In 2000, Mike Noël and consultant Deborah Dortch encouraged the SCAN Health Plan board to engage in peer-to-peer assessment (P2P). In 2014, The SCAN Foundation board began participating in P2P assessments as well. “We are quite proud of what we started,” says Mike. “I’ve served on ten boards and using P2P has kept board members on their toes, so to speak, as the feedback has been kept at a high, constructive level. Board members like seeing their heretofore ‘blind spots’ through the evaluation process, learning anonymously from their peers where they can improve their performance. Our mantra from the beginning has been ‘Take your game to a higher level.’”
Mike and Deborah share their thoughts on the value of evaluating individual board members here.
You may have heard the parable about the golfer who, every time his game was off, would visit his coach for a lesson. “You always come to me when something needs to be fixed,” the coach said. “We address that problem but then you are right back where you started. Why don’t you come to me when you are playing well? Then we can take your game to a higher level.”
The best time to work on improving performance is not when there is a problem or a crisis, but when things are working smoothly. And when it comes to improving a board’s performance, the board needs to look at its individual members and how they are functioning within the group. Many nonprofits have been conducting overall board evaluations for some time, so why have peer-to-peer evaluations been slower to catch on? The fear factor seems to come up most often to explain the reticence — the fear that people will say things about other board members that will be quoted directly, the fear that the feedback will be harsh, or the fear that the feedback will be presented in a negative way.
What needs to be pointed out is that the process is a powerful way to clarify performance expectations so board members know what they should do to contribute to a greater extent. In addition, it creates a standard mechanism for all board members to vote on retaining board members, instead of leaving this decision to the board chair or the governance committee. A question can be added to the end of the survey asking if the board member should be re-elected. A good ground rule is that any board member who receives a majority of “no” answers does not stand for re-election.
Peer-to-peer evaluations are one of the best ways to identify and address underperforming board members. How many boards have struggled with one or more members who are putting in an inadequate amount of time and energy? And how many boards have allowed disruptive members to remain only because they had no mechanism in place to remove them?
It’s important to note, however, that peer-to-peer evaluation is not designed as a tool to oust anyone from the board. On the contrary, it gives board members an opportunity to improve before further action becomes necessary. It’s a way to say “You play an important role, and your input is valued. Here are the expectations we have for you.” This feedback can help board members enhance their skills and board interaction and motivate them to be more effective board members.
For example, we know of a board member who, after joining the board, seemed reticent to join the debate, especially when the topic was somewhat controversial. Through a peer-to-peer evaluation facilitated by an independent consultant, he learned that his fellow board members were eager to hear his opinions and, in fact, considered this to be an important element of board membership. It was an “aha” moment for him, and he continued working with the consultant as a coach until he was more comfortable in his role. The result: He modified his behavior and began contributing at a high level.
Clearly, this was a far better approach than ignoring the problem or waiting for the board member to rotate off the board. These approaches only lessen the board’s ability to take its game to a higher level. On the rare occasion when evaluation feedback doesn’t work because the person is unwilling or unable to modify their behavior, the process can be used to move out an underperforming member with data to support the board’s action. And the message becomes one from the entire board, not just the perception that it came from one or two board members.
It’s also important to note that peer-to-peer evaluations do not replace the overall board self-assessment process; they are a powerful complement.
The Scan Foundation has found that effective peer-to-peer evaluation involves partnering with someone external to the organization and the board. An independent consultant can help you analyze and present information in a constructive way. Ideally, board members will complete a survey that includes both objective and subjective data. And it needs to become part of the normal course of business — an annual or biennial exercise that allows each board member to continue building on a strong base. If the board waits until there is a problem — a disruptive board member, a few board members who control the discussions, etc. — a peer-to-peer evaluation becomes a negative tool, something brought in to address a specific, difficult issue or person. The board won’t be taking proactive steps to move its game to the next level; it might just be applying a band-aid.
In conclusion, boards are busy. Implementing a peer-to-peer evaluation can seem like just one more thing to do — something that may hold value, but can be addressed later. The right time to start is now, this year. It does not require an immense output of time or energy but it does deliver keen insight to board members that may not be gathered in any other way. It is value added.
With this “check up,” individual board members can ensure that they remain on a path of continual improvement — one that benefits everyone. Your “game” may be good, but wouldn’t you like to take it to a higher level?
Best Practices: How to Make Peer-to-Peer Assessment Work for Your Board
- Conduct a peer-to-peer evaluation every one to two years. BoardSource suggests you alternate board self-assessment and peer-to-peer assessment year to year.
- Start before there is a problem so it is not perceived as a negative tool.
- Work with an outside consultant you trust to analyze and present the data. When it comes to peer-to-peer assessment, people worry that their comments will be used verbatim or information will be shared in a negative way. You want to ensure that the consultant looks for themes, i.e., things that two or more members saw as positives or areas for improvement.
- Create an action plan based on the evaluation findings.
Mike Noël is a former chief financial officer and senior vice president of Edison International and Southern California Edison Company.
After retiring from the Edison companies, Mike established Noël Consulting Co., advising companies and public utilities’ commissions on corporate finance.
He also has served on ten boards of directors, including three currently: SCAN Health Plan, where he serves on the audit and compliance Committee; The SCAN Foundation, where he is audit committee chair, and The Center 4 Life Change.
Mike graduated summa cum laude with an MBA from the University of Southern California and cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in business management from California State University, Long Beach, California.