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Is being a governor like steering a ship?

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Governance is the system of rules, practices, processes and relationships which determine the direction of an organisation and how it is controlled. This means governance is greater than ‘the board’ of governors and applies to all the arrangements that control the company (e.g. who makes decisions, how decisions are made, etc.) and mechanisms by which those associated with the organisation can be held to account. The board is therefore an instrument used to deploy the most crucial set of governance functions: the strategic oversight and steering of the organisation.

The word governance comes from the Latin word, gubernare, which referred to ‘steering a ship’. This gives me all the license I need to examine the role of governors through nautical lenses. A captain is responsible for every aspect of the voyage and vessel; setting the course and speed, directing crew members, and ensuring proper procedures are followed. The captain is supported to deliver his role by ‘mates’ or officers who manage and train deck crew, stand watch, and oversee ship operations and navigation.

As a metaphor, ship captaincy provides us with some handy tools to assist in thinking through what governors do in strategically ‘steering’ their organisation (it is also uncanny how closely the captain’s role aligns with the DfE’s core functions of governing bodies). For instance, the adage ‘the captain goes down with the ship’ refers to the tradition that the captain is ultimately responsible for both the ship and everyone on it. Similarly, a board is ‘collectively responsible for all decisions that are made and actions that are taken with their authority’. The government is clear, that governors are can never delegate overall responsibility for the organisation. In theory, and often in practice, this translates to a strong moral duty to safeguard the institution against threats and risks both internal and external.

There is a critical balance to be struck in the board’s role which among other things includes, developing the strategy, setting the course (mission) and appointing the chief officer(s) who are responsible for day-to-day delivery. Governors do not have their hands on the wheel; they are not involved in the management of staff, dealing with grievances or complaints, training, or observing what happens in the classroom. Nevertheless, the strategy and scrutiny that they provide should shape and colour how all the aforementioned functions are performed. In this sense, effective governance is providing a clear direction of travel (via strategy and objectives) and developing the systems (e.g. policies, procedures, KPIs and reporting) to monitor and control where, how and at what pace the organisation moves.

‘A governor is a critical friend’ is the most common phrase used to describe the role. Recently, I came across The Governance Institute of Australia description of governors’ role as ‘what you do to keep your organisation off the front page of the newspaper’. In the context of high-profile cases in the media both within and outside the FE sector, this shows the importance of having skilled and effective steering. We need to consider the question of, who is the you, the critical friend that does the strategic steering and where do boards find them? This is a question that colleges, schools, universities, businesses, the NHS and beyond are grappling with currently.

Indeed, one of the key challenges facing colleges is recruiting leaders (both governors and executives) that reflect the communities they serve. There is a desperate need for members of communities from varying backgrounds to commit their time, effort and talents to collectively guiding and challenging colleges situated in places they feel connected to. The mix of people and skills needed will vary from institution to institution. However, effective boards establish skills, knowledge and performance standards for individual governors, they educate board members, and they conduct evaluation against the set standards. To have effective boards, we need a wide pool of people willing to embrace the responsibility but also the rewarding challenge of ‘steering’ colleges to greater success.

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