View from the Board Chair: Shared Lessons about the Board Chair’s Challenges

By Lyn Trodahl Chynoweth    //    Volume 19,  Number 3   //    May/June 2011

In early April, I had the opportunity to attend AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship and was privileged to present a pre-conference workshop on “Leadership Strategies for Board Chairs of Independent Colleges and Universities” with Bryant Cureton, president emeritus of Elmhurst College and board member at Maryville College.

Whenever one prepares to lead a session like that, one needs to truly understand the breadth of experience of the attendees and carefully plan to engage the group so that it becomes a valuable, shared learning experience. My years of professional facilitation have encouraged me to have a few different plans in mind in case the first approach doesn’t work, largely determined by whether or not the attendees are sleepily silent or fully engaged.

Plan B, I’m happy to report, was not required. The room was filled with board chairs, most of whom had been in the role for a relatively short period. It was gratifying to see the number of people who were taking copious notes, and as the session continued, the conversation flowed freely. Although we didn’t have enough time to adequately cover all the topical areas, I believe we left the room feeling good about the fact that we board chairs share common bonds. They include:

• dedication to higher education and its impact on the lives of our students;

• passion about the institutions we serve;

• a desire to do the best job possible with the responsibility we’ve been given;

• good fortune to be learning all the time—facing common, and some not-so-common, issues and dilemmas; and

• recognition that there are others to whom we can talk to share experiences and ideas, now and in the future.

The first part of our discussion focused on the competing demands that we face. For all of us, the balancing act of where governance ends and management (meddling) begins is one we confront almost daily, and it is something that must be learned and practiced. Especially if a board chair comes from the corporate world with little engagement in academe other than perhaps his or her own college or university experience, it is tempting to be directive about how to lead, plan, and manage.

A far more productive model is to insert your professional expertise, but recognize that you have learning to do, as well. Academic and corporate models are converging to some degree, but there are differences that are legitimate. We should recognize those differences and adapt our behavior accordingly.

We also discussed how the relationship between the board chair and the president is a vital one. You might say, “That’s pretty obvious.” And it is, but you must take time to work very intentionally on that relationship if you want to do what is best for your college or university. As board chair, your main interest is in the strength of the entire institution. To the president, you play many roles, and your style will vary depending on the situation. At all times, you are chief supporter and chief critic. At varying times, you are mentor and coach. And sometimes you are, plainly and simply, the boss.

In addition, as chairs we must be effective leaders of the board—a cadre of volunteers whose common interest is a love of the institution. What does that entail? We must be explicit in our expectations of behavior for each board member. We must be constructively critical and supportively inquisitive, in the words of Richard Chait, a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a governance expert. We must make sure that the distinct talents that each board member brings to bear are used appropriately and effectively. We must be consistent in upholding institutional policies and ensuring we stay true to the mission of the institution we serve. We must be catalysts for and supporters of change when circumstances demand that. (And who among us thinks that change isn’t upon us?) We must be strong ambassadors of the institution and its value.

If you think that it is an honor to be a board chair, you are right. If you think it is an easy job, a “slam dunk” (hey, I’m writing this during March Madness), I’ll challenge that perception with any number of scenarios that will convince you otherwise. Still, I am honored and humbled to have this responsibility.

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