AGB President & CEO Update: Transforming Presidential Assessments into Growth

By Henry Stoever April 12, 2023 May 3rd, 2023 Blog Post, CEO Update

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Dear Colleague,

In last month’s communication, I focused on how board assessments can help boards and their members serve as consequential, strategic thought partners centered on student success and long-term institutional vitality. This month, I share similar strategies for assessing chief executive officers.

Constructive annual presidential assessments, when done well, identify areas for professional growth, create inspirational leadership development opportunities, and strengthen board-presidential alignment. Such assessments can also function as an “early alert” system.

Why it matters: Presidents, whether newly appointed or seasoned veterans, are facing a rapidly changing higher education environment. Presidents’ capacity to lead and adapt will directly correlate to the strategic and operational success of their institutions, and they can benefit from additional guidance and support to meet the vast array of expectations placed on them.

  • Presidential assessments are an important board responsibility, and assessments can create meaningful professional development programs. To do assessments well, boards need to prioritize them and devote appropriate time and energy.
  • In today’s rapidly changing, dynamic environment, it is essential for boards to take specific interest in their chief executives’ continued growth to ensure they achieve success.
  • These considerations are essential given that, according to a soon-to-be-published study, most higher education presidents expect to hold a different job within the next five years. If institutions are to retain and develop strong presidents, their boards need to support them. For more information about presidential transitions, register for this upcoming AGB webinar.

Consider the evaluation process carefully. Boards and presidents should agree on their approach to annual evaluations in which presidents assess their own effectiveness against their board-approved goals. Typically, a designated board committee then evaluates the assessment and makes recommendations to the president and to the board.

  • Every three to five years, and especially in the year before a contract renewal is on the table, I recommend that the board retain an outside consultant experienced in conducting comprehensive 360-degree evaluations. The consultant should talk confidentially with key board members, the president’s direct reports, and appropriate faculty leaders (e.g., academic department chairs and elected faculty leaders). It is also important for boards not to structure such evaluations as popularity contests, given that presidents today often need to make difficult and unpopular decisions.

Ensure the president’s annual assessment is constructive and appropriately forward-looking. Traditional assessments have measured performance to date, but presidents and boards should take the appropriate time as well to consider the future. Presidential assessments should focus on future goals and outcomes while also evaluating historical performance to optimize leadership capacity.

Use the results of the assessment to inform a tailored professional development plan. The board chair, generally in collaboration with a designated committee, should use the assessment to identify specific opportunities to strengthen performance. Further, these leaders should support the president to develop an ongoing professional development program to achieve optimal results.

Ensure sufficient bandwidth to reflect on assessment feedback. Assessments and professional development plans require sufficient time to reflect, plan, and execute. As with all critical institutional operations, the president should feel empowered to spend time on these efforts.

Ineffective chief executives may need a different level of discussion. Because such annual evaluations are intended to be constructive, I encourage boards to differentiate them from the sort of evaluation of presidential performance that some boards need to conduct if the president is ineffective.

Review these resources to deepen your understanding of presidential assessments:

Questions for Board and Committee Chairs

  • How can board and committee chairs support the president while staying at a strategic level?
  • What committee is charged with supporting the president’s professional development and well-being?

Questions for Board Members

  • How can board members support the president’s professional development?
  • What strategic-level changes should the board consider to optimize presidential performance?

Questions for Chief Executives and Leadership Teams

  • How much time does the president spend on assessing performance and considering their professional development?
  • Is the leadership team structured to increase the chief executive’s bandwidth to focus on long-term, strategic opportunities?

For those of you who were able to attend AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship in San Diego, thank you for joining us. For all AGB members, stay tuned for blog posts, Trusteeship magazine articles, and other AGB resources based on the conference’s action-oriented discussions.

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