View from the Board Chair: Upping the Board’s Game to Support Transformative Change

By Thomas H. Grape    //    Volume 21,  Number 4   //    July/August 2013

The boardroom at Ithaca College is an exciting place. The board, the college’s president, Thomas R. Rochon, and the campus are in the middle of implementing a transformative strategic plan called IC 20/20. Elements of the plan push an already great institution to be even better and include guidance for keeping our educational offerings relevant for today’s students.

Ensuring that every moment matters for our students’ experiences, the plan includes significant change from how we have previously thought of the Ithaca College experience. Specifically, we are launching an integrative core curriculum, increasing global learning opportunities, enhancing residential service-learning opportunities, and increasing mentoring and advising, among other changes.

As the chair and chief executive officer of my own company, I know that board participation is a crucial element of any strategic plan’s success. The question I asked myself when I was elected to chair Ithaca College’s board last year was: How can we best support strategic planning and the implementation of change?

While the plan outlines expectations for our college to prepare students to be visionary leaders, ready to take on whatever personal and professional challenges come their way to succeed in today’s competitive landscape, we delineated expectations for ourselves to be up-to-date on external issues and attentive to the institution’s needs by asking the right questions. The changes we implemented as a result of our reflection have emanated from the board itself over a number of years. We, as a governing body, are stepping up our game concurrent with President Rochon doing so on the campus.

For example, we have modeled governance best practices in the following ways:

Performing regular deep dives during plenary sessions on significant strategic issues. We aren’t afraid to take the time necessary to review the deeper issues facing the college, to ask the tough questions, and to provide our guidance while not micromanaging or interfering with the work of the administration.

Reducing routine reporting during our meetings to instead spend as much as time as possible on the deeper conversations. To help that process, I have begun crafting each meeting around a specific theme, to tie our discussions together and allow us to maximize our efforts and attention. Our time spent in the boardroom is as a resource and sounding board for the president. He uses us to improve the thinking behind and execution of the strategic plan.

Instituting cascading goal-setting among the college, board, and board committees. We strive to have our goals related and rolling in the same direction, together. Therefore, our robust goal-setting process begins with setting long-range goals for the institution and then cascades to include campuswide annual goals, the board’s annual goals, and, finally, board committees’ annual goals.

Elevating the level of strategic conversation in committees. Our committee meetings are also focused on putting in place the measures that encourage the successful implementation of our strategic plan and identification of potential barriers to our success. For example, we formed a temporary committee of the board to build on the strong enterprise-risk-management efforts of the administration and provide proper oversight through each of the board committees.

Asking the tough questions of our leadership and ourselves. In 12 months, we completed a comprehensive presidential assessment and a board self-study on our effectiveness. We must continually look critically at our performance and address what we can do better if we expect the same from our president and campus.

The demands of membership on a higher education board are greater than ever before, and expectations of our service are increasing. Therefore, those of us who serve on boards must pay attention to the external environment, raise our sights to imagine what our institutions can be, and define what our roles as trustees should be. We owe it to our presidents and colleges to make changes at the board level that fulfill our leadership and strategic-planning roles.

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