Leading without Managing in the Pandemic

By Theodore E. Long September 15, 2020 February 5th, 2021 Blog Post
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.

Even before the pandemic, many boards had difficulty balancing their strategic governance responsibilities in relation to the management of their institutions. Some were not sufficiently involved in governance and left most things, including major strategic choices, to their presidents and administrators.  Others were overly involved in operational matters and management details, giving precious little attention to longer-term strategic issues.

Neither pattern serves colleges and universities well, leaving some with little effective governance at all and others with too much of the wrong kind.  In a pandemic, those unproductive imbalances can be even more hazardous to institutional health and well-being.  In navigating the pandemic, which has put the very future of so many institutions at risk, it has never been more important for boards to maintain strong fiduciary governance that enables and supports presidential leadership in managing their institutions.

In conversations with a number of private college board chairs, however, I have also learned about boards that have maintained, even enhanced, a proper balance of governance and management during the pandemic.  As might be expected in crisis situations, most of these boards are meeting more frequently and spending more time with their presidents discussing operational issues arising from the pandemic, often through the executive committee or a special task force.  But instead of digging into operations to make managerial decisions, they are serving as thought partners with their presidents, asking questions, providing counsel, and acting on important administrative recommendations—all proper governance roles.  As one board chair told me, “We leave it to the cabinet” to work through the details and particulars.

I also inquired about board attention to long-term implications of short-term decisions and to future strategic challenges and possibilities for their institutions.  By and large, these institutions are maintaining their long-term focus, even as they confront the urgent demands of today.  One person suggested that the COVID-19 crisis had led his board to focus on what was really important to the institution as opposed to just what was desirable.  Several boards have specifically considered how to thrive once the immediate crisis has subsided and are aligning changes made now to fit the future they see on the horizon.  Others have created special task forces to identify new strategic opportunities and innovations for the future.

The experience of these boards suggests five principles for good fiduciary governance and board leadership in the pandemic.  While these are general principles of good governance for any time, they are even more critically important for institutional health and vitality in a crisis.

  • Boards must actively engage in addressing the urgent needs and critically consequential decisions of their institutions.
  • Boards must resist the temptation to meddle in operations, especially during a crisis. Instead, they should work as thought partners with their presidents, reserving board decisions for the most important fiduciary decisions.
  • Boards must ask long-term strategic questions and assess how the institution can thrive after the crisis passes.
  • In addressing urgent challenges, boards must ensure that current actions are aligned with future needs and do not compromise the institution’s future.
  • In a crisis, boards must take the lead in focusing institutional attention on its long-term future and develop special mechanisms to ensure attention to those important fiduciary issues.

Leaning on these principles will enable passive and managerial boards to find a more productive balance of governance and management.  Their institutions will be grateful beneficiaries of their doing so.

Interested in discussing this topic further?  Join me with one of our leads from AGB Consulting for a small discussion in our Ask the Expert session on this same topic: Maintaining the Governance-Management Balance in the Pandemic on October 8.  Register here.

Theodore E. Long, PhD, is a senior fellow and a senior consultant for AGB Consulting.

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