One of the most pressing issues faced by governing boards is supporting strong leadership at the presidential level. AGB’s publication Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2022–2023 identified the preparation of new leaders for higher education as one of the top five issues. In addition to the board’s primary role to “attract, inspire, and retain their chief executive,” that publication highlighted, the board also must be aware of the “wave of retirements by chief executives and leadership team members” that is coming.
Turnover at the Top
One of the reasons this topic is a top strategic issue: data about the “graying of the current generation of college and university presidents” showing an accelerating rate of turnover at the chief executive level. The publication notes that while there are many significant challenges, those associated with managing the COVID-19 pandemic made the very difficult jobs of the top leaders more difficult than ever. Clearly, it is a tumultuous time in higher education.
In the September 2023 meeting of AGB’s Council of Presidents, we posed this question: What would it take for boards to elevate their support for the chief executive in order to retain strong leaders for longer terms and reverse the accelerating turnover rate? We wanted to explore specific ways to advise boards about supporting presidential leadership.
We were joined by Rod McDavis, managing principal and CEO of AGB Search, and Chris Moloney, associate vice president and associate managing principal of AGB Consulting, who shared their perspectives about expectations of boards as they select new presidents and how boards think about supporting presidents to improve retention.
Rod McDavis pointed out that boards want to appoint presidents who are committed to staying at the institution. He discussed the value of building and maintaining good relationships between the president and the board, especially the board chair, as well as the importance of staying engaged with key constituents. He reminded presidents that there is value in remembering why they took the position—what was in the leadership profile when they were recruited that attracted them to the institution?
Chris Moloney described how board culture changed in many institutions as a result of COVID. Some boards became somewhat detached and essentially asked presidents to manage without the board’s guidance. Other boards became more involved and wanted to be consulted or be the decision-makers on every issue. This was especially troublesome because of the urgency with which many decisions had to be made. Neither approach was helpful in the long run, and the result is that there is a “new normal” that must be navigated at some institutions. Rebuilding trust and a focus on open communication are keys to success.
Competition for Presidential Time and Attention
Our robust council conversation revolved around two primary themes: the multiple groups demanding time and attention that presidents feel they must serve, and perspectives from presidents about concrete recommendations for boards to consider in providing explicit support for the work of presidents.
One president launched the discussion with a description of seven groups that compete for presidents’ time and attention: students, faculty, staff, board of trustees, external community members, alumni, and legislators. Each constituent group wants its own “face time,” and each has its list of priorities. None of these groups is saying, “We want less time and attention.” While the various priorities may all be worthy of consideration, it is not possible to pursue all of them, and difficult decisions must be made by presidents as they navigate these complicated balancing acts.
Before we were very deep into the conversation, presidents chimed in with suggestions about other groups such as parents, donors, business partners, and users of social media. Again, each group comes with a specific wish list, and, as one president said, “Any one of them can take a president down.”
Presidents felt it is also important to acknowledge that family and self-care—personal time—is essential to build into the president’s schedule. Several presidents noted that if such time is not specifically planned and scheduled, it will not happen and that exacerbates the possibility of burnout. Some presidents gave examples of how they carve out time for themselves and their families, while others noted that they struggle with this because the institution’s needs and their natural inclination to focus on institutional issues always seem to trump everything else.
The Value of Coaching
The value of a coach was embraced by the presidents, with several noting that the board’s willingness to employ a coach for the president was a condition of accepting the presidency. Several benefits of having a coach were mentioned, including the value of having “someone in your corner” and having someone who can encourage taking a longer, higher-level view when the day-to-day issues seem overwhelming. In other words, it helps to be reminded why presidents were drawn to this level of leadership in the first place: It’s a commitment to mission and a focus on student success.
An outcome of this discussion theme was a strong sense that boards will not automatically understand the challenges of dealing with multiple groups. They need specific education about the multiple constituents, their needs and priorities, and their value to the institution. Presidents shouldn’t assume that boards understand that there are competing groups and priorities and that these create stressful situations—thus specific guidance is needed for boards to sensitize them. Presidents were advised to think about what boards don’t know and be deliberate about filling the education gap. Vague suggestions about the need for support are not helpful; specific guidance is very valuable.
