In April 2016, my institution launched an innovative year-long leadership development program that included the president, the president’s leadership team, and 20 other senior administrators across all the functional areas of the college. Coordinated by our vice president for human resources and facilitated by two consultants, the program included several day-long workshops, related reading and resources, several individual exercises, and an Action Team assignment that engaged participants in working to improve a specific area of performance derived from the college’s strategic plan.
Among the program’s most engaging features was the way it drew on the experience and expertise of the college’s trustees. The final Action Team presentations constituted a plenary session during last spring’s board meeting. In addition, two of the workshops featured conversations with pairs of trustees on effective supervisory practices. During one session, a retired CFO and a vice president for global communication discussed their approaches to providing feedback, both positive and negative, to their direct reports. During the other, a senior banking executive and a retired airline CIO described their strategies for promoting the ongoing professional development of the people they supervised. I’ve incorporated several of the recommended practices into my own supervisory relationships, and others who completed the program have done so as well.
This experience got me thinking about other ways in which trustees can be a resource for the organizational development of colleges and universities. Of course, trustees already make critical contributions to the vitality of their institutions in the normal course of board meetings and committee work. But in addition to the subject-matter expertise they provide, many trustees have considerable experience—and some have graduate education—in helping institutions and the individuals who work in them to thrive. This expertise is valuable to those of us in higher education, where many mid-level and senior administrators—particularly those of us who came to our positions from faculty appointments—lack comparable education or experience in administration and management.
Moreover, connecting trustees with faculty and staff leaders in this way has the additional benefit of building relationships. Twenty senior leaders at our institution have now had a memorable encounter with four of our trustees—and three of them were alums, who showed us that the learning outcomes our institution claims to provide are more than words on a website.