Governance and the Christian College

Enhancing Alignment between Senior Staff and Board

By Nick Wallace, CPA CGMA

Fundamentals

In order to have the kind of “shared governance” that is called for in most Christian college and university settings, there is one overarching fundamental that needs to be firmly placed in the hearts and minds of board members and staff alike.

That fundamental is servanthood. When board members and staff alike bring their attitudes and actions into conformity with a servanthood model, things go well. The minute one or both parties stray from a servant leader approach, attitudes, actions, words, and achievement of objectives will begin to stray off course.

What is servanthood in this context? Let’s boil it down to fundamental issues. The emphasis is only on a couple of things that are important. This is obviously NOT a full explanation of servanthood in the context of higher education shared governance. What follows are a few key points.

Relationships

Servant-leader relationships are developed over time. They should go beyond the casual “how’s the family” conversation. Why? Because only when you begin to really know a person and their individual hopes, dreams, motivations, and desires do you begin to understand their attitudes, actions, and words. Only then are you truly able to serve. You bring understanding into the mix in relationship and when that happens, trust is built, grace is more easily administered, and focus on the task at hand is enabled.

All too often, assumptions about attitudes and motivations are made when relationships are lacking, and that can at times derail or distract discussion about key issues.

Cathy A. Trower makes an important point in her book, Governance as Leadership. She talks about boards as a social system. She quotes Sonnefold (2002, P. 108) who states that exemplary boards are “robust, effective social systems.”[i] Trower states that if you agree boards are social systems, then individuals meeting together form some type of group or team or something in between.

Trower further characterizes the levels of teams that could be formed. The highest and most effective level is that of the high-performance team. This is a group that meets all the conditions of a real team, but its members uniquely are “deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success.”[ii] Deep commitment to someone’s personal growth and success does not normally happen in the absence of strong personal relationships.

So the question in your mind is probably, “how do we build those kinds of servant-leader relationships between board and senior staff”?

Here are a few practical suggestions:

  1. In board development, make sure one focus for new board members is to get to know the senior staff they will be working with. You can initiate that by circulating information about each staff person, their education, background, and family.

For example, one of Taylor University’s outstanding past board chairs, Mr. Mark Taylor, was in the habit of asking the senior staff in the boardroom to talk about a great vacation they had, a memorable family moment, or a good piece of insight from a book they are reading. This allowed the board members to see the staff as more human and to get to know them and their families a bit better.

  1. Make sure committee chairs leave some committee time for “relationship building” as a part of their meeting agenda. Some do this naturally already, but an intentional focus will help insure a consistent focus.
  2. Circulate prayer requests as people feel comfortable sharing them and ask the group to follow up with each other as they are individually led. At Taylor University, we rotate board member prayer assignments that include a list of staff and board prayer requests each month.
  3. Create a habit for the president and staff to initiate discussion about committee meeting agendas. Once that takes place, the president should then encourage the senior staff to engage the committee chair to develop the committee meeting agenda. In doing so, a depth of discussion can occur that builds relationship AND helps enhance meeting preparation.

So, help your senior staff and board members get to know one another. It will help you grow into a high-performance team. It will also foster a servant leader approach to boardroom conversation.

Self-Awareness

A unique aspect of effective relationships is personal self-awareness. Everyone has blind spots, right? Everyone except ourselves. That is the problem in a nutshell. Many us of don’t really know how we are perceived. One thing for certain is that we may have excellent board evaluation systems in which feedback is pushed to board members, but unless the receiver is willing and ready to hear the feedback, there is a limit to how far good systems of evaluation can go. No matter how much authority or power a feedback giver has, the receivers are in control of what they do and don’t “let in.” It might be better then to initiate some development for board members and senior staff alike to learn how to engage in productive feedback discussions, especially when the stakes are high. You will be doing everyone a favor not only in board and business relationships, but on a personal level as well.

In addition to the relational advantages of self-awareness, there are also organizational advantages. Gene Habecker in his book, The Softer Side of Leadership, says, “Leaders who champion accountability welcome others to speak into their lives and their performance as leaders.”[iii] He goes on to point out that, “Leaders need to proactively seek feedback about their performance through practices such as 360-degree reviews.” Further, he observes that “some leaders like this process, others don’t.” My observation is that the organization’s effectiveness is enhanced when board members and senior staff regularly take advantage of good feedback.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

  1. Become more aware of your facial expressions. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in their enlightening work, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well ask the following two questions: “Who can see your face? Everyone. Who cannot see your face? You!”[iv] They go on to explain that we convey an enormous amount of information through our facial expressions. Ask the Lord to give you sensitivity to your impact on people. As you speak with the senior staff you are working with as a board member, remember they are watching closely and taking cues from your expression. This gets difficult, because there are times when the swirl of difficult board issues are impacting your sense of well-being individually or corporately.
  2. Become more aware of your tone. Remember the saying you have heard so many times: It is not WHAT you said but HOW you said it. It’s almost as though the part of our brain that “hears” tone is turned off when we speak but turned back on when we listen. So, it is difficult to actually “hear” our own tone. We must rely on the cues we are getting from others to tell us if our tone is appropriate.
  3. Work on keeping the communication lines with the Lord open and clear. As with the other two suggestions, this is hard work, so we need His help.

