The board professional, when empowered to do so, can act as an adviser and resource to the president, the board chair, and the entire board. When deployed and empowered by the president and/or board chair to act beyond the traditional functional role, the board professional becomes a trusted strategic adviser to the president, board chair, board members, and the president’s cabinet. Each entity plays an important role in the pursuit of a high-performing board. While board professionals have a limited span of authority, their spheres of influence can be immeasurable. The most effective board professionals operate below the radar. Their presence is not seen but felt, and their contributions are noticed but not acknowledged. Servant leadership best describes the board professional’s modus operandi.
The Essential Characteristics
There are numerous models of the board professional’s reporting relationship. Some board professionals report only to the president and may have the title of executive assistant to the president with responsibilities as a board liaison. Others report exclusively to their boards, while others are accountable to both the president and the board.
Regardless of the formal reporting relationship, there are four essential characteristics necessary for the board professional as a helpmate in the advancement of a strong and effective president-board chair relationship. The board professional must garner the trust of both the president and the board chair and demonstrate the first three Cs: competence, character, and courage. These three characteristics are preconditions to the fourth C, credibility, the basis upon which the board professional engenders the respect and trust of the president and the board chair.
While flawlessly executing the functional and traditional roles of meeting planner and minutes scribe, the board professional is knowledgeable about the business of and the current issues in higher education and corporate governance. Additionally, board professionals tend to serve extended tenures through numerous administrations and therefore are typically considered institutional knowledge experts. Generally, board professionals are present for presidentboard and sometimes president-cabinet discussions of the institution’s highest strategic priorities over an extended period, which gives them an unparalleled comprehensive and contextual perspective of the institution. With this reservoir of knowledge, the board professional can be an invaluable resource in support of the president and board chair, if utilized as a trusted member of the leadership team.
An Invaluable Resource
Emotional maturity, impeccable judgment, diplomacy, and pure motives for advancing the institution are the framework within which board professionals exert their influence. A question artfully posed at the perfect moment can inform the thinking of the president and the board chair. Sharing a summary of an informative article, report, or book serves to educate, support, and guide the work of the governance leadership team. While meeting-minutes preparation is a routine function, the board professional who extracts from the minutes a comprehensive list of committee and board followup action items immediately following meetings is providing an invaluable service to the president, who can then ensure the cabinet is deployed to deliver on commitments to the board. Such a list is also helpful to board chairs as they work with the president in preparing for upcoming meetings. Board professionals should take care to ensure that both parties have this information so that the list of follow-up actions is used to advance alignment between the board and the administration and not as a board weapon to be deployed against the president in a game of “gotcha.”
Mindful of interpersonal dynamics and relationships, the board professional can also assist in being a guardian of the president-board chair relationship. As a conduit for communications between and among the chair, board, president, and cabinet, the board professional with emotional intelligence and highly developed communications skills ensures that there are no unintended or inappropriate nonverbal communications that can potentially contribute to discord in the president-board chair relationship.
Board professionals must be exemplars of professionalism and decorum. Providing agendas for and working with the staffs of the president and chair to ensure regularly scheduled telephone conversations, meetings, and annual planning sessions can reinforce a positive president-board chair relationship. Providing the president and board chair with a monthly call list, annotated with information about individual board members and their interests or concerns, ensures that the leadership team is keeping the communications loop open with each other and with board members. Preparing notes for the president and the chair to acknowledge their accomplishments, anniversaries, and birthdays is another function that the board professional can serve to engender goodwill between the president and the chair, as well as with board members.
A Supporting Partner
The importance of the board professional in facilitating the president-board chair relationship was explored during a plenary session, “Board Chair, Board Professional, and President: Ensuring an Effective Partnership,” at AGB’s 2016 Workshop for Board Professionals, held in conjunction with the annual National Conference on Trusteeship. Plenary panelists Yvonne R. Jackson, former board chair at Spelman College and immediate past chair of the AGB Board of Directors; Sally Mason, former president of the University of Iowa; moderator Blake Thompson, vice president and secretary of the board, The Ohio State University; and I candidly delved into how this team—president, board chair, and board professional—can work together to achieve and sustain a highperforming board. With a particular focus on the role and expectations of the board professional, we examined the perspectives of these three key figures in making these relationships work.
Noting challenges and opportunities inherent in this ecosystem, all panelists agreed that a competent and trustworthy board professional can play an essential role in supporting the president-board chair partnership and board-president relationships, when empowered to do so. This threemember team can shape board culture, set direction, define responsibilities, and implement policies and practices in support of the board’s strategic focus.
