The Chair and the New President: Getting the First Months Right

By Janet Morgan Riggs and Robert Duelks    //    Volume 20,  Number 1   //    January/February 2012

Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs and Board Chair Robert N. Duelks are both members of the Gettysburg class of 1977, but did not know each other as students. As a member of the college’s board of trustees, Duelks chaired the presidential search committee that selected Riggs as Gettysburg’s 14th president in 2009. Then, one year after she took office, Duelks became chair of the board. Trusteeship asked both Duelks and Riggs about how they have worked together early on to lay the groundwork for her long-term success as president.

When did the board start thinking about the presidential transition? Did the board appoint a transition committee or point person?

Duelks: To the credit of Gettysburg’s board chair at the time, James M. Weaver [now AGB’s chair], the transition began at the start of the search. Finding the right candidate is job number one, and making that candidate successful is job number two. The transition obligation is with the board.

We did not organize a presidential transition committee because, even though Janet was a new president, she knew the institution well, having served as a long-time faculty member, provost, assistant to the president, and interim president. But Jim stayed on another year as chair to help in the transition when I was chair-elect, and he was a mentor and point person for Janet during her first year as president. As a long-time board member, his experience and wisdom were very helpful to her.

Also, while I had served as chair of the search committee, I had only been a trustee for two years before I became chair-elect. With Jim remaining as chair, I was able to observe how the president and board chair worked together. It strengthened my relationship with Janet before I became chair.

What are some of the activities of the board that you found especially helpful in the first months? What specific areas did the board need to educate you about and how did it do that most effectively?

Riggs: We had an ideal situation with Jim staying on during my first year and Bob as the chairelect— it enabled a smoother transition. My sense is that changing the president and the board chair at the same time could be difficult.

Jim assured me that he and other board members would support me during that interim period. He had developed a strong understanding of the higher education context and knew Gettysburg College well. He was willing to advise me when I needed it, but he never tried to micromanage. He was a good mentor and encouraged me to talk openly with him about any issues or concerns I had.

He and I talked on the phone once every week or two, and he was readily accessible by e-mail. I remember him sitting next to me during endowment-committee meetings and giving me quick tutorials on various topics with which I was unfamiliar. We also had a board retreat with an outside facilitator who led discussions about board governance, which allowed our board and me to gain a clear understanding of who had what responsibility.

Did the institution have a strategic plan in place and expect the new president to honor that? Or did the board invite input from the incoming president?

Duelks: We respectfully worked with the strategic plan in place, but when the new president came on board the world had changed: It was 2008–09, and the economy and demographics were shifting significantly. We had to refresh our plan, and Janet presented the new plan to the board against that new paradigm. She and the board are now reassured and confident that the revised plan is “our” plan.

How did the president-elect and the board work together to “get on the same page” and understand the key priorities and goals of the institution, as well as the board’s specific expectations of the president?

Duelks: Through much dialogue, the goals and objectives were carefully defined. One of Janet’s first acts as the new president was to take a disciplined approach to reviewing the plan. There was good give-and-take and discussion of priorities.

Riggs: I was appointed provost after the strategic-planning process was well underway, and our former president had asked me to step in as her co-chair. So I was very familiar with the plan and felt some obligation to see it through.

But although the board had approved the college’s strategic directions, I knew the plan had not addressed certain issues. The board was looking for a sharper vision statement, for a sense of what the highest institutional priorities were, and for ways to measure our progress. We began to have those conversations and continued them into the early months of my presidency.

As a new president and new board chair, how did you help each other to be successful in the first 12 months working together?

Riggs: We agreed to attend the AGB Institute for board chairs and presidents, and that was extremely helpful. Not only were the topics and discussions good, but it allowed us to get together to talk through a variety of issues that we might not otherwise have made time for. We began to understand each other’s perspectives, which are in some ways quite different because we’ve had such different professional experiences. We’ve also scheduled regular phone calls and exchanged e-mails messages frequently, keeping in close contact.

