AGB President & CEO Update: Gifts to Strengthen Your Board Culture (Foundation)

By Ellen Chaffee December 13, 2023 December 18th, 2023 Blog Post

You are viewing the Institutionally Related Foundation version of this CEO Update. System and Institution versions are also available.

I once heard a story about a car manufacturing company CEO visiting a new plant in the 1980s. Just before he arrived, workers had to make quick repairs when a production line malfunctioned. Unaware, the CEO naturally asked about the plant’s status. The embarrassed plant manager hesitantly admitted to the problem, expecting the worst. The CEO’s immediate response was, “Wonderful! What did you learn from it?”

A board emphasizing a culture of engagement, honesty, curiosity, generosity, and accountability can anticipate challenges more holistically and arrive at solutions more quickly. To build an effective culture, this winter consider what “gifts” you can provide to your colleagues to strengthen your board’s culture.

Why it matters: For better or worse, a board’s culture permeates everything it does. To address the many challenges confronting higher education, it has never been more important for boards to foster the right culture.

  • In his response to the plant manager, the CEO offered three gifts: acceptance (these things happen), appreciation (you fixed it), and confidence (you can help us make sure this doesn’t happen again). He recognized that a culture where open communication thrives and errors are seen as problems to solve, rather than reflections of poor efforts, would help his organization thrive.

To strengthen your board’s culture, consider these gifts:

Open and honest dialogue. Even the most confident board members can shy away from conflict, especially in a large gathering. But conflict does not need to be derisive; board members must be able to disagree without hostility and then accept the outcome of a vote.

  • This gift doubles as an opportunity to model effective behavior for students and others.
  • Honest dialogue also means asking good questions and acknowledging when more information is needed.

Trust, and the benefit of the doubt. In an age of misinformation and disinformation, where more and more of us spend time in social media echo chambers that pump us full of confidence and label those who disagree as ignorant or deceitful, the benefit of the doubt is a meaningful gift.

  • It can be helpful to remind yourself that colleagues who disagree can also care deeply about the foundation, its mission, and its impact on students.

Your most precious resource, time. While higher education board service is voluntary, higher education challenges need true board member engagement, and that means time.

  • AGB’s 2020 Trustee Index indicated that while most corporate boards spend about 245 hours a year on governance activities, higher education boards, on average, spend a little more than 100 hours.
  • More time does not mean more management. Board members must be ever mindful of overstepping into the chief executive’s responsibilities. But spending time reflecting on your foundation’s challenges, reviewing summaries, considering thoughtful questions to ask, and agreeing to participate in working groups are more necessary than ever.

Go deeper:

Questions for board and committee chairs:

  • How can you facilitate open and honest dialogue, especially on controversial topics or points of intense disagreement?
  • What is your role in supporting focused board member engagement?

Questions for board members:

  • How can you use your time, outside the boardroom, supporting the institution and your foundation? What skills can you develop? What questions can you ask?

Questions for chief executives and senior leaders:

  • What is your role in promoting effective board culture?
  • What gifts can you provide both to board members and to the students, faculty, and staff with whom you engage on a regular basis?

I hope you will join me at the Foundation Leadership Forum, January 28-30, in Los Angeles, California.

The Forum is more than just an opportunity to sit in the back of a room and listen to people talk. It is the best opportunity to learn directly from your peers, engage with experts, understand leading governance practices, and develop new approaches.

“Governance by walking around” is a great benefit of attending AGB conferences. As a consultant with over 100 former clients, I especially love hearing about their progress. I’ve seen hallway conversations where one board member’s experience applies directly to issues on someone else’s board.

In my nearly 15 years engaging with AGB, I have consistently come away from AGB conferences with fresh ideas, actionable takeaways, and a renewed sense of purpose.

Find out more about the Forum and register. I hope to see you in Los Angeles!


Reports Books

Reports and Statements
The AGB 2020 Trustee Index

Trusteeship Magazine

Trusteeship Magazine Article
The Bedrock of Board Culture