When I began my appointment as president of Smith College, I asked the board chair what the function of Smith’s Board of Trustees was. (I was quite certain it was different from the University of California’s Board of Regents, which had been the only board with which I was familiar.) She said, “To help the president succeed.” Those five words—deceptively simple, as they are—were wiser than I realized.
The board is a powerful, indeed, essential tool in any president’s success, yet little prepares presidents for working with boards.
New presidents often underestimate how much time and thought they must give to developing a board that can achieve their goals for the institution. To build a board that helps you succeed as president, you need to learn to engage board members as trustees and as volunteers; to shape meetings so that they have a narrative direction that reinforces your priorities; to focus the board on strategy, not on management; and to educate your cabinet in how to staff the board. Working in partnership with your board chair to develop a board is in some ways similar to directing a play—finding the right people for the cast, and working with them to realize your vision.
Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Boards, like families, are social organizations, whose happiness or unhappiness (to use Tolstoy’s terms) will determine your own.