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Trusteeship Magazine

Building Strong Working Relationships

By Robert F. Cioffi
January/February
2014

The University of Vermont’s convocation at the outset of the academic year, like similar ceremonies on campuses nationwide, features a good deal of advice delivered from the lectern to our incoming class. To cite just a few examples: Approach learning with an open mind and heart; don’t be afraid to recognize what you don’t know; build strong relationships. Board chairs, the people who are frequently doling out this counsel, would be wise to follow it themselves and bring some of that incoming-student spirit to their own, very different role in the life of the institution.

I came into the chairmanship of the UVM board with about as much board experience as a person could have with one institution. When my tenure on the board ends in March 2014, I will have served two consecutive six-year terms, preceded by a two-year term as a student trustee during my undergraduate days. As my wife, also an alum of the university, has reminded me, I’ve been a UVM trustee for more than one-quarter of my life.

Throughout these years of board work, and in my own career in the investment industry, I have learned the absolute importance of building strong working relationships. No surprise there; I’ll not claim to have invented the wheel. But what is perhaps less intuitive is that these relationships don’t happen unless they are built through a careful structure. I talk weekly with University of Vermont President Tom Sullivan, as I did with his predecessors, interim President John Bramley and President Daniel Mark Fogel. Tom and I may talk three times a week on other matters and as the “crisis du jour” may arise, but we will still keep our weekly phone appointment to share news, concerns, and the horizon view.

From the president to the chair to the entire board, we strive to maintain this pattern of frequent, open communication. As a board meeting approaches, the president calls each of the board members individually, discussing what’s on the agenda and on their minds. And I will often make a round of pre-meeting calls myself. It is time well invested, making for a more informed board and more efficient, productive board meetings.

We simply couldn’t do our work without phone calls and e-mails, but there is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction in building relationships, especially if we can find ways to take that out of the formal setting of a public meeting. During my chairmanship at the university, we’ve introduced regular trustee-only dinners on the evening preceding a round of meetings; these dinners include our president, who is a member of the board. In this social setting, our board members have come to better know and understand one another, build friendships, and—dare I say it?—find humor in the midst of our serious business. At a recent dinner during the World Series, our Illinois-born president confessed to our Red Sox-centric board that he is a confirmed St. Louis Cardinals fan. It was a fact I felt compelled to share in my opening remarks at the next day’s full board meeting.

With a diverse governing board such as ours, which blends board members appointed by our legislature and governor, and a private, self-perpetuating membership, finding common ground through familiarity is key. While this sense of trust built on understanding is important in ordinary circumstances, it becomes essential during times of crisis.

A presidential transition was the greatest challenge of my chairmanship, as most board chairs would understand. Leading an open, transparent, and very successful presidential search was the leadership work of which I’m the most proud. This simply would not have been possible without the support of our full board, support that was underpinned by years of strong relationships.

Our colleges and universities, at their essence, are about effective connections—to our students, to our communities and states, to the pressing issues of our society. As board members, stewards of these myriad connections, one of the best places to begin our work is by making sure that we are connected among ourselves, hearing one another loud and clear.

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