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Trusteeship Magazine

The President-Board Chair Relationship: Making It Work, Making It Count



Theodore E. Long: trustee, Capital University; senior consultant, AGB Consulting; former president, Elizabethtown College

Rick Beyer: former president of Wheeling Jesuit University; trustee emeritus and former board chair at Olivet College; former board member of American University; senior executive at several leading for-profit corporations; AGB board member

Doug Orr: president emeritus of Warren Wilson College; interim chancellor and former board member at the University of North Carolina at Asheville; board member of Berea College

Sheila Stearns: former vice president of the University of Montana; former chancellor of UM-Western; former president of Wayne State College; and former Commissioner of Higher Education in Montana

Alvin J. Schexnider: former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University; former president of Norfolk State University; board member at Virginia Wesleyan College; and former board member at Excelsior College and Virginia State University

Carol Christ: president emerita of Smith College; board member of Dominican University of California and Sarah Lawrence College

Jeffrey B. Trammell: founder of Trammell and Co.; former rector of the board of the College of William & Mary; AGB board member

The report of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance notes that a strong relationship between the board chair and president of a higher education institution is crucial when it comes to effective governance. AGB asked Theodore E. Long, president emeritus of Elizabethtown College, trustee of Capital University, and a senior consultant with AGB, to discuss the topic with other AGB consultants and several members of AGB’s board. Together, they have decades of first-hand experience when it comes to the board chair-president relationship, as well as insights gained as advisers to dozens of different institutions. They explored why the relationship is so important and what makes it work best.

Theodore E. Long: The commission made the point that the board chair-president relationship is perhaps the key relationship that drives governance effectively. Doug, what makes it so important?

Douglas Orr: It is arguably the most important partnership in higher education because, in tandem, the board chair and the president lead the board in defining its responsibilities, in setting the institution’s strategic direction, and in ensuring that the board operates on a policy level. Also, the board chair and the president help set the tone and culture for the entire board, which allows the board discussion to be much more interactive and candid than it might be otherwise—thereby maximizing the board’s potential. Working together, they help get at the essence of board governance in this challenging and volatile environment.

Sheila Stearns: A good relationship between a chair and a president spreads confidence all through the rest of the board and the entire institution. And we all know how much more empowered we are in an organization that has confidence. You’re willing to take more risks. The board chair and the president, other board members, and senior administrators are more energized and willing to bring up sticky issues or to confront bad news. It’s like building a solid foundation to a structure: It makes the whole university stronger.

Long: What benefits for governance does the board chair-president relationship have if it works well? Conversely, if it’s weak or dysfunctional, how does it harm governance?

Alvin J. Schexnider: Cultivating the kind of relationship where the board chair and the president can be thought partners brings substantial benefits. In contrast, a weak or dysfunctional relationship creates an opportunity for governance to wander off the reservation, and people start behaving in ways that are not only inappropriate, but also potentially damaging to the institution.

Carol Christ: It’s challenging for any president to do well without a good relationship with the board chair. If you have someone in the crucial role of board chair who lacks confidence in the president and has a dysfunctional relationship with him or her, it’s hard for that president to succeed.

Jeffrey B. Trammell: If the relationship doesn’t work, one of two things is occurring: 1) There is no strategic plan or common vision, or 2) interpersonal and communications skills are lacking.

The failure to have a common, agreed-upon strategic direction means that every president and board chair who comes along will try to shape the institution according to his or her own vision rather than achieving consensus. So you spend your time fighting over questions like, “Are we going to diversify our academic offerings or not? Are we going to open a campus in Beijing or one in Mexico City?” You have to know where you’re going, what your goals are, and the timeframe you have for meeting them. Also, whether you’re a president, board member, or chair, if you do not develop strong personal relationships, you will not be effective.

Stearns: If the relationship is shaky, it promotes off-balance behavior by other actors. Let me give an example of an institution where the relationship between the board chair and the president was not strong. Because people lacked confidence that the president and the chair had their act together, everyone felt the need to freelance instead of working collectively. The other board members held secret meetings and felt that they should go on the campus and give advice here and there. Faculty members sat in the back of board meetings and snickered about what kind of fireworks they were probably going to see. As a result, the energy that the university badly needed to focus on big issues like what strategic direction to take was spent in unproductive ways.

Orr: One type of dysfunctional board is the passive board in which the members don’t feel engaged, simply receive reports, and go back to their other lives—a great waste of talent. The other type is the intrusive board that gets into the weeds and crosses the line from policy to administration. And complicating all of that would be the tendency that can occasionally occur to form cliques or splinter groups, which can really poison the culture of the whole board.

