Getting Your Board into Strategy Mode

By AGB November 7, 2019 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Let’s be honest. The term “strategic” is treated reverentially in our line of work, but despite that reverence (or perhaps because of it) boards don’t naturally slip into strategy mode. Being strategic means setting priorities that focus resources and effort in pursuit of long-term goals. The board’s fiduciary role renders board leadership in this area indispensable.

Boards are not responsible for the work of the institution; they are accountable for the results of that work that accrue to the institution’s beneficiaries. Boards must answer questions that no division of the institution can answer alone, and for which year-over-year indicators are insufficient. Among these are:

  1. Relevance – Why does what we do here matter, and to whom? Why should it?
  2. Integrity – Do we deliver on our promises to students and society? How could our work and/or our commitments to beneficiaries be better aligned?
  3. Purpose – If we achieve in 5-10 years what we’ve set out to do, then will this institution better serve its beneficiaries, or be better positioned to serve them? Do our longer-term objectives need to be adjusted?
  4. Resources – With 5-10-year goals in mind, what are the policy and finance levers the board can, should, and must pull to enable effective presidential leadership?
  5. Scope – Are the activities of the institution today indicative of the board’s answers to the above questions, or should different priorities be reflected?

The good news is that boards of widely varying sizes and structures have demonstrated a capacity to wrestle with these questions. The bad news is that for many it is not habitual. Getting the board into strategy mode starts with the key partnership between the board chair and the president, shaping the board’s agenda, and managing the exchange between governance and management. Only together can they set the stage for this work.

Robert Waters is AGB’s vice president for experiential programs and partnerships. Andrew Lounder is AGB’s director of programs. Together, they staff  AGB’s Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents, currently accepting applications for January 9-11 in Naples, Florida, and January 16-18 in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as AGB’s Institute for Board Leaders and Chief Executives of Public Universities and Systems, currently accepting applications for April 4-5 in Washington, DC. These programs focus explicitly on enabling board chair-president teams to position the board for strategic added value.