Optimizing the Board-President Relationship: Best Practices that Make a Difference

Eugene B. Habecker, PhD, JD, President, Taylor University

Introduction

The executive search process is launched with the best of intentions. The board search committee is put together to set parameters and to ensure due diligence. The multiple documents and resumes provided by presidential candidates are reviewed, finalists determined, followed by multiple interviews, test-taking, and analyses. The choice is subsequently announced to great fanfare, followed by the usual pomp and circumstance of a presidential inauguration, everyone hoping for the best.  

But in less than one year, or two, there is a board-initiated change. Not a change initiated because the faculty and staff are upset or because there are multiple complaints from other constituents. Rather, the person selected to great fanfare is terminated by the board.  Organizational stability and chaos are often the result.

The resulting carefully parsed press release explanations sometimes read like this: “The person we hired ended up not being a good institutional fit.” Or, “the person we interviewed and selected is not the person who showed up.” Whatever the reasons, failed searches exact a high organizational price, both in terms of a dollar settlement, the deferral or delay in the pursuit of the university agenda, and in diminished confidence and trust the university community has in the board itself.  

So what happened? One never knows for sure, but sometimes an important reason for either a short-term or failed presidency is that there was a significant misalignment between the expectations of the board, on the one hand, and the expectations of the president hired, on the other. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) affirms the importance of this relationship: “One of the most important relationships in higher education is that between a president and his or her board.” (Legon, 2015) The focus of this chapter is how to ensure a healthy board-president relationship so as to optimize the probability of both an effective and a long-term presidency.  

Here are several best practices from among many that potential presidents and boards need to consider.

Best Practice One

The board should hire its president based primarily on its vision for the future, not the other way around.    

While a new president brings vision for the organization, the primary or dominant institutional vision that informs presidential search needs to generate from the board, not from the new president. New presidents often bring important ideas about how that vision might be expanded or how it should be implemented, including suggested strategies to be used.   

To be sure, there are times when a board has not attended to its organizational vision. As a result, presidential applicants are asked to weigh in with theirs. But for both the board and president, there is always the resulting risk that neither the board nor the president will embrace what the other thereafter develops. Again, the preferred scenario is to have the board be clear from the beginning about its purpose and vision and then pursue as president someone who can improve and implement it.

Often this is where difficulty in the board-president relationship begins. The board has a less than clear understanding of its organizational purpose which leads to vagueness in the organization’s vision for its future. It has failed to do the requisite assessments about the condition of the organization, including its strengths and weaknesses, or the opportunities and threats it faces externally – all of which inform a resulting purpose and vision. As a result, sometimes a board isn’t quite sure what kind of a president is needed, so it hopes for the best. As a result, and from the beginning of the board-president relationship, there is lack of clarity on the board’s part in terms of organization. So a president is hired who tries to surmise that direction only to find too late that the board wanted to move in a different direction and/or at a different pace.    

Effective universities and their boards are clear about the directions in which they desire to move prior to doing presidential search. Those boards seek a president who identifies first, with the board’s vision, and then second, helps to make it better, suggesting the strategies and ways to implement it. This kind of board-president clarity and alignment is absolutely essential and is the place to begin.

Best Practice Two

The board should be clear from the outset about the role it intends for its president on the board – ex officio trustee or only a board employee.   

While clearly the president is the employee of the board, presidents are also asked to be members of the board because the board desires strong presidential leadership of the board. At the same time, the board expects its president to serve board interests, ahead of any others. So presidents need to have clarity about when the board expects presidential leadership and when, and on what issues, followership is expected.

Wise boards recognize the key role of presidents in the role of orchestrating the multitude of complex relationships that define a modern university. The AGB states it this way: “Change in higher education requires leadership that is willing to take risks, build teams, and create the consensus needed to improve performance over many years. While many people contribute to this process, presidents play the single most important role.” (Emphasis added) (Consequential Boards, 2014, p.9) This dance, that is, the knowing when to lead the board and when to follow it, is something that’s learned, and every board and every president knows this reality. I would encourage boards to have presidents be a member of the board, with appropriate exclusion from meetings whenever presidential performance, service, and compensation are involved. Why?

In my first presidency (10 years) I was not a member of the board. While much was accomplished, discussions often were positioned as “me-them” discussions rather than as “we” discussions. In my second presidency (14 years), I was not a member of the board for the first two-thirds of my presidency but became a member of the board for the last third. That change catalyzed significant progress. In my current presidency (10 years), I have been a member of the board since I was appointed president. Simply put, there is a marked difference when a president can speak as a member of the board – “one of the things we as a board need to consider,” as compared with “one of the things you as a board need to consider….”

Best Practice Three

There should be clarity of understanding between the board and president about what the board wants to accomplish and how it will share governance with the president.

