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Nice to have you on board

West Lothian and Jewel and Esk Valley colleges needed to replace board members and both would be recruiting from the same area. Principals Howard McKenzie and Sue Pinder decided to collaborate

As relatively newly appointed principals, we had both appreciated and needed the support of our board to help cope with traumatic and turbulent first years. We recognised the enormous goodwill that is required of board members and mused on the type of support and training that they - and we - would benefit from in order to attain the highest standards of corporate governance to which all principals aspire for their college.

We had both been selected for recruitment as principals by Peter Siviter of Executive Resource International, and had maintained personal contact with him.

Through him we learned of the work of Margaret Williamson, of Board Room Development (BRD), and decided to ask if she had some insight as a result of working with health boards and NHS trusts.

Working with the chairs or our boards, we outlined a development programme, from recruitment to outstanding performance via one seamless training programme.

A series of in-depth interviews was conducted by BRD with all serving members from both boards to see how they perceived their role, their board and their own particular contribution to college strategy.

Following a meeting with the chairs of the boards, BRD produced a comprehensive and challenging set of behaviours and competences, which characterise the effective board member. Based on this information, a member profile was drawn up which was to act as the template for selection.

We had decided, at the outset, to advertise and seek nominations together. So last September we placed a joint advertisement in local newspapers and one national daily, and sat back and held our breath.

The response was gratifyingly good and led us into the next stage - a joint information briefing for all applicants one Monday evening in October in the imposing surroundings of the City Chambers in Edinburgh. The applicants were provided with briefing packs on both colleges to take away.

There is a chance that when colleges collaborate like this they might squabble over who goes where; so the application form asked people to indicate which board they wished to join, assuming they had a preference.

At this point the colleges had to proceed within the terms of their own articles of governance and convene their search and nominations committees to take forward the formal stage of recruitment and selection. These meetings took place the following week.

In every case, the selectors were impressed with the calibre of the applicants and the wide range of skills and expertise. Both colleges were able to fill their vacant places - four at West Lothian College and nine at Jewel and Esk Valley.

The recruitment process highlighted for us the significant loss of experience and expertise boards will sustain as longer-serving members step down. We are moving forward with the next step of our joint working in order to develop a comprehensive induction programme and an ongoing development strategy to sit alongside self-evaluation for boards.

This part of the exercise will benefit from the input of long-serving members. In all of this work, the aim of both colleges has been to develop excellence in our boards and the highest standards of governance. We are therefore committed to building the skills of individual board members at a strategic level and strengthening the relationship between board and senior managers.

To support and extend this valuable work, the Edinburgh and Lothian colleges have submitted a bid for strategic funding from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. It is anticipated that all the Edinburgh and Lothian colleges will participate in elements of the programme once complete. Thereafter it will be embedded as one example of shared practice.

On a wider front, there may be a role for the Association of Scottish Colleges to become more involved in the identification, recruitment, selection, training and support of board members. Discussions are taking place to investigate the potential of a national database of future board members and board expertise, which could be managed by the ASC.

National training events would mean that the shared wisdom and experience of FE boards would be unlocked to the benefit of all parties concerned.

We are convinced that a professional, joint approach to board recruitment has attracted a high calibre of candidates to our boards. Above all, we have been able to support each other to deal with a complex issue of which neither of us had any experience. This in itself has been comfortable - and fun.

Howard McKenzie and Sue Pinder are principals of Jewel and Esk Valley and West Lothian colleges.

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