Rick Beyer: Also, when you don’t have a strong board chair-president relationship, it can cause significant issues to ripple through the institution for years. When you look at colleges that are struggling, what they have in common is often a dysfunctional board. Administrative people come and go, but any deficiency within an institution can be laid right at the doorstep of the board.

Long: What is the key to making the board chair-president relationship effective, and how does it go off the rails?

Christ: The most important determinant of a good relationship is a common understanding and agreement about respective roles. In addition, mutual trust and respect are crucial. You can’t have a good relationship if the board chair and the president don’t respect each other for their roles and the way they’re performing those roles. The board chair and the president have to be committed to their respective success, and the easiest way for the relationship to go off the rails is if the elements that I’ve just identified don’t exist or break down in some way.

Schexnider: Trust is at the heart of the matter, and without trust, all bets are off. It’s a two-way street; presidents have expectations of boards, and boards have expectations of presidents. But they’re not always on the table, and they need to be from the very outset.

Stearns: The biggest problem is keeping secrets; that can damage the relationship fast, especially if either the chair or the president perceives the secret as, “Really, in all fairness that’s something you should’ve told me.” If you, the chair or the president, are facing something major in your personal life or professional life, positive or negative, that could become public, you’ve got to have enough trust early on to let each other know.

As a president, I had to have trust and confidence in, and fullest communication with, whoever was board chair. I had to be able to tell him or her significant things to help me sort through what the full board needed to know. Or if something was going to become public, whether I wanted it to be or not, and it might affect the university, we needed to figure out together how to communicate about it.

Orr: Every board chair and every president brings a different subset of skills and backgrounds. So when a president has a new board chair, you begin the process all over again of talking out expectations of one another—so that from the start there is mutual understanding.

We conduct that exercise at AGB’s Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents and get out on the table issues such as how to communicate with one another, how to avoid surprises, and how to set the tone of board meetings.

Long: Talk a little bit about the problems that you see most often in board chair-president relationships.

Trammell: Many times it’s the petty issues that get in the way. People forget why they’re there. They’re not there so their friends get invited to sit in the president’s box. Serving on a board should not be about one’s own ego.

Board chairs and presidents should strengthen their relationship by identifying the common areas of interest or goals. They should be asking themselves, “What is our shared vision? What is our common goal? We’re here to provide the best quality education possible for the students so that they can have productive, successful lives. Let’s work back from there on areas of agreement, and if there’s an area of disagreement, let’s set that aside; it can be revisited later. And then, once we get to the areas of disagreement, let’s work those out like adults.”

Christ: I’ve seen board chair-president relationships go awry when the board chair thinks he or she is an independent agent on the campus and can independently determine his or her own communications with various campus constituencies—faculty members, students, staff members, and so on.

Orr: I am hearing more and more from board chairs and presidents that they would like to discuss and have some common-sense guidelines about communication protocols, because there’s a swirl of communications that goes on around academic institutions; they are prone to rumors. You’ve got not only board members, but also students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the general public, and at the vortex of that is the president and the board chair. Consequently, board chairs should talk through the whole issue of communication protocols with presidents, and presidents need to know if there are controversial issues or the potential to be blindsided.

Long: We’ve talked about what the board chair might do wrong. Are there ways that the president makes this relationship a positive or negative one?

Beyer: The president should establish regular communication with the board chair—perhaps a weekly phone call. As issues develop on the campus or a particular initiative gets underway, such communication can help set expectations and provide the right content and context about particular areas and issues that the president and the administration are working on.

Orr: The president and chair should build it into their schedules and have a regular appointment. There are a lot of good intentions about communications, but presidents and board chairs have busy schedules that can get in the way.

I also heard a great comment from a board chair a couple of years ago: “Our communications about particular developments help me understand the plotline, not just see the episodes, to get things in context. So much goes on operationally, and the board chair and the president must always keep their eyes on the larger picture—not just the day-to-day operational things that can overwhelm you.”

Long: The board chair has a double role in this relationship: He or she is a partner with the president, but also an assessor of the president. Do you see those two somewhat divergent roles creating difficulties?

Orr: It is a complex relationship because, on the one hand, the board chair is the partner to the president; on the other, the board chair is the boss. And at the same time, the president has a role in helping educate the board chair about the distinct culture of academe or academic governance and what’s going on in the larger higher education scene. So, there are a lot of dimensions to this relationship that make it complex—all the more reason to have a full understanding of the expectations between the two people from the outset.

