Marshaling the President’s Cabinet for Effective Governance

By Artis Hampshire-Cowan    //    Volume 23,  Number 2   //    March/April 2015

This article is part of the New President Toolkit, a resource to help you hit the ground running and chart a course for your institution that ensures well-being and sustainability.

Gone are the days when boards could fulfill their roles by passively monitoring their institution’s affairs. Today’s evolving higher education landscape requires that boards take the long view and become actively engaged in strategic issues, asking the tough questions and overseeing institutional outcomes. However, even as many boards and presidents seek to enhance their effectiveness and improve governance at their institutions, they often fail to deploy an important asset in this effort: the president’s cabinet of senior administrators.

Such senior administrators are not only knowledgeable about their institutions, but they also understand the complexities and dynamics of higher education. They, with the president, provide dayto- day executive leadership within their institutions and serve in various capacities— chief financial officer, provost, chief operating officer, vice president for student affairs, general counsel, and so forth. Deployed properly, they can serve an important role in helping the president educate, support, and guide the work of the board.

This model relieves the president of yet another task while ensuring that the board is well staffed, as directed by the president. Staff directors can also be an invaluable resource to trustees and board committees in articulating the president’s vision and objectives for the institution— all of which are central to effective trusteeship and board work. And, they can assist committees in striking the right balance between strategic oversight and meddlesome micromanagement. Essentially, these in-house experts can serve as guides to the trustees and board committees they support by fulfilling the roles of translator and strategic adviser.

Since a board does much of its work in committees, enhancing committee effectiveness can ensure a board’s high performance. Senior administrators, who are often assigned to work with a committee relevant to their expertise, can play a key role in that.

It is important to define the senior administrator’s role in supporting his or her board committee and delineate responsibilities to improve the work of the committee. With the designated title of “staff director,” and working at the direction of the president and coordinating with the committee chair, the senior-level administrator assumes primary responsibility for providing advice, content, and coordination to the committee to enhance its work.

As part of the board-governance orientation for senior administrators, the board secretary provides training on the role of each staff director, a role that not only requires organization, planning, and diplomacy, but facilitation skills to ensure that all parties are focused on achieving stated objectives. The orientation includes written position descriptions and documentation on the processes, protocols, and procedures for staffing the board.

AGB’s recent report of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance, “Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where It Matters Most,” calls upon boards to elevate the work of the board and its committees from routine reporting to matters of strategic importance. Heeding that counsel, the primary role of the staff director is to keep his or her committee focused on issues of greatest consequence to the institution. Helping to keep committee work focused on strategic objectives adds immensely to improved committee performance, board effectiveness, and institutional success.

The Crucial Role of the Staff Director

The staff director should assume the responsibility of guiding the committee through the annual review of its charter to assure alignment with its fiduciary responsibilities as well as the strategic imperatives articulated by the president. Once it has determined an appropriate charter, the committee should then set out to develop its objectives for the year, taking care to ensure that those objectives are focused on the three to five most strategic issues.

The committee should then follow up with a discussion of the information that it needs to fully understand the identified issues and to assess progress toward the objectives. Ideally, committee priorities and those of the collective board should reflect the key objectives in the institution’s strategic plan. Those activities not only yield work products to support a committee’s strategic decision making, but they also provide a mechanism for knitting a committee’s membership together to thoughtfully engage with the administration. Working together to define the work of a committee also serves to develop and deepen constructive relationships among the president, the committee members, and the senior administrator.

For example, some years ago, the newly appointed Howard University president developed a strategic framework for action that included the goal to enhance the academic profile of the freshman class. Working in alignment, the members of the board’s academic excellence committee, led by the provost, engaged with the administration to set specific goals that aligned with the university’s strategic framework to attract and retain highly competitive students. The committee monitored progress toward those goals on a quarterly basis. This collaborative course of action resulted in subsequent freshmen classes with stellar academic profiles, a trend that has been sustained for over 20 years.

Such collaboration enhances the work of committees and serves as a road map for both the administration and the board. With the work of his or her committee defined, the staff director is empowered to act on tasks that are made clear. He or she should draft a committee agenda to be reviewed early in the process by the president and discussed with the committee chair—an agenda that is designed in alignment with the agreed-upon strategic objectives. The strategically focused agenda should serve to engage, inform, and educate board members while concurrently advancing the everyday work of the administrator.

Adding a brief assessment discussion to the conclusion of each meeting promotes a collaborative culture of performance improvement rather than blame. The assessment discussion should include questions such as: 1) Is the committee charter being fulfilled? 2) Did the agenda advance a deeper understanding of the committee’s top strategic issues? and 3) Did the information provided facilitate learning and help to assess progress toward the objective?

The staff director is also responsible for:

  • tracking the deliberations of his or her committee to ensure continuity from meeting to meeting and cohesiveness of meeting agendas;
  • identifying items for follow-up to provide draft responses for the president’s attention and submission to committee members;
  • coordinating with other cabinet members for joint staffing of a committee, reconciling schedules for members who serve on more than one committee, and reviewing matters being considered by more than one committee;
  • making sure that the committee chair concurs with the meeting agenda before its distribution to committee members;
  • guaranteeing that committee minutes are accurately captured and presented to the committee chair for review; and
  • ensuring the accuracy and quality of materials presented to the committee.

