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How can boards of trustees exercise effective leadership without undermining or usurping the president’s role as chief executive?
This perennial question is becoming more urgent as pandemics and other challenges demand fresh ideas and decisive leadership from presidents and trustees alike. Our colleges, universities, and systems are best served when boards and presidents act as partners in leadership with differing responsibilities but common objectives. This post outlines some of the practical tools available to the boards and chief executives to enable them to work together when change is the order of the day.
The list below presents well-tested instruments boards can use to set institutional strategy and policy without tripping over the line into institutional management. They are listed in an order that runs roughly from gathering information, using that information to deepen board discussions, and then taking action to bring about institutional change. These tools are intended to provide boards with the instruments to contribute to positive change in partnership with their chief executive.
1. Schedule and set high standards for succinct staff reports on the crucial issues facing the college or university, its leadership, faculty, staff, and students.
To be clear, succinctness is typically the missing ingredient. Most senior-level higher education administrators, including presidents, arrive in their roles with limited experience staffing boards. Lengthy reports that demonstrate thorough consideration and deep wisdom on any given topic are often a hazard to board members’ absorption of insights, connection-making, and ultimately their fluency in discussing these issues. It is the board’s responsibility to clarify expectations of staff.
2. Refresh charges to committees to get beyond routine reports and topics in favor of the most important financial, educational, and relational challenges.
This is about time allocation. Most committees have standards and deadlines for routine oversight tasks (that is, certifying documents for legal compliance, reviewing income statements, etc.). Absent leadership and empowerment, many committees devise annual workplans that do not contribute to board-level insight around strategic priorities. Board and committee leaders must ensure the work of the committees contributes to the work of the whole.
3. Focus committee and board agendas on the top challenges or priorities and avoid excessive staff control of committee agendas.
Again, most staff liaisons (for examples, the academic vice president who also staffs the academic affairs committee) to board committees come into that role by virtue of professional experiences that are completely unrelated to governing boards. As executives, they are stereotypically much more practiced at presenting hard decisions and far less so at elevating hard questions. Committee leaders need to “own” committee agendas and help staff to gain facility in support.
4. Use work sessions and retreats to enable the board and president to discuss selected issues in depth and to determine courses of action and policy changes.
Board-CEO alignment and trust are more important than ever, and it’s ultimately the board’s responsibility to ensure that relationship thrives. Essential components include both an informed and thoughtful board and a confident, empowered chief executive.
5. Create ad hoc, time-limited task groups of trustees, staff, and external advisors to address topics calling for concerted attention and action.
The imprimatur of the governing board is a powerful tool. Charging appropriate groups with time-limited tasks can be one valuable application of it. In post-pandemic environments, many boards will need to gain fresh clarity alongside presidents as to which challenges present themselves well for taskforce-style response, but boards should also expect the work of such groups to move with an urgency appropriate to the circumstances. The board should consistently state and communicate timelines needed for effective fulfillment of a charge.
6. Hire external auditors, reviewers, and assessors to evaluate and make recommendations on topics where the staff lacks the expertise or may be too close to the problems to be objective.
Two governance propositions are increasingly questionable today: a) internal staff have the expertise to “figure it out;” and b) other institutions in one’s competitive set provide good examples to follow (“What is university X doing?”). Boards should have a healthy appetite for outside perspectives. They should also seek to disabuse staff of unhealthy notions that the board’s estimation of them hinges on their ability to independently diagnose and resolve the institution’s most difficult challenges.
7. Schedule confidential conversations between the president and the board or an executive committee to confirm their mutual expectations for communications, power sharing, and performance.
The board is responsible for facilitating presidential success in the interest of mission achievement. Therefore, it is the board’s responsibility, not the president’s, to create opportunities to short-circuit misalignment.
8. Review and adjust major plans to ensure practicality, accountability, and demonstrable results, and rigorously monitor progress.
Gone are the days when strategic planning did not result in clear institutional priorities, goals, and mile-markers. The board needs to “own” strategic plans by not merely ensuring there’s a plan but ensuring the institution either progresses satisfactorily against it or changes strategy.
9. Engage in upstream conversations of the board and president and senior staff on strategic plans and initiatives well before they are formulated.
Boards need to be engaged early in the strategic planning process, not just informed near the end when key directions have been set. The very best way to achieve board buy-in and enthusiastic support of strategic plans and initiatives is to invest board members in the thinking behind them.
10. Establish with the president a list of goals and expectations annually and for longer periods that will require multiple years for achievement; regularly discuss progress or lack thereof.
Everyone has an opinion about the president’s performance, and board members are not exempt. The board’s collective view needs to be rooted in performance against clear objectives, including some metrics and benchmarks. Annually, the board needs to provide the opportunity to discuss presidential performance and ensure potential differences of opinion—either among board members, or between the board and the president—are clarified. Likewise, the occasion of a presidential milestone achievement is often an opportunity for meaningful recognition by the board.
Experienced trustees and presidents will be familiar with these tools. The art of effective leadership comes into play in matching the right tool with the problem or challenge to be addressed. A candid discussion between board leaders and their president will help determine the most fruitful approach. The other major requirement is the will to use these instruments to bring about positive change.
Terrence MacTaggart, PhD, is an AGB senior fellow and consultant. His consulting and research focus on higher education leadership and policy, strategic planning, board development, shared governance, and leadership evaluation. He has held the chancellor’s position at the Minnesota State University System and on two occasions at the University of Maine System. Learn more about effective leadership at the Retreat for Board Chairs and Presidents of Public Institutions and Systems on Wednesday, October 26, at 1 p.m. EDT.
Andrew Lounder, PhD, is AGB’s associate vice president of programs. He is also a special faculty member in the graduate school at the University of Maryland College Park, where he teaches higher education governance to aspiring leaders, and he is a trustee of Wheaton College Massachusetts.