Christ: There is inevitably a kind of split in the relationship when a board chair loses confidence in a president. It is a situation of great institutional gravity and potential crisis as a board works its way through moving on a president who perhaps is not meeting the institution’s needs.

Long: Both board chairs and presidents frequently don’t serve long terms—the relationship can change as frequently as every two or three years. How can the board chair and president build a relationship quickly? Or will the turnover compromise their capacity to do so?

Stearns: The best thing is for the president and chair to travel together as soon as possible to a higher education conference or university in another state on a learning expedition. It should be long enough that they have some down time with each other to talk shop and also about their families or the activity that they most enjoy. Otherwise, it’s hard to establish that important base of trust and confidence quickly enough.

Trammell: As a chair, you must understand the amount of time you have and work back from there. My term as rector (board chair) was two years, so I had to anticipate that every day that passed I had one less day in which I could get something done. Before taking over the gavel, I talked to former presidents and board chairs to prepare for the chairmanship and prioritized realistic objectives. It’s important when a board chair is elected or when a new president comes in to approach those leadership positions in a way that every day is valuable and should not be squandered.

Schexnider: Institutions require certain types of leadership at different stages of their development. In a situation of rapid turnover, the board and the president need to have an honest assessment of what needs to be done and what can be done.

Sometimes one doesn’t need a long tenure in order to redirect or reposition an institution. Presidents come and go, but boards have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the sustainability of the institution. So while presidents sometimes must take an unpopular position, if the board recognizes the importance of it for the long term, it makes sense to do it. In other words, they must understand what the needs are at a given moment and have the courage to lead.

Christ: Also, from the president’s point of view, it’s important as you work with a number of board chairs not to assume that every relationship is going to be the same or that there’s a single model for a good relationship. The board chair-president relationship can work well in a number of different ways.

Long: What about an ongoing assessment of the relationship? For example, if a president and board chair sat down once a year to say, “How are things going? Are we working together well?” Would that help solidify the relationship over time so they could make adjustments fairly quickly?

Orr: The chair and the president should sit down each year and go over the priorities that the president has set out. And they should discuss not only how the institution is doing and how the president is doing professionally, but also how the president is doing personally. The personal toll that the position can take is often overlooked, especially in the case of a strong president. I try to encourage board chairs to be proactive about the well-being and sustainability of the president and her or his family.

The president and chair should also have ongoing discussions throughout the year. Board chairs and presidents must routinely ask themselves, “Are we discussing the right issues? Are we engaged at the appropriate level rather than getting into operational matters?” That constant feedback is a vitally important communication between the board chair and the president.

Beyer: It would be helpful for board members to have one question in the forefront of their minds when they’re working with the president and other senior administrators: Do the president and top administrators walk away with energy, or does the conversation sap energy? I can’t tell you how many times that board members think they’re adding value when instead they’ve entirely deflated a senior administrative team. And keeping up and having the energy to be able to do the work is important for the president. Board members often are not aware that they can cause great withdrawals of energy despite their good intentions. They should make sure that they ask, “Is what I’m doing helpful, and are people gaining energy? Or are they losing energy?”

Long: We’ve got all kinds of challenges confronting us. When those challenges press upon the institution, how might it affect the relationship between the board chair and the president?

Trammell: That goes to the vision and direction of the institution at a time of great change. It requires a rethinking collectively of the value proposition, if you will. Our job is to prepare young women and men for productive lives and to go out and meet the challenges they will inevitably face. So, how has the world for which we are preparing those students changed? If we’re still doing things exactly the way we did them 10 years ago, we’re not doing our jobs.

The pace of change requires a constant rethinking of the strategic direction of the institution. Board chairs and presidents must ask themselves, “What are we doing about it, and how do we fit into the new world as it is evolving? Do we need to use more technology? Should we offer different classes that will bring in more students and revenue?” Those of us in higher education need to consider many different creative and innovative ideas to keep education relevant in the eyes of our consumers—the students. Change is the order of the day, and if the leadership of any institution ignores that, it does so at its own peril.

That requires the vision of both the president and the board chair. They should be in sync and talking constantly about the forces that could influence and alter the institution.

Stearns: Astute board chairs and presidents have their antenna up and are aware that a hot spotlight is focused nationwide on student safety, sexual assault, athletics, tuition, tenure, and so forth. The president and board chair must get on the same page quickly about those issues and how they might affect the institution. Together, they need to brainstorm what the key issues and land mines might be and then role-play with each other how to handle them. They may initially disagree, but they need to get on the same page fast because the more they waffle, the more likely it is that the institution will end up as a case study of how not to handle the high-stakes risks that higher education is now confronting.