Boards Must Show Support
Council members presented many ideas about educating the board and helping the board members understand what, specifically, they could do to show support. One president shared three things asked of the board to support the cabinet (president and senior leaders) in the context of tough decisions that the team was asked to make by the board:
- Celebrate the team’s achievements and don’t play Monday Morning Quarterback.
- Despite the personal relationships many board members have with faculty and staff, resist the urge to lobby to change a decision.
- Acknowledge the hard and tough work in which the cabinet has been engaged to reduce spending and the toll it is taking on the cabinet and let cabinet members know that their work on behalf of the university is appreciated.
We noted the focus on the team in these examples. Presidents need to build a team that they trust.
Giving some direct advice to the board, one president urged that members guard against letting constituents use direct access to the board as an end-run around the president and administration on operational matters. Such communications should be referred to the president for follow-up. Another suggestion was to urge board members to get to know the institution outside of board meetings. Several presidents mentioned the value of using an outside facilitator, especially for difficult board conversations about aligning strategic priorities with the work of the board.
Opportunities for board growth in the context of a retreat were also discussed. When outside experts work with the board to say, “Here’s what you can do to support your president if you want success,” it is powerful. Suggestions carry a different weight when provided by outside experts. Getting away from the usual board meeting constraints of time and space, and focusing on longer-term strategic thinking, can be a very liberating experience for presidents and boards.
Council members acknowledged the value of such specific suggestions and also referenced the role of the board chair, who should be constantly reminding board members about their roles, especially in respecting the lines between governance and management. One president reminded everyone that it is the job of the board chair to manage the board, not the president’s responsibility. It is also important to find various ways to show that the board has the president’s back.
Finding the Joy
As we wrapped up our discussion, I decided to add a lighter note. Yes, the challenges of the presidency in today’s environment are significant, and there are risks galore. But the presidency is also filled with magical moments of joy and unique experiences. In addition to our calling for leadership and our commitment to mission, as presidents we are invited to participate in experiences that others don’t have access to. I led one homecoming parade riding on a Harley and once drove the Zamboni. There’s no scenario in which I get to have that kind of fun if I’m not the president.
Presented with the opportunity to share their own unique experiences, we heard from many presidents that any activity involving students was at the top of their list for experiencing fun and joy. Think about having “Pizza with the Prez,” running a 5K race with students for a charity event, or serving pancakes at midnight to students during all-night breakfast in the residence halls during exam week.
Some presidents talked about the joy of delivering convocation addresses and presiding at commencements when their own children were students at their institutions. Other examples included conducting the orchestra at a holiday concert and rappelling down the side of a building with cadets at Army ROTC Summer Camp. One president reported sharing his inner Top Gun Maverick in a video in which he led his team in boarding a World War II vintage plane which then circled the campus on a very windy day.
When a lightning strike hit the football scoreboard and destroyed it, one president dusted off his running shoes and got pledges for every mile he completed in a marathon. He reported that everyone loved to see him sweat to raise money for a good cause. It was the most painful and the most gratifying way to raise private support—and he had never been happier at the end of a race than he was at this one.
Higher education institutions thrive when boards and presidents find ways to work together on behalf of achieving the mission and vision of the college, university, or system. Board support to retain presidents, and the stability that comes from longer terms, means that institutions are more likely to achieve their strategic priorities. A trusting relationship based on mutual agreements and a commitment to what matters most—mission, vision, values—will lead to success. And, along the way, presidents might have some unique experiences like driving a backhoe rather than lifting a clump of dirt with a gold shovel to break ground for a new building!
Carol A. Cartwright, PhD, is president emeritus of Kent State University and Bowling Green State University. She is an AGB senior fellow and senior consultant, and the ambassador to AGB’s Council of Presidents.
Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.