In today’s blog we interview Nicholas Barnett* about Board Benchmarking, and why he thinks it has taken so long in this time of advanced data management and analysis for a sophisticated board benchmarking offering to emerge.

Anita Ziemer: Nick, you’ve been doing face to face board consulting and performance assessments for many years. Before we get into the advanced Board Benchmarking offering, can you give us a summary of your and Insync’s consulting credentials that led you to this point?

Nicholas Barnett: I am a former partner of KPMG and have chaired and sat on boards for over 35 years. I have carried out in excess of 200 board reviews and have overseen almost another 300 over the last 15 years. All reviews have included a board survey and benchmarked report, and many have included director and executive interviews with a separate Executive Summary or a detailed expert’s report. We have also partnered with other board advisory firms to use our benchmarked board surveys as part of their board evaluation offering.

AZ: For years there have been sophisticated global models for psychological assessments, data analytics and general performance reviews, but a virtual locked door when it came to standardising Board performance. Are boards special? When did the penny drop that there had to be a ‘better way’?

NB: At Insync we have been measuring and improving employee, customer, patient and stakeholder engagement for over 20 years using the sort of sophisticated and validated survey tools you have referred to. We figured out around 15 years ago that we could use our survey measurement, evidence based research approach, and reporting technologies to build a world class board survey and a corresponding benchmarked report – so we set out to do that. 

Some boards think they are special and that benchmarking can’t apply to them. But when we show them that we will only benchmark them against comparable organisations, the penny drops for them.

AZ: How do you measure Board Effectiveness?

NB: Deakin University helped us validate our board survey during 2019/20 and in doing so helped us to identify the 20 most important factors of a board’s effectiveness. They analysed the data from more than 200 of our board reviews and did a comprehensive literature review at the time.

It took us over 10 years, with the help of Deakin University, to figure out what now appears to be pretty obvious – that a board needs to be good in all of the 20 areas identified to be a highly effective board. Directors now look at our Board Effectiveness Framework and agree that all 20 factors are important. They don’t want to remove any of the 20 and they can’t identify any areas that they want added. The 20 areas are shown here.

Our survey is built on those 20 factors of effectiveness that fit our world recognised WhatWhoHowDo Framework that is also displayed here.

AZ: What feedback have you had to date? Can you name names? Which boards are now using Board Benchmarking?

NB: Thanks for asking! Our clients range from NAB to Red Hill Football Netball Club and include all sizes and shapes of organisations in Australia, as well as in Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe), El Salvador, Malaysia, Mauritius, UK and the US.

The almost 500 boards in our database are from organisations as diverse as Aruma, Australian Ethical, Ballarat Grammar, BNZ, Brown Brothers Wines, Cbus Property, Chartered Accountants ANZ, Dental Health Services Victoria, Dexus, Federation University, FSD Uganda, Graincorp, Green Collect, HESTA, Housing Choices Australia, Incitec Pivot, Malawi HR Association, Melbourne Water, NEXTDC, NSW Business Chamber, Oz Minerals, Royal Women’s Hospital, Ruyton Grammar, Suburban Land Agency, Telstra Super, Theta Edge Berhad and World Vision.

The feedback has been both humbling and uplifting. Many testimonials are included on our website.

AZ: Finally, you would know that as individuals and organisations we’re known to be motivated by our fears, frustrations and desires. Could you please explain how Board Benchmarking can address the fears, frustrations and desires of Chairs, Directors, and Shareholders?  

NB: We say our board surveys are a bit like an Xray or MRI. They highlight the hotspots in a board’s effectiveness – the good and bad – very quickly, clearly and easily.

Any journey of discovery or improvement needs to start by understanding where you are at today. We say that it’s far more important and empowering to know where you’re at than not to know. Chairs and directors need to take that first bold step. Seeing their benchmarked report in black and white – and red and green – gives them an important starting point for what will often be critical discussions that may have not been had previously. We can help facilitate those discussions if needed.  Having carried out almost 500 board reviews, we know how to have the difficult conversations and how to deal with what are often very sensitive and delicate issues.