There are multiple ways this is figured out on almost every campus and seldom is there a uniform approach. And there are multiple and diverse operating models and practices that have been developed over time. They may not be written down and they may not be in a board manual, but “everybody knows that's the way we do things around here.” Unless of course, you happen to be the new president who is somehow trying to find their way in a new presidency. In brief, “all boards and presidents should have clear understandings of their respective roles and responsibilities.” (Consequential Boards, 2014, p.18)

Carver and Carver (2009) have attempted to provide clarity to this often-perceived ambiguity. The Carver model champions “policy governance” which encourages boards and presidents to have fully agreed “means and ends” documents which clearly spell out the various areas where the president has authority and where the board has authority. Clear differentiation between board governance and president led management responsibilities is the key. Sometimes areas are identified where both the president and board have shared authority. These kinds of mutually agreed operating agreements, sometimes called board policy manuals, bring necessary clarity to helping navigate the board-president relationship. Clarity is always a good thing, and I serve on boards that follow the Carver model. But the model also has its limitations in the university setting.

For instance, in a university, there is more to the governance-management dyad than just the board and president. There is also the very important role that faculty play as necessary components of shared governance. But getting agreement between ends and means in the board-president relationship takes far less time than getting alignment with the faculty and other constituencies. To be sure, clarity, with regard to the respective roles of stakeholders is important, and the Carvers’ insistence on clarity is a good thing.

What I find limiting in the Carver model, however, is that strict insistence on ends/means boundaries often takes the heart out of board members who are brought to the board in the first place because of their love for the mission. In other words, where board members deal primarily or only with governance, rather than mission implementation, there is limited opportunity to connect with the organization’s heart – its mission. Paradoxically, in the university world, it is those board members who are fully aligned with the heart of the mission who are often those most capable of giving the largest gifts. The result? Board philanthropy is more limited because strict ends limitations prevent board members from making a heart investment in the mission. The board-president relationship is enhanced when there is clarity not only about vision, but also about how the board and president are to operate, and how governance is to be shared, if at all. Clarity on these matters is imperative.

I once received a call from a sitting president who was planning the installation event and remarked, “I may not make it to the installation.” He proceeded to share the difficulties he was facing. The primary one? He and his board were totally misaligned, not about clarity of mission, on which there was agreement. Rather, the misalignment was about how that mission would be implemented and about how governance would be shared. Simply put, there was not initial clarity on these matters. And what both the board and president assumed they were in agreement about turned out not to be the reality. A failed presidency was the result. So what should be done?

In every situation regarding presidents and boards, they “should act as a team, with total transparency between the president and the board chair. They should have a good understanding of their roles and relationships, and work through inevitable tensions over the boundaries between the board and management when they rise.” (Davis, Trusteeship, 2014, p.21.)

Best Practice Four

The board and the president need to collaboratively agree about leadership direction, assigned responsibilities, and the president’s annual work priorities.

Work assignments usually reside within a broader university vision. But annually, there must be a determination of what performance, what deliverables, the board expects of the president. The president takes the initiative in this process: “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, how the president is doing professionally, but also how the president is doing personally.” (AGB Trusteeship, 2014, p.28) The president should never have to guess about how the board will define presidential success. Again, clarity in advance is helpful.

As one example, I take the position description that I was given by the board, and every year, during the summer months, I do two things. First, I do a narrative performance self-evaluation. I take each section of the position description and note where I think I have done well but also the places where I have struggled and what might need to change in the subsequent year. Second, I suggest possible changes in performance standards for the subsequent year. For instance, if work on a capital or building campaign has been completed, that comes off the previous year’s description. This self-evaluation and possibly a revised performance description are then reviewed by the university executive committee, which either affirms them or makes changes. This process minimizes surprises for both the board and the president. As someone has said, the best surprise is no surprise.

Best Practice Five

Boards and presidents together and collaboratively need to commit to the development of a university wide approach to shared governance.

A mutual commitment and understanding about philosophies of shared governance is not always a part of the initial discussions between a board and president. It should be. At some point, the shared governance issue will surface, and wise boards and presidents will attend to it. “The president and the board must be aligned with each other, but other stakeholders need to be engaged as well…and how the various constituents or stakeholders can contribute to it.” (AGB Trusteeship, 2014, p.29.) Why?

In the usual stresses and strains of how universities operate, situations will occur and decisions will be made which raise the question about whether a particular constituency’s voice matters. I’ve observed this as a multi-constituency issue, with boards, presidents, the faculty, the staff, and sometimes students asking this question.   

There have been multiple approaches, particularly from the AAUP and the AGB, to the idea of shared governance. For instance, early AAUP statements (1966) took the position of divided responsibilities, that is, where the faculty had certain responsibilities, management had theirs, as did the board. Bahls (2014) reflects more current thinking about shared governance as a system for aligning priorities of stakeholders, rather than dividing responsibilities into functional silos.

Functionally, I have seen this played out in various ways. In my first presidency, various constituencies were given ex officio status on the board, including an alumni representative, community leader, and the student body president. I have known of other institutions where faculty members are appointed to serve on the board. Still others have faculty members and other administrative leaders from other universities represented on their boards. In my current presidency, there are no student members, and faculty members from other institutions serve on the board. The faculty moderator is an invited guest. 

