AGB President & CEO Update: Strategies to Support the CEO (System)

By Ellen Chaffee April 10, 2024 Blog Post

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

Successful higher education systems have successful presidents. Hiring is only the first step. When boards focus routinely on functions and strategic goals but not on supporting the president, they miss a powerful opportunity to advance institutional success and the president’s leadership and potentially save the institution tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and six to twelve months of forward motion.

According to the American Council on Education, the average tenure of a college president in 2022 was down to 5.9 years. Turning that trend around matters.

Hiring the right system head, supporting their success, and dealing with each disappointment when it arises is a high-value investment that is entirely in the hands of the governing board. One powerful way to support the chief executive is through routine use of formative assessment.

Why it matters: Retention is not just for students—it’s also important for system presidents.

  • The financial costs of presidential turnover are daunting enough—a search process, travel for board members and candidates, and commitments for the new president such as moving costs, facility renovations, staff support, or a discretionary fund. Too often, the financial costs also start with severance pay and other concessions.
  • The human and institutional costs of presidential turnover may well equal the financial costs. They include a year of interrupted strategic momentum for the institution; the equivalent of at least four full-time staff members for a year to coordinate all the exit, search, entry, orientation, and engagement logistics; and lost productivity due to distraction and uncertainty among senior staff and faculty.

The bottom line: Despite what some experts say, hiring the system leader is not the most important function of a governing board. Supporting their success is the most important function of a governing board. Boards do that by making thoughtful hiring decisions, ensuring that the new chief executive gets off to a strong start, helping them meet and engage with key constituents, encouraging them to take care of themselves and their families, and giving them honest, candid feedback as well as support for any needed changes.

  • Boards that take presidential assessment and board self-assessment seriously, using them for continuous improvement and becoming ever more successful, are on a path to increasingly effective governance and successful system performance.
  • Sometimes, best efforts are not enough. When determining that the chief executive’s success no longer aligns with the system’s success, the board is supporting both by facilitating the chief executive’s departure. The best way to recognize that moment is to have a history of the kind of mutual understanding that does not show up on a dashboard.

One of the most effective but often underutilized ways to support a president is routine use of formative evaluation, starting immediately.

Consider these examples:

  • When a small rural university hired its first woman president, a segment of community leaders was deeply distressed. The leaders feared the new president did not value athletics. The faculty and staff feared her years working in the system office would color her approach. The chief development officer’s primary message to all for the first year was, “Her success is our success.” Both the president and the institution had a good 15-year run.
  • The board members of a small private college were divided in their views on the president. As a candidate three years earlier, he had impressed the trustees and passed muster with faculty and staff. His first-year review warranted a new three-year contract. However, expressions of concern from the campus community began to grow rapidly. Some board leaders, including the chair, strongly supported the president and some discounted the concerns; others felt a 360-degree assessment was in order. Extensive interviews and research revealed that the president was successfully recruiting partners and donors, but he was tone-deaf to norms and boundaries in his decisions on personnel, programs, and facilities. The board provided a graceful exit and advised him to seek a new position with minimal supervisory responsibilities.
  • At the end of his first year in office, the new young president of a large urban minority-serving public institution contacted AGB to request a 360-degree presidential assessment for his own benefit. He was inexperienced but, determined to lead for successful student completion, he viewed his own effectiveness as a vital element in achieving that goal. He mined deeply for specific suggestions and resources. He is now in his third presidency, each a more powerful opportunity to advance his goal than the one before.

Consider these questions and recommendations:

What is “formative assessment”? It is assessing performance to help the person improve, not to make summary judgments about them. For example, a teacher may write comments and suggestions on a student’s essay (formative) and then give the essay a grade (summative assessment). In the workplace, formal and informal performance reviews are often formative, while summative evaluations arise in the context of contracts, compensation, and bonuses.

Make formative assessment routine and consistent. One board chair-president meeting per month could be devoted to sharing information about how the president is doing, personally and professionally, from the perspectives of both individuals.

  • Both often go away with follow-up plans to amplify the strengths and address any concerns.

Consider when to use comprehensive formative evaluations. In the third year, or earlier if there are signs of trouble, presidents benefit from a comprehensive but still formative 360-degree evaluation by a neutral person with presidential experience. The goal in all formative reviews is to increase the odds of success, not to judge. Formative evaluations end with suggestions for commendation and improvement. It is up to the board to decide what, if any, personnel action would be appropriate.

Cultivate a continuous improvement mindset of treating mistakes as learning opportunities and focusing on accountability, not blame. Assessment avoidance is often due to fear of hearing or having to say unpleasant things. When blame is off the table and learning is the focus, the assessor and the assessed can adopt a growth mindset that benefits both and extends the lifetime of a successful presidency.

Consider pairing the assessment processes for the president and the board. Governing boards are where the buck stops in higher education. While accreditors have standards boards must meet, the standards are not extensive enough to define a high-performing board. The board is ultimately responsible for the system, the board itself as an organization, and the chief executive officer. Boards and presidents can both benefit from frequent self-reflection, annual formative reviews, and comprehensive reviews every three to five years.

Go Deeper:

Questions for Board and Committee Chairs: 

  • How can you support the chief executive’s growth, formally and informally?
  • What committees might need to be involved in the system head’s formal assessments?
  • Does the board chair regularly have candid conversations with the president to help the president see how to improve their performance?

Questions for Board Members: 

  • What is your responsibility for supporting the chief executive?
  • What resources does the board need to effectively evaluate the chief executive’s progress and challenges?

Questions for Chief Executives and Senior Staff: 

  • How does the chief executive approach formative evaluation with senior board leaders?
  • In 360-degree assessments, how can senior staff help the chief executive and board ask effective questions?

Until next month!

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