It was noted that I was purposefully placed between Mason and Jackson on the plenary panel, mimicking the function of the board professional. Using seat placement as an opportunity to underscore a key point, I counseled board professionals that, “If you are not comfortable sitting on a fence, you are in the wrong position.” Often, board professionals are inappropriately expected to choose between loyalty to the president and loyalty to the board. At such times, courage becomes a job essential for the empowered board professional. When faced with difficult situations of conflicting interests, board professionals must focus on loyalty to the institution and serving the institution’s best interest. In so doing, board professionals will demonstrate integrity to both the president and the board.
Another common dilemma is when a board member or a board chair poses a question that, if answered, could place the president in an unfavorable light. Responding emphatically with, “You should speak with the president about that” serves to signal the inappropriateness of such a question. Board professionals must always be mindful of their team function and explore options and adopt solutions to keep the administration and the board in alignment with each other and the president-board chair relationship flourishing. In such delicate and high-risk situations, the board professional must employ a deft touch in interactions, reminding both the president and the board chair or board member of their respective roles and prerogatives. As the person “sitting on the fence,” the board professional has a good vantage point to observe when both parties are overreaching and is well-positioned to help each party appreciate diverging perspectives. Again, summon the courage to speak truth to power. Utilizing code phrases like, “May I speak freely?” signals that the board professional is respectfully proceeding with caution to deliver what may be an unwelcome message.
We all know that there are some president-board chair relationships that are dysfunctional and toxic. In such instances, it is the responsibility of the board, not the board professional, to facilitate a solution. Competent and savvy board professionals will recognize such situations as just one of the many tests of their wisdom and judgment.
Mason noted the invaluable role the board professional plays in helping the administration remain mindful of the board’s perspective. With the administration’s focus on day-to-day operations and execution, it sometimes unwittingly fails to engage the board early enough in the policy process to incorporate the board’s perspective. She observed that, by utilizing the board professional’s substantial knowledge of the chair and individual board members’ interests and concerns, the president can be proactive in anticipating emerging board issues. She stated that clarity of expectations and terms of engagement must be discussed and agreed upon in order to ensure that the latitude of the board professional is well defined. Failing to do so, she cautioned, would result in the deterioration of relationships. We all agreed that, ideally, the expectation for the board professional’s role should be articulated during the recruitment process. It was also noted that the “expectation” conversation should occur each time a new president or chairman assumes his or her position.
With professional and personal demands coupled with board responsibilities, Jackson observed that it would be impossible to be effective as a board chair without the support and assistance of a wise, seasoned, trusted, and competent board professional. Noting that board chairs are deeply committed to their institutions and anxious to fulfill their board responsibilities effectively, they require a navigator and facilitator to ensure they are effectively leveraged. She acknowledged the frequency of her interactions with both the president and the board professional and noted that the two relationships are distinct but collaborative and complementary, not competitive. Jackson found the board professional indispensable in helping her to focus on the highest priority, be it planning, scheduling, meeting preparation, or addressing inappropriate trustee behavior. She expressed high regard for and deep appreciation to board professionals who alert their chairs on emerging issues, offer counsel on addressing the issue, and draft any documentation required to implement the proposed course of action. It is also invaluable to have a board professional who advises on protocol and provides prepared remarks and acknowledgements in support of the chair’s ceremonial role.
Helping Boards Be Consequential
The report of the 2014 AGB National Commission on College and University Board Governance, commonly referred to as the “Consequential Boards” report, identified multiple risks in the higher education landscape and the need for boards to become more strategic in addressing them. One of the commission’s key insights was “the structure of governance itself should not be an additional risk factor for the sector.” With this urgent call for effective governance, many boards are engaging in reflective discussions and reform initiatives designed to implement a strategically focused governance model. Substantial AGB resources have been leveraged to assist boards in examining their current governance models to determine whether, in fact, they are adding value to their institutions as consequential boards.
An article in the March/April 2015 issue of Trusteeship about meeting the leadership challenge addresses the pivotal leadership roles of the president and board chair in getting boards to focus their time on issues of greatest consequence to their institutions. A new AGB Press book, Effective Board Chairs: A Guide for University and College Chairs, is dedicated exclusively to the role of the board chair and signals the leadership imperative of the board chair in governance.
While collaboration and productivity among the president, chair, and board members are foundational to becoming a consequential board, an often underutilized resource in the strategic governance model is the board professional, who is uniquely positioned to assist and support the president and board chair in their shared leadership roles.