Orr: I don’t think we’ve ever seen change affecting higher education to the degree that we have today—ranging from new learning modalities to changing student demographics to globalism to emerging technologies. Boards will hire presidents to be change agents, and, of course, academic institutions don’t change easily. So when presidents try to lead with ideas of change, no matter how hard they work to bring everyone aboard, there is pushback.

Thus, it’s important that boards and board chairs be shoulder to shoulder with the president as a change agent. If you hire the president as the change agent, and he or she starts bringing about change, the board must be a part of that and have the president’s back.

Christ: There’s a danger in the other direction as well. I’ve seen institutions recently challenged by overly activist boards that believe they solely have the charge of transforming the institution without working to engage the community in that change and without having a lot of understanding of higher education.

Trammell: Sometimes you have boards with activists pursuing change and presidents who are not and sometimes you have the reverse. That’s normal and as predictable as the sun coming up tomorrow. But the issue is managing it—not trying to eliminate it. You want the push and the pull because good things can come out of that if you have skilled management. People have ideas and directions that they think you ought to examine for the institution. All that’s good.

But a strong board chair creates a process on the board whereby each member knows he or she can come to the board chair with an idea. Likewise, you want the president to know that if he or she takes a creative and innovative idea to the board, that the board will be receptive. So, it’s not that you have to have a unanimity of thought. You have to have a trusting environment into which innovation and new ideas can be set forth so that the institution benefits, rather than a food fight breaking out.

Long: Do we need to rethink the basic dimensions and responsibilities of the relationship to make it work better in these changing conditions?

Schexnider: I don’t see it as an either/or situation. If you’re not changing, you’re very likely falling behind. The president and the board must be aligned with each other, but other stakeholders need to be engaged, as well. There has to be a full understanding of the need for change and how the various constituents or stakeholders can contribute to it.

Beyer: Often boards will take on too many things with little ability to make an impact. Thus, one of the things that boards should understand is that, if you take a look at an average board member and the time in a year that he or she spends working on board matters, it might come to a total of one week a year. Imagine someone going to work for just one week and thinking they have all the answers. That’s why the board should focus in on strategic issues as opposed to being tactically driven.

Christ: We’ve talked about how both the inappropriately intrusive and managerial board as well as the passive board are dangerous. It’s important to keep those two dangers in view when you’re talking about board roles. An intrusive board hearing the advice to be strategic and activist may hear that as justifying a role that we probably would think would be inappropriate. That advice is aimed instead at a board that has too passive an understanding of its role.

Stearns: How do you walk that line between the right level of engagement and micromanagement? The principles of good governance perhaps haven’t been put in clear enough terms for boards to understand how important their role is at the strategic and policy level. We need to find better metaphors.

For example, we need to help boards understand that they often need to fly at 40,000 feet and that most things at the 4,000-foot level should remain in the president’s domain. Boards should focus on questions like: “Are we going to fly generally from Denver to New York or Denver to Atlanta? What are our primary routes?” Boards should make those decisions and then let their presidents, as the pilots, carry them out. And if the board observes that the president is dealing at 400 feet too often, then it should consider whether it is providing the president sufficient resources or guidance to let staff members take care of matters at 400 feet.

Beyer: If you look at corporate governing boards, the typical committees might be audit, governance, and compensation. And yet, when you look at higher education, you have the equivalent of a product management committee, a sales and marketing committee, or a quality committee. When you get that kind of a committee structure, it often pulls board members into details where they have little time to do an effective job. And when you hear people say the institution should be run more like a business, perhaps you might ask why businesses don’t have a quality committee, sales and management committee—all those kinds of committees that are common in higher education. The CEOs on the corporate side would go crazy, and they might then better understand the challenges that presidents in higher education confront.

Schexnider: When I think of the board chair-president relationship, two fundamental concepts emerge as paramount. First, it’s important for them both to understand the culture of the board—how things work, how it might be strengthened to create more-effective governance. Second, the president and the chair should seek to be thought partners to achieve such effective governance for the good of the institution.

Orr: And we have good reason to focus on the relationship and its importance. The fact is, we are at a pivotal time in higher education. We must recognize the civic-mindedness of those who choose to serve on governing boards in higher education. Only one out of roughly every 6,000 citizens has that opportunity, and far fewer become board chairs. We who serve on boards must realize that it’s a great privilege, and we should commend those people who are willing to take on the major responsibility of chairing a board at this demanding and historic time.

Indeed, I can’t think of a period in my more than four decades in higher education when board chairs can make a greater difference in a positive way—working with the president and the administration for the well-being of their institutions and all of higher education.



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