How to recognise the seven traits of a modern board

Written by: Penny Ransley is Director at Starfish Search
Published on: 29 Apr 2021

The events of the past year have presented non-executive boards, across all sectors, with fundamental questions about their strategy and sustainability, resilience and relevance.

Now, more than ever, the clients that Starfish Search works with across the social and public sector are turning to local government in recognition that the sector is leading the way in positive change and collaboration.

Boards that are stepping up post Covid are more connected to their communities, firmly grounded in reality and operating with sharper strategic clarity. They are unafraid of change or breaking with past attitudes that may have hampered diversity, inclusion and agility.

As we enter a new era, this new style of contemporary board is taking centre stage and the charities, think-tanks, regulators and trade federations that we partner with are increasingly keen to tap into our local government networks.

With increased choice and opportunity, what should you as local government officers and politicians be considering when approached? We believe you should be looking for these emerging traits:

1. They are truly lighting the way for their executive. They have the full range of experiences needed to guide, support and offer constructive
challenge, even with a substantial growth or recovery agenda in place.

Rather than serving as passive governance teams, modern boards are playing an active role. They are highly influential and have members who are on the same strategic plane, regardless of their background. They recognise the end goal and contribute at the same level.

2. They see their role as much more integral to the organisation; they are driven by impact and outcome and are resetting the narrative.

Codes of governance are essential but for many years the language of governance kept people with valuable skills to offer out of the boardroom. Modern boards are resetting the narrative of board work to make it relevant to people from a much broader range of backgrounds. Consider the materials they are sharing and whether the values feel a close fit.

3. They are practical and self-aware: these boards can change tack or regenerate quickly.

Modern boards remain aware of the value they add, or have ceased to add, and regenerate quickly once skills or perspectives have been exhausted or outgrown. They are practical. While a board may still opt for a more formal culture, they allow plenty of room for manoeuvre and achieve a balance that offers flexibility.

4. They are moving away from traditional notions of accomplishment and achievement and placing greater emphasis on personal contribution and behaviours.  

These boards are comfortable with the idea of bringing their whole selves into the board room. They are embracing this in pursuit of broadest and most relevant set of experiences to draw on in debate, discussion and decision.

5. They are inclusive teams, supported by inclusive board culture and effective leadership.

A genuinely diverse team in sector and life experiences, cognitive diversity and a range of protected characteristics is supported by a board culture developed to value and support the broad range of viewpoints. Most importantly, they embrace difference.

6. They are chaired in a consensual way with less emphasis on status and seniority than in the past.

While many great chairs carry discernible presence, we are seeing a move away from what might have been referred to as the alpha leadership style of the past towards self-reflection and insight.
These boards recognise this as a new era for a more subtle style that reconciles different perspectives.

7. These boards achieve results through co-operation and mutual understanding.

They know what they bring, what they stand for and what they can collectively offer their executive colleagues. The experiences of different organisations emerging from crisis in 2020 told an important story about the spirit of active co-operation and mutual understanding.

Boards of the future with these attributes will undoubtedly want to harness your skills. The sector’s unwavering focus on communities and service users; flexibility; strong understanding of finances and value for money; political nous, and commercial rigour position local government leaders as an attractive proposition.

What’s critical for you as a potential candidate is ensuring the opportunities you are presented with are on Boards that share your values and will fully embrace your unique contribution and style. 

Penny Ransley is Director at Starfish Search

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When it comes to creating leadership teams who will change our world for the better, the best course to steer is not necessarily the most obvious. We don’t shy away from difficult conversations or less predictable choices; we tell it how it is and we recruit across a range of sectors to access diverse talent.

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