Five Keys to Unlocking the Value of Your Board

By Alice P. Gast and Daniel E. Smith    //    Volume 19,  Number 3   //    May/June 2011

A college or university board of trustees typically comprises people possessing great experience, wisdom, records of achievement, and a strong desire to meaningfully contribute to the institution. Such an asset is enormously valuable. Yet too often institutional leaders feel they are unable to tap all its benefits. For their part, board members can be frustrated that their expertise is not used to the fullest and may even be unwelcome.

Our goal as the president and the chair of the board at Lehigh University is to make our board an ever-strengthening strategic asset. We aim to get the best thinking and advice from our trustees on the challenges and opportunities facing the university. We have taken a number of steps to develop the board’s knowledge of higher education and to create an atmosphere of open exchange and dialogue at board meetings.

It is challenging to make the transition from a board that is “reported to” in carefully prescribed meetings to one that discusses the big questions and issues facing the institution. But the effort is well worth it. It has primarily involved changes in habits among the board members and the university leaders who work with the board. Board members and administrators have collaborated well to create this evolution. Regular strategy discussions between the president and board chair are essential and, throughout this process, we have kept in touch biweekly to monthly, discussing what has worked well and what has been less effective.

As Lehigh has undertaken this transition, we have helped our board members understand our university and higher education in a much deeper way. That has led to far richer conversations among trustees, faculty members, senior administrators, staff members, and students.

As with a number of independent higher-education boards, the majority of Lehigh’s trustees are alumni of the university. Thus, their perspective and understanding of the university is shaped by their experiences as students, as active alumni, and perhaps as parents of students. It was important to bring our trustees to a broader collective level of understanding of higher education in general and our university in particular. We also wanted to engage the board and the campus in a strategic-thinking process to establish our goals for the coming decade.

To make that happen, we decided that we needed to change the nature of our board meetings. We shifted the agenda from what had essentially been operational reviews to meetings where we could focus the board’s time and energy on discussions of higher-level issues. We moved most committee meetings to times outside our normal two-day board meeting. We distributed the minutes of those committee meetings before full-board meetings and made it clear to board members that they should review those minutes in advance— we would not be reviewingcommittee reports in the full board meeting unless someone had substantive questions.

Those steps allowed us to free up significant time for board members to explore in some depth one issue or topic that became the focus of the meeting agenda. For each upcoming board meeting, we scheduled presentations and discussions aimed at providing broader perspectives of the highereducation landscape and the challenges we face in colleges and universities today. Where appropriate, we engaged outside experts on particular topics to facilitate the conversation.

We also began giving board members various readings about higher education from current news-media sources. Such articles provided a diversity of viewpoints about the issues confronting colleges and universities in areas such as admissions, career placement, tenure, study abroad, and distance education, among many others.

After the first two meetings, it became apparent that we had an opportunity to develop a more focused “curriculum” for future meetings that would give board members, as well as our leadership team, a deeper understanding of those types of topics.

One trustee had asked: Do we know enough about the university and about higher education to provide the best advice? That was a great question. In subsequent board meetings, we designed a series of discussions to educate trustees enough about higher education that they could call upon their own experience and expertise to provide the best counsel.

We have covered a variety of topics to date, and it is an ongoing process. We plan to continue to engage on a regular basis in substantive dialogues about the issues facing higher education and our university.

Our curriculum thus far has covered:

• Faculty recruitment and retention;

• Student life and learning;

• Enrolling students strategically;

• The cost of college and highereducationfinances;

• Engaging our community;

• Advancement and fund raising;

• Research;

• Strategic plan initiatives related to health; and

• Strategic plan initiatives related to energy, the environment, and infrastructure.

Now that we have been offering this revised approach for a while, we can look back and say that it has been highly successful. We have identified what we refer to as the “five keys” we have used to unlock the value of our board of trustees.

Those five keys are:

1. Meet Board Members Where They Are

We began by connecting the experiences of our trustees to the challenges we face. We asked questions about their lives and work, such as: How do you create a successful enterprise? How do you recruit and retain talent? How do you measure success? How do you develop a culture in your organization that sets you apart?

We received counsel and advice from men and women who are leading and managing complex organizations. Our 10 favorite pieces of advice are:

1. Be customer-driven, not driven by customers.

2. Make an honest assessment of what you are good at and what you are not good at.

3. Stress quality of student experience rather than quantity.

4. E ncourage cultural learning and critical risk taking.

5. Connect with academic mission and combine that with sense of community.

6. Understand who the organization is in order to compete well.

7. No one visiting should ask about our core values; they should see them.

8. Don’t just look for the best; look for the best fit.

9. The CEO needs to take messages directly to people so that they hear them right from the top, and so that they are consistently delivered. That may seem time-consuming, but the time wasted cleaning up after wrong messages is also significant.

10. Don’t punish the messenger with bad news, or you’ll stop hearing it.

In short, we heard valuable common themes in our discussions that resonate in all organizations, including colleges and universities: accountability, transparency in communication, the importance of people, the benefits of setting goals, and the necessity of core values. We knew we were connecting when a trustee who is a lawyer commented: “Ah, tenure is like partnership. You have to be careful who you give it to because you will be working with them for a long time.”

