View from the Board Chair: Creating Solutions in Times of Crisis

By Lyn Trodahl Chynoweth    //    Volume 19,  Number 6   //    November/December 2011

Who among us hasn’t had a crisis present itself in recent years? It may not even be a “burning platform,” but rather a dilemma that needs to be resolved quickly and efficiently to move forward successfully. And, to add to the quandary, perhaps you as a trustee disagree with fellow board members, the president, or other administrators. The world won’t stop for you to isolate the issue or wait for it to go away. Problems rarely just disappear. So, how does one resolve the issues that present themselves?

The only way I know is to attack them head on. Let me first briefly explain a process we have developed at Moravian College and then offer some examples of how we’ve used it.

  • Assemble the right people to discuss the issue at hand. That group may not only include the ultimate decision makers, but also those directly affected by whatever the decision might be. Expect that there will be contention—and that it is okay.
  • Name a facilitator. You need someone who doesn’t participate directly but can read body language, understand the issue(s), and tease out the thinking of every person, even if there are many levels of hierarchy in the room. A good facilitator ensures that all participants leave knowing their ideas had a fair hearing.
  • Create a structured workshop. Use the facilitator to articulate clear and realistic desired meeting outcomes. Make sure all the pertinent facts are presented and then create a forum for discussion that will explore even the most ridiculous of possibilities, so no opportunity goes unexplored. Creating a series of scenarios can be the best way to do this. It forces people to support or deny various aspects of a sticky problem, and the solution that emerges sometimes surprises everyone.
  • Set and adhere to a committed timeframe and then document the discussion. That way, you won’t lose small points or nuances that might go unnoticed after the workshop is complete. All participants should get the final documentation as it confirms what was discussed and provides a common reference point for future decisions.

That all sounds pretty simple, but it takes some concerted effort to pull those sessions together in a meaningful way. At Moravian College, we have used this kind of forum on several occasions in recent years.

For instance, when the markets crashed in 2008, we brought together a number of financially savvy trustees, a local bank official, our investment consultants, and several administrators to consider several potential scenarios. We recognized that we didn’t know what would happen, so we reviewed a best-case, middlecase, and worst-case scenario and agreed on how to proceed with each. That workshop gave the administration guidelines for moving forward regardless of which scenario actually played out. We also created an ad hoc committee to meet on a regular basis to review critical economic indicators.

Most recently, we had to deal with some facilities issues. Our historic campus, founded in 1742, offers many maintenance challenges, as all of our buildings must support modern pedagogical and living styles. We had a plan for renovating one of them, but we realized we needed more time to raise money for our “dream” facility. Recognizing that we had to alter our plans, we convened key faculty members and administrators and a few trustees to meet in a workshop to explore several alternatives. I expected to come from that meeting with two or three possible choices that would need more investigation. I was surprised and delighted that the group agreed not only on a basic plan for moving forward, but also on some budgetary boundaries and debt-service parameters that will guide our final decision making.

We’ve used such workshops at other times too—often in trustee retreats. The bottom line is that it works. A well-structured workshop with the right people in the room and a competent facilitator truly helps board members, the president, and other administrators make the right decisions for the well-being of the institution.

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