Duelks: There are really two levels to this. First, it’s important to develop a degree of trust and confidence between the board and the senior team. We made it clear to both groups that the trustees were there to serve and support the administration. Our board members as well as the members of the president’s council deserve credit for trusting one another and working in a transparent and collaborative manner.

Second, like many business-oriented folks, I did not know the world of academe that well. The president and I agreed to an operative mode of open dialogue and complete candor. We agreed it was not embarrassing for either of us to say that we didn’t know something.

The president and I are trying to impress upon both the board and the president’s council the philosophy that “we are all in this together.” Together, we have a lot of resources, and if we don’t immediately know the answer or have a solution we can find out and learn. We on the board are not there to judge or evaluate. I ask a lot of questions, but it’s not to say, “Gotcha.” We want to bring a different perspective and help solve problems. That’s a real key to success. A board needs to govern, and a president needs to lead and manage.

What is the most important recommendation you would have for other presidents and board chairs for creating a strong working relationship?

Duelks: Given how closely the president and board chair work together, it’s helpful to have similar styles. When we began to work together we sat down and I asked Janet how she liked to work. I also gave our working relationship some serious thought, and we discussed it. We reached an agreement: We would keep no secrets from one another. And she could cry foul if I stuck my nose in where it didn’t belong.

I’d also recommend that new presidents and new board chairs carve out some quality time to get to know one another. At the AGB Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents, we were given assignments and we would have to go outside and spend time talking about them. We’d complete the assignment and then talk about other things pertaining specifically to Gettysburg. It was important to be away from campus. We had one and a half days of uninterrupted time. We got to know one another better; we learned where we disagreed, and we talked about it. It is important to develop a relationship where you really get to know each other as people.

Riggs: Right from the beginning, you should forge a clear understanding of each other’s roles and how they complement each other. Board chairs have to understand that it is not their job to run the college or university. Meanwhile, presidents have to understand that the board has the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of the institution and must hold the president accountable. It’s important for you both to develop a clear understanding and respect for those complementary roles.

You also have to get to a point where you can be truly candid with each other. That doesn’t happen automatically; it takes some time to build that kind of trust. Both individuals will benefit from that kind of relationship, but even more importantly, the institution will benefit.

What have you learned from each other?

Riggs: My experience as an academic is important and informs the way I think and make decisions. Having been at Gettysburg as long as I have, I have a feel for the institutional culture and have tried to transmit that to Bob.

That complements the experience that Bob brings from the corporate sector. His perspective and that of other board members keeps us grounded. They are seeing and experiencing things that we might not on a college campus. They are aware of hiring and business trends that can inform the way we work with and prepare our students.

I also have to say that Bob is thoughtful about thanking people for their efforts and giving credit where it’s due. He never takes for granted the fact that so many people volunteer their time, effort, and resources to support Gettysburg. Saying “thank you” means a lot to people, and he models that well.

Duelks: I have learned a lot in this short period of time. I continue to better appreciate and understand the culture of the academy and how it differs from business. Early on in my career, I observed people around me and took the advice that when you see a behavior you like, adopt it. I have learned from Janet what’s important to the various stakeholders of the college and how to communicate with different audiences— faculty members, students, staff members, administrators, alumni, and others.

What I have brought to the table that is helpful to Janet is the trained approach I have to critical thinking. That has been important in business, and it is equally important in higher education. Combine that critical thinking with a limited knowledge of higher education when I first became board chair, and it has allowed me to ask unencumbered questions. In so doing, it has helped Janet be better prepared.

What is the one thing you value most about each other?

Duelks: Janet’s honesty and forthrightness. Good or bad, Janet is going to tell you what’s going on. “We have an issue. Here’s what I am planning to do about it,” she’ll tell me. I never worry that information is being withheld or that I’m being managed. It allows me to operate in utmost confidence. I trust her completely.