The excerpt from A Board Prayer in Dan Busby and John Pearson’s book Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom is helpful. They quote Dan Bolin who prays, “Dear God, help me to speak cautiously. Let me use the least words, the least intensity, the least volume to be understood. Help me to voice my opinions with care, strength, and meekness. Help me to say nothing degrading and nothing that would draw lines of conflict unnecessarily.”[v]

One of Gene’s favorite sayings is, “Help me not to speak unless I can improve the silence.”

  1. Ask yourself as part of each meeting, “Do I need to clarify a point? Do I need to apologize for my tone? Have I left statements or questions unresolved that might create discouragement or cause doubt?”

Roles

Effective working relationships between board members and senior staff are enhanced with a solid understanding of the important yet different roles each play in the organization. Board members need to understand they may have multiple roles on the board. They may be a mentor and friend to the senior staff. Obviously, they have oversight and governance roles as a board member. They may be major donors themselves or they may have close ties to major donors. In a college setting, they might also be volunteers (beyond their board membership), assisting with fundraising or using their unique skill set to benefit the college. In these cases, that work should always be done under the direction and leadership of senior staff.

The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that inside the boardroom they should keep their “governance” hats on and not stray into other roles that might be present. As they have communications outside the boardroom with senior staff, the best advice is to make sure anything discussed is already known to the president, and perhaps also the board chair. There is nothing that will erode trust faster than a board member discussing a work-related issue with senior staff when it should have been discussed first with the president and also perhaps board leadership.

Bob Andringa discusses this issue of roles in his materials on board leadership and describes three board member hats:

  1. GOVERNANCE hat, which is worn only when doing board work as a board member
  2. VOLUNTEER hat, which is worn when advising or helping staff in various ways under staff leadership
  3. IMPLEMENTER hat, which is worn only when the board has delegated something specific to the board member to accomplish as a board member. A specific implementation function should not normally be assigned by the board when it involves doing staff level work.

Audit Committee Exception

Senior staff need clear permission from the president to go directly to the audit committee chair and/or board chair when the senior staff suspects fraud, other illegal acts, or sexual harassment by the president. That line of communication between board and senior staff needs to be direct and clear. At Taylor, Gene Habecker would tell the CFO in the presence of the board chair that if they had questions about his work, the CFO has responsibility to go directly to the chair of the board.

Practical Suggestions:

  1. Make sure there is a discussion between the president, senior staff, and board leaders that if there are concerns about the president’s behavior, in the ways identified above, those concerns can be brought directly to the board by senior staff.
  2. Encourage board members to keep the conversations with senior staff focused on personal and relationship-building issues. If a senior staff expresses frustration with the president, encourage board members to cut off that conversation and coach the senior staff to have that hard conversation with the president directly. I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler[vi] as a way to help senior staff have those hard conversations.

Communication

Having set the stage with an understanding of roles and with deepening relationships, begin to engage in open and honest communication. Only when trust is built and maintained can productive dialogue occur.

Boardrooms can be filled with monologues. It is a rare but highly effective board that regularly engages in dialogue. As board discussions occur, it is important (especially when senior staff are involved in the discussion) to make sure we are talking WITH the board and the senior staff rather than talking TO or talking AT them. Some of the most humiliating moments I have seen in boardrooms occurred when a board member launched into a monologue that demeaned or put senior staff and the president in a bad light.

Because the higher education environment is so difficult these days, it is easy to get pulled into a negative mindset that can sour communications.

Practical Suggestions:

  1. As board members prepare for committee or full board meetings, when something seems amiss, don’t draw conclusions too quickly. Board members should ask clarifying questions of the chair or the president… and do so BEFORE the meeting so that meeting time does devolve into untangling misunderstandings. If you are the committee chair, ask those questions directly to the senior staff assigned to your area. If you are a member, ask those questions of the committee chair who can best address them.
  2. Lead your dialogue with reflective listening language. Do that in a positive manner. So instead of making a speech about how terrible the current enrollment picture is, instead say thank you for the work done to achieve the results that were experienced, reflect some facts that you heard in the report on enrollment, and then ask your clarifying question. Perhaps the staff needs better tools or resources to hit the targets the organization was shooting for? What changes should be made to adjust the processes to adapt to the current environment? Are there additional practices or procedures that we might need to adopt?

Conclusion

As stated earlier, boards are social systems. High performance boards thrive with interpersonal depth. Board relationships with senior staff are enhanced by deepening relationships, better understanding of our unique roles, heightened self-awareness, and great communication.  

 

 

[i] Cathy A. Trower, The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building Higher Performing Nonprofit Boards, John Wiley and Sons, 2013

[ii] ibid

[iii] Eugene B. Habecker, “The Softer Side of leadership, Essential Soft Skills That Transform Leaders and the People They Lead”, Deep River Books, 2018 P. 168

[iv] Sheila Heen, Douglas Stone, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback, Penguin Books, 2015 Ch 4

[v] Dan Bolin, “A Board Prayer”, Dan Bolin Resources, Inc., 2014 Dan@danbolin.com, included in Dan Busby and John Pearson’s “Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom”, ECFA Press, 2017 P.10

[vi] Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzer, Crucial Conversations (2nd Edition), McGraw Hill, 2012


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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