2. Inform, Don’t Just Report

Another key to unlocking a board’s value is to identify the most-important, truly strategic issues that your institution is confronting and then spend the time talking through those issues so board members understand them well enough to offer valuable advice. That is what we have started to accomplish through our curriculum of major topics that we now present to the board at each meeting.

We have also worked to make such meetings interactive and experiential. At one recent meeting, for example, board members met with the leaders of our undergraduate and graduate student senate, in addition to representatives from 16 student clubs and organizations, to learn about how they contribute to campus life as well as the issues they are dealing with. At another meeting, we put our trustees in the role of admissions officers and had them work on a set of blind admissions files, comparing which students they would admit, reject, or put on the waiting list with our institutional decisions. It led to a far deeper understanding of how we build a class, where we take risks, and how complex and important those decisions are. At another meeting, we spent a day on a walking tour of our community, and then we engaged in an open and candid panel discussion with local community leaders.

Such activities have allowed board members to meet some of the broad array of people who are involved with the university. They have enabled trustees to gather information and perspectives directly rather than have them filtered through a summary provided by administrators.

3. Be Open about Shortcomings

As administrators, we must be honest with our board members about what we do well and what we should improve. To do so requires a level of trust and respect that is difficult to achieve. We must overcome a natural human tendency to gloss over difficult issues in an effort to keep them hidden.

A partnership between the board and the administration can only work if trustees know they are getting the unvarnished truth. They can then be helpful in building on strengths, addressing weaknesses, and helping to decide what priorities are less important. Creating a climate where there is enough trust for such discussions to take place is vital. At Lehigh, our shared desire for transparency has opened up the dialogue so that this trust has built over time.

We have had pivotal discussions in our board meetings about topics such as: the national shifts in the demographics of the college-age population and what that means for us; the changing student and his or her need to achieve core competencies; efficiencies and inefficiencies in our financial model; resource analysis and reallocation; and the higher-education fund-raising environment and the implication for our research strengths and weaknesses.

Such dialogues have been quite fruitful. When asked to think about a really vexing issue, our trustees take a partnership role and are genuinely helpful and supportive. They recognize complexity and the need to work collaboratively to solve problems in academe. That has been particularly helpful in response to the world financial crisis, for example, where thoughtful budget-cutting and financial planning have been necessary—and the collaboration between the board and leadership team has been vital.

In closed sessions, it has been helpful to follow the advice of Richard Chait, a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to share items that “keep the president awake at night,” or KPAWN. These discussions are held leaderto- leader and have provided tremendous guidance and support to the administration and understanding among trustees.

4. Build a Culture of Active Participation

Trustees of large institutions have a big responsibility, and that is typically coupled with other competing and equally demanding responsibilities. The respect given to their time and how we use it at meetings is greatly appreciated and has altered the culture of the board. Board members feel that their time in meetings has been much better spent, and they engage in conversations with the leadership between meetings to follow up on the items discussed.

We expect that board members have read and absorbed materials sent in advance of meetings and between meetings. The president provides a Web-based monthly update to the board with links to important stories about Lehigh and higher education in general. Those materials are not reviewed at the meeting, but they are a jumping off point for deeper, richer, more-productive discussions. Without preparation and active participation, such conversations would not be possible.

We have held some of our discussions in smaller break-out groups, returning to the plenary session for excellent dialogue among the entire board. We have instituted a more interactive orientation process. We also provide mentors for every new trustee. And we give all board members an FAQ to remind them of our mutual expectations and goals.

All of these things have contributed to a culture of active participation. A young board member recently came to the finance committee meeting after learning from the FAQ that all trustees were welcome whether or not they were members of that committee. The camaraderie in the room contributes to an environment where such young trustees are as likely to speak up as seasoned and experienced board leaders.

5. Commit to a Long-Term Partnership and Long-Term Learning

Interactions between the university administrators and board members are complex and develop over time. The board must grapple with many important issues. It also has many individual members with strong personalities and different perspectives about the institution and what is important.

One of our board members once commented on how something he learned from a biology teacher at Lehigh helped him in business. The topic was “hybrid vigor,” the superior qualities you get from cross-breeding species of different traits like those found in hybrid tomatoes. He uses this concept to great effect in choosing business partners; he has found that having a diversity of talents and perspectives leads to a better and more capable team. We also benefit from “hybrid vigor” in our board. Their different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives together are much greater than the sum of the parts and make us a far better institution.

At our board meeting focusing on Lehigh’s surrounding community, one of our trustees commented that “meaningful improvement requires a long-term commitment.” We know that is the case for community engagement as well as for trustee engagement. We plan to keep on engaging board members in purposeful dialogue about all the issues we face and all the strategic decisions that we must make.

Unlocking the value inherent in a committed board is a process that never ends. We have benefited greatly from our board members’ wisdom and expect to continue to do so even more fully in the future. The progress we have made has not always been smooth and without challenges. Any institution undertaking the kind of changes that we have put in place will have to carefully examine its own traditions, expectations, relationships, and goals. Our experience has been that it will not always be easy, but it will certainly be worth all the time, energy, and effort devoted to it.

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