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Getting Governance Right: Navigating the Board Chair-President Relationship

Getting Governance Right: Navigating the Board Chair-President Relationship

Jim Stern is chairman and founder of the Cypress Group, a private equity firm based in New York City. He served on the Tufts University Board of Trustees for over thirty years. His service to Tufts culminated in a decade as board chair, which he completed in 2013. Jim is also a member of AGB’s National Commission on College and University Board Governance, which will release its final report November 6, 2014.

The relationship between the governing board chair and the president is critical—probably the single most crucial relationship to get right in university governance.

Strong board chair-president relationships set the stage for productive engagement from governing boards, and dysfunctional ones typically lead to something on the continuum between polite board ineffectiveness and national scandal. So, how do you get that relationship right?

I wrote before about the importance of keeping your day job – in other words, as a fiduciary, don’t allow yourself to get in the weeds of day-to-day management and minutia of the institution.  Focusing on policy and strategy, and encouraging other board members to do the same, certainly helped keep my relationship with the president productive.  But, as fortunate as I was to partner with the presidents with whom I worked, we sometimes disagreed.

Disagreement can be constructive in a strong working relationship. It allows people to consider alternative viewpoints more effectively than they might on their own. Disagreeing with respect and with a mutual understanding of responsibility also lays the groundwork for future consultation and advice.  While an antagonistic rapport is never productive, a respectful exchange of ideas and positions usually aided my understanding of an issue. Getting the board chair-president relationship right does not always mean an excellent decision gets made, but in my experience it reduces the likelihood of making a poor one.

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