The support of a designated board-committee liaison greatly enhances the work of the staff director. The board-committee liaison is typically a trusted member of the staff director’s office and serves as a proxy for the staff director in ensuring that all responsibilities are carried out.

The position title of the board liaison can range from assistant vice president to associate general counsel to technical writer to executive assistant. Above all, the board liaison keeps the staff director on task and reinforces discipline in adherence to the schedule, continuity of agendas, and quality control in the preparation of committee materials. The board liaison maintains communication lines between the staff director, the board secretary, and the presidential assistant who is responsible for the president’s board-related work.

Conditions for Success

The successful deployment of senior administrators as staff directors to board committees is contingent upon a number of conditions. First, the president as chief executive officer, the board as fiduciary, and cabinet members as representatives of the president all must work synergisticallyin an environment of mutual trust, clarity of roles, integrity, and effective communication. A prerequisite of such an approach is for a board to set the goal of becoming high-performing.

Second, committees must be empowered to do their work. As noted in an article in Trusteeship, “Empowering Board Committees” (July/August 2010), it is important for committees to take responsibility for determining if an institution is achieving the right goals. Knowing the questions to ask and striking a proper balance between committee oversight and board micromanagement is crucial.

Finally, and most important, the president must appreciate the value of having an engaged and high-performing board. High-performing boards are those that ask tough questions, test strategies, and provide candid feedback. Having meaningful communications around difficult subjects “within the family” fortifies institutions for dealing with external challenges as they arise. The board as “loving critic” helps to make an institution stronger and better prepared for whatever comes its way.

A mutually trusting environment where each player knows what is expected is fundamental to the success of this model. In describing an effective board’s relationship to the administration, my board chair often cites the old adage: “Noses in, fingers out.”

Key Principles

It is imperative that the president and the committee chair agree upon the work of the committee and the role of the cabinet member in supporting that committee’s work. They should work together to establish the strategic, operational, and communications framework within which each cabinet member executes his or her responsibilities. Clear articulation of the committee’s work and the staff director’s role, and fidelity to the rules of engagement, are crucial to this approach to enhance the effectiveness of board committees.

Of equal importance is the unequivocal focus of board members and administrators on, and commitment to, achieving the objectives and remaining faithful to the mission of the institution—not personal loyalties or agendas. We are well aware of the damage that displaced loyalty can cause. This committee support structure does provide an opportunity for mischief by both cabinet members and committee chairs. Inappropriate behavior by the staff director or the committee chair can lead to the undermining of productive working relationships among all parties, particularly between the president and the committee chair. Therefore, it is reasonable that a president may be uncomfortable with an empowered committee staff director.

Yet that potential danger should not outweigh the innumerable benefits that will result when it comes to advancing high-performing board committees. Everyone should honor the treaty of no surprises. Thus, for example, it is incumbent upon the committee’s staff director to appropriately engage the president early in planning and preparing for a committee meeting. That can best be done by the staff director securing the president’s prior approval of the proposed agenda and meeting materials before he or she submits them to the committee chair.

Cabinet members should also look to the board secretary, who is an adviser to the president and the entire board, as a resource for understanding and optimizing their role as staff directors. Board secretaries are an invaluable resource in helping to define and clarify responsibilities, share insights based on best practices, communicate the expectations and requirements of the board and president, and advise on board culture.

For example, when the board of Howard University determined that the establishment of a hospital board of governors was needed to assume operational oversight, the board secretary worked in concert with the medical affairs committee staff director to design and implement the transfer authorization, which required review by multiple board committees, including the audit and legal, finance, and executive committees. Given the university’s culture of “the Howard family,” developing a strong communications plan for both university and hospital employees, as well as influential medical-school alumni donors, was an essential component of the success of that initiative.

Senior administrators can be a great resource to the president and board. Deployed as staff directors to board committees, senior administrators can use their expert knowledge and understanding of their colleges and universities to support their committees and help achieve crucial institutional goals. As well, board secretaries are strategically positioned to assist their senior administrator colleagues in executing the empowered staff-director model, ensuring effectiveness within the institution’s distinct context.

Rules of the Road for Cabinet Members

Governance is improved and presidents and the board benefit when cabinet members:

1. help relate committee priorities and work directly to advance the president’s goals and the institution’s strategic plan;

2. prepare and facilitate the president and committee chair’s approval of draft committee agendas that are strategic and not “in the weeds”;

3. help develop annual work plans for board committees, in consultation with the committee chair and president;

4. serve as communication conduits between the president and committee chairs;

5. work well with cabinet colleagues to promote the president’s objectives, improve governance, and advance the institution; and

6. understand and comply with the president’s rules of engagement for cabinet members and board members. That is, cabinet members know when to defer to, copy, ask, or refer matters to the president and when to engage with board members.

Explore more on this topic:
The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.