Riggs: I appreciate Bob’s eagerness to learn about the higher education context and his willingness to hear different points of view. Sometimes I’ll say something pretty direct or blunt, and I’ll think to myself, “I really shouldn’t have said that to the chair of the board!” But he’s never made me feel that I can’t be totally honest and upfront with him. A trusting relationship is so important to the success of both the president and the board chair.

Early on in your leadership, the bottom fell out of the financial market. How did you cope?

Riggs: I’ll never forget the first seniorstaff budget retreat over which I presided. When I was in the provost’s role, we had had exhilarating conversations about how to direct funds. During my first year as president, our retreat was totally focused on how to cut expenses. I could feel the air being sucked out of the room as the day went on.

To get through all the economic difficulties, we followed a few key principles. First, we communicated clearly and honestly about the college’s financial situation with each other and with all our constituents. I tried to be upfront about the decisions that had to be made, and we invited input. Second, we did everything possible to make cuts that would not negatively affect our students’ educational experience. Third, we worked as a team. We had to get out of our silos and think about what was best for our students and Gettysburg as a whole.

I will admit that I didn’t sleep much during those first few months. It was stressful, and I knew that I had to be confident and reassuring when I was in public. I tried to take every opportunity to thank our faculty and staff members for all they were doing in the face of budget cuts and salary freezes to continue to offer one of the best educational experiences in the country.

Duelks: We realized that we were dealing from a position of strength. We knew that we’d be getting less endowment income and that more students would need financial aid, but we didn’t panic. We dealt with the situation—openly and directly—with faculty members, staff members, and students. We had a number of meetings on campus to discuss the financial reengineering, so people understood the situation.

Given your busy schedules, how do communicate so you are not overdoing it, but still keeping each other informed?

Duelks: Every two or three weeks, the president and I have a phone call that lasts for 60 to 90 minutes. We are disciplined about that in that we both come with a list of discussion points and specific questions or requests. In between the calls, we exchange e-mail messages or text each other frequently. During various committee meetings that we both attend, we often take advantage of the break time to cover a myriad of issues and ensure we update each other as appropriate.

Riggs: I also know that Bob is willing to talk at any time if I need to consult with him or brief him on an issue. A few of our trustee committees, such as our endowment and executive committees, meet off-cycle. Since Bob and I both attend these meetings, we have the opportunity to talk then. In addition, Bob comes to campus for important events like commencement, homecoming, and reunion weekends.

The key phrase is “no surprises.” I don’t want Bob to get caught off guard regarding any issue. When I prepare my list of items to discuss with him, I keep that in mind.

What three of four key pieces of advice might you give to other boards and presidents going through a presidential transition?

Riggs: First, take the time to talk about expectations and goals—and don’t be surprised if you find that you’re using different vocabularies. For example, Bob was focused on metrics in a way that was new to me. That was an excellent reminder that we in higher education have some things to learn from the business world. But it was also a reminder that I should never assume that those in the business world fully understand the higher education context. And why would they if they haven’t been living it?

My advice would be to keep those different contexts in mind through all of those initial conversations. We all come to the table with a passion for the institution and with excellent intentions. That passion, combined with those different perspectives, have the potential to make us better.

Other pieces of advice for a new president? Take the time to listen carefully to all constituencies. And take at least two backto- back weeks of vacation to a place where no one knows you’re a college president.

Duelks: I could have made Janet’s life a little less frustrating if I had better understood the culture of higher education sooner. So my advice to board members—and, in particular, new board chairs—is to develop an understanding of the culture of the academy and what that means for key performance indicators early on.

Second, I’d encourage board chairs to be on a mission to demonstrate and convince the new president that he or she has your full support, especially in public. Create frequent and open communication—to the point of over-informing one another. Remember that in the confines of the boardroom, we can challenge the president and one another as we work towards the best answer, but once the doors are open, we must support the president.

I would also tell board chairs to govern, not manage. The board needs to know that if the president fails, so does the board. The board’s job is to make the president wildly successful. You must look for opportunities to provide support for the president. During a leadership transition, the actions of the board and board chair speak louder than words.