Few partnerships are more important to institutional success than that between the president and board chair. Occasionally, these matches are “made in heaven," but more often they are forged through hard work, honest communication, and a desire of both partners to work effectively together.
For more than 30 years, AGB has been convening teams of presidents and chairs from independent colleges and universities at the Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents for three days of collective work and focus. Recent observations of successful partnerships include the following:
- Spend time. Both presidents and chairs are exceptionally busy, and too often they do not commit sufficient time to develop their partnership. One president noted that because of busy agendas, “we tend to run past each other rather than stop and focus.” As a result, the chair and the president don’t spend time together to forge the necessary understanding of each other’s passions, strengths and shortcomings, and goals.
- Be clear about priorities. Chairs are typically well informed of presidential priorities and goals, but the reverse is not always true. Chairs too often have unarticulated goals for the board or have not effectively engaged the president in intentionally setting goals for the board. Chairs and presidents each need goals for their respective leadership – presidents for the institution and chairs for the board. The goals between them need to be reinforcing and aligned.
- Let each other lead, but have a constant presence. Chairs need to lead the board and presidents need to lead the institution (a seemingly obvious tenet, but one not often followed). Each needs to give the other the room and mandate to lead. However, they need to have a constant presence with one another and be seen as an integrated leadership collaborative.
- Understand that the road may be bumpy. The challenges facing most institutions require untested solutions, difficult conversations, and sometimes leaps of faith. Such context can mean that board chairs and presidents find themselves on different sides of an issue. Finding ways to disagree constructively and then to show a unified front will be increasingly important.