There has never been a more challenging time to be a bank director. The combination of today’s hugely competitive banking market, increased regulatory burden and rapid technological developments have raised the bar for director oversight and performance. In response, an increasing number of community banks have begun to assess the performance of directors on an annual basis.
Evaluation of board performance is done in many ways, and ranges from an assessment by the board of its performance as a whole to peer-to-peer evaluation of individual directors. Public company boards are increasingly being encouraged by institutional investors and proxy advisory firms to conduct meaningful assessments of individual director performance. The pace of turnover and change on most bank boards is slow, and more often the result of mandatory retirement age limits than focus by the board on individual director performance. This may be untenable, however, as the pace of external change affecting financial institutions often greatly exceeds the pace of changes on the bank’s board.
While some institutions prefer a more ad hoc approach to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the board and its directors, we suggest that a more formal approach, perhaps in advance of your board’s annual strategic planning sessions, can be a powerful tool. These assessments can improve communication between management and the board, identify new skills that may not be possessed by the current directors, and encourage engagement by all directors. If used correctly, these assessments often provide valuable information that can focus the board’s strategic plan and help shape future conversations on board and management succession.
So what are the key considerations in designing an effective board evaluation process? Let’s look at some points of emphasis:
Think big picture. Ask the board as a whole to consider the skill sets needed for the board to be effective in today’s environment. For example, does the board have a director with a solid understanding of technology and its impact on the financial services industry? Are there any board members with compliance experience in a regulated industry? Does the board have depth in any areas such as financial literacy, in order to provide successors to committee chairs when needed? Do you have any directors who graduated from high school after 1985?
Develop a matrix. Determine the gaps in your board’s needs by first writing down all of the skill sets required for an effective board, and then chart which of those needs are filled by current directors. Then discuss which of the missing attributes are most important to fill first. In particular, consider whether demographic changes in your market will make recruiting a diverse and/or female candidate a priority.
Determine the best approach to assessment. Engaging in an exercise of skills assessment will often focus a board on which gaps must be filled. It can also focus a board on the need to assess individual board member performance. Many boards are not prepared to launch into a full peer evaluation process, and a self-assessment approach can be a good initial step. Prepare a self-assessment form that touches upon the aspects of being an effective director, such as engagement, preparedness, level of contribution and knowledge of the bank’s business and industry. Then, have each director complete the self-assessment, with a follow-up meeting scheduled with the chair of the governance committee and lead independent director for a conversation about board performance. These conversations are often the most impactful part of the assessment process.
In addition to assessing the human capital needs of the board, several other topics should be raised in most board assessments.
Communication between management and the board: As demands on the board change, providing directors with the same board packets and agenda as ten years ago may not make sense. Soliciting thoughts on how the content and presentation of board materials could be more helpful and whether the board’s agenda should change is a good exercise for any institution.
Buy, sell or hold? While strategic matters are best addressed through group discussion, gauging directors’ views on the strategic direction of the institution can also help shape the tenor of the board’s future discussions. Understanding individual directors’ justifications for a potential sale as part of the assessment process may allow for solutions short of a sale of the bank.
Board assessments are a key component of a healthy board environment, as they can provide management and the board with insight into the true feelings of the board of directors on a variety of issues. Careful evaluation of which assessments to utilize and the timing in doing so can allow a board to better adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace.