Leadership in a Pandemic: The Board—President Relationship

By Terrence MacTaggart September 9, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

“I can lead with confidence when I know the board chair has my back,” observed one experienced chief executive. “But I’ll hesitate if I think my board members or the chair might second-guess the tough calls demanded by the current crisis,” she went on to say. Weak spots in the working relationship between the board and its chief executive will shine neon bright under the pressures of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. A candid and trusting relationship, on the other hand, increases the odds that the board and president will act as one in addressing both the demands of the pandemic and strategizing for a brighter future.

Board chairs and presidents, especially if one or both are relatively new in their roles, will want to review this checklist to confirm the strengths of their board-executive relationship and take steps to improve.

Reimagine the working relationship through candid discussion

The board-president relationship needs to be reimagined in light of the demands and immense crises with COVID-19. “How should our communications and decision-making change in light of this unfolding, long-term disruption?” should be an early question the chair and president ask of each other. Boards stood on the sidelines during the first weeks of the pandemic while colleges and universities shifted quickly to online instruction. Now is the time for boards to become more engaged, especially as the future viability of the institution becomes questionable. The dynamics of that engagement is a fit topic for board discussion.

Replace dated plans with practical, fresh strategies

One experienced president confirmed that the bundle of historic plans and their subsidiary annual goals were set aside once the scope and aftermath of the pandemic came into focus. “Our mission of serving students first remains the North Star for the board and the staff,” he said, “but in the midst of a crisis like this one, short-term game plans replace inherited schemas suited to a more stable time.”  Flexible scenario plans have become the new standard. The chair and a few other board members become part of the team that envisions alternative scenarios from best to worst. In place of well-staged presentations to the board of complex strategic plans, now board leaders and senior administrators often work together to develop practical responses to the pandemic.

Perform real-time executive assessments

Annual executive evaluations as well as comprehensive or 360 reviews, usually stipulated in board policy, need to adapt to the realities of leadership in a crisis. Waiting a year or more to determine the president’s capability for crisis leadership is downright silly in a crisis as fast-moving as COVID-19. Frequent check-ins, candid conversations between the chair and the president, periodic board roundtables, and the president’s own informal self-assessments need to be conducted throughout the year. The two-to-five-year comprehensive assessments need to focus on quickly developing the executive’s repertoire of crisis leadership skills if they are lacking. One experienced president said that “assessments let me know where I stand with the board.” Another observed that honest reviews “lead to frank conversations about what is working and what isn’t.”

Manage inevitable strains

Managing unavoidable strains in the relationship between the board and its executive becomes a priority for both the president and the chair. Disagreements occur more often because crisis leadership demands quicker decisions in the midst of higher levels of uncertainty. Circumstances may show that a decision made with the best of intentions turns out to be a mistake. The board itself is apt to be divided when hard choices are required. Frequently, alums on the board oppose change that threatens to dramatically alter the institution they graduated from in decades past. Some strains cannot be healed. One chair observed that “in these perilous times, my top job is to keep my fellow board members and our president together and headed in the same direction. If a board member chooses to resign over a decision that the majority believes will save the college, so be it.”

Deliberately envision opportunities

With crises comes opportunity is a truth less honored than it should be, although searching for the upsides of the pandemic is becoming more attractive as it lengthens. Scheduling time to consider the upside potential of the crisis even in its midst is important. One trustee opined that “where we used to lament the maintenance costs of our aging physical plant, now we have the opportunity to drastically reduce the expensive footprint.” Others have observed that the shift to online educational delivery took place in weeks when it would have taken years without the crisis. “Now we can excel in offering the most robust online courses in our market” signaled a very forward-looking president.

A board and president isolated from each other in the midst of a crisis is a recipe for disaster. Engineering a close, candid, well-functioning board-president relationship will help ensure a brighter post-COVID future for your college or university.

Terrence MacTaggart, PhD, is the author of Assessing and Developing College and University Presidents and Crisis Leadership for Boards and Presidents, both recently published by AGB and both e-books are free for AGB members.


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