carve out time during the year to do deep dives into the most important issues and ensure that its meetings have the right balance of strategic, performance and compliance matters.

Do – 14. Organisation performance

A strong performance focus starts with the board and management having a shared commitment to the measures used to track that performance and then ensuring the organisation has an effective performance management system with agreed accountabilities that are cascaded down through the organisation. The board will encourage a strong culture of performance which will include appropriate benchmarking, challenging goals and ensuring appropriate action is taken when performance measures are not met.

Do – 15. Organisation culture and integrity

The board should set a high tone at the top in relation to the organisation’s culture, ethics and integrity and take an appropriate role in shaping the organisation’s culture. This will include identifying and driving any cultural change required. Effective processes should also be in place to actively manage any actual or perceived conflict of interest. The board should also ensure that there are effective governance procedures in place to protect the employment and health and safety rights of employees.

Do – 16. Risk and compliance

Whilst it is difficult to anticipate every contingency the board and management should be well prepared to handle a crisis. The board and management should have an agreed view on the organisation’s appetite for risk and ensure that the organisation has a comprehensive and effective risk management system that is appropriate to its circumstances. The board should also ensure that the organisation has effective compliance procedures, an effective internal control system and that it receives appropriate information on how the organisation’s risks are managed.

Do – 17. Executive talent and succession planning

Quite a few boards need to take a more active role in overseeing the growth in the organisation’s leadership talent pool by overseeing the identification, attraction, motivation, development and retention of talent. Boards should also ensure that there are appropriate succession plans in place for the CEO and key management roles.

Do – 18. Executive remuneration

It is important for the board to ensure that the CEO has an appropriate remuneration package which is well structured, in line with the market and with any incentives based on well documented criteria. The board should also ensure the same applies for key management personnel other than the CEO.

Do – 19. Continuous improvement

The board should regularly review its overall effectiveness and how it can improve. This will include searching for fresh, new ways to consider problems and being open to changing the way it operates in order to be more effective. All directors should also keep abreast of new developments and innovations through self study and training provided by the organisation.

Do – 20. Add organisational value

It is important for the board to provide good governance and oversight but ultimately it needs to ensure that it adds organisational value in as many ways as it can, including to the organisation’s performance, sustainability and reputation.

Key Contacts

Nicholas Barnett

Executive Chairman

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Joe McDavitt

Practice Leader – Governance, Risk & Conduct

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