While there are multiple ways shared governance can work within a mix of diverse constituencies, it is important that the discussion about shared governance takes place on a timely, regular basis, and reflects transparency on the part of the board and president. Failure to do so often creates misunderstanding, confusion, and risks marginalization of overall university morale.   

Best Practice Six

An effective board-presidential partnership collaboratively commits to building a strong board.

This is yet another task on which the board and president need to be in agreement because a university seldom can move beyond the vision of its board. Oftentimes boards have multiple tenured members whose performance is seldom evaluated and whose length of service seldom questioned. Yet organizations are dynamic entities that are constantly changing. Boards need to be in touch with those changes, or both the boards and the organizations they serve begin to atrophy. Building a strong board helps keep organizations strategically focused and missionally relevant. The president and the board have a role to play in this board building process. And having clarity as to their respective roles regarding it is imperative.

Building a strong board in many ways is like building an orchestra. If the board desires to play the types of music that higher education orchestras need to perform, it cannot do that if it only has the equivalent of a wind section or a brass section or a string section. Rather, it needs diversity of peoples and functions and capacities to understand multiple perspectives and needs. Presidents and others can help identify those kinds of people, from alumni, community, business, and if a church-related institution, from that audience as well.    

This shared board building task can also be a somewhat paradoxical task because sometimes the temptation of the president is to select as board members only “those who think like them” and who are beholden to the president - the proverbial “yes men and women.” This might lead to a perceived safer presidency, but it is doubtful that it leads to the development of a more effective university. Boards need to be able to clearly hold their presidents to levels of accountability if they are to perform at their presidential best. A former consultant friend once observed that a key accountability question every leader must answer is this one: “Who can say ‘no’ to you and make it stick?” For presidents, the board clearly has that role, a role that ought not to be comprised by inadequate board member selection influenced by favoritism.      

Part of this board building responsibility is also to suggest members who are prepared to make university board membership their highest board priority. As one board chairman put it, “if you were on this board, it was to be your most important nonprofit endeavor in terms of time and resources.” (Davis, Trusteeship, 2014, p.21)

Having in place a meaningful and fully operational board management committee – sometimes called a committee on trustees - is also important to board building. This committee can play a key role, not only in the selection of the right members, but also in the evaluation of the performance of current ones. Selection of the right members for the board presumes the existence of some kind of board grid that reflects future board needs and current gaps that exist in board composition. Gaps may exist in a variety of areas, including the absence of key functional skills, women and persons of color, persons of financial capacity, certain constituencies, or of multiple other categories.

Best Practice Seven

The chair and the full board deserve to be kept fully informed by the president.

Each board-president partnership must be characterized by a communication pattern and strategy marked by trust. The board needs to have the unambiguous sense that “the president will inform us in a timely way if it is important.” More importantly, there needs to be an established pattern for communication that builds this confidence and maintains it.

There are multiple ways to do this, but whatever way is identified, this needs to be begun early in one’s presidential tenure and then constantly improved upon. For instance, each board chair-president relationship is different. Some chairs prefer regular phone calls, maybe even weekly. Others desire regular communication in other formats, including various electronic formats. From the beginning, the chairman and president need to develop an understanding of what is mutually expected. I have found it helpful to include the vice-chair in this communication as well, given our desire for a deep bench in terms of board leadership. Unfortunately, this is not a once and done exercise as board leadership is regularly changing.

With regard to the full board, at least every month or more often as needed, I provide a regular update on the university that highlights with words and photos important university activity, accomplishments, and issues. Important financial metrics are also included, such as major gifts and admissions numbers - always matters of interest. This is done nine times a year. The other three months the board receives more extensive briefings and reports as part of thrice-annual board meetings.

Importantly, part of each board meeting includes a strategic briefing on three or four key emerging issues facing the board, matters not yet requiring a decision but which likely will. Our volunteer board likes to have an appropriate amount of time to reflect and ponder on issues before they must take action at some time in the future. Giving the board the right information at the right time in the right way is an important part of communication. Regular, timely, and strategic communication with the board is an important part of maintaining a healthy board-president relationship.

Conclusion       

These several suggested best practices are not cure-alls for every board-president relationship that is ailing. But they can help in the effort to restore and maintain a “healthy board culture” and a vibrant board-president relationship. I have included Figure 1 as an example of how these best practices might fit together within the context of how the board-president relationship becomes a key element of what ultimately is the hoped-for result – a healthy and effective university.

      References

  1. AAUP, Statement of Government of Colleges and Universities (Washington, DC 1966).
  2. Bahls, S.C., Shared Governance in Times of Change (Washington, DC: AGB Press, 2014), 25.
  3. Carver, J., Carver, M., The Policy Governance Model and the Role of the Board Member (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
  4. Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where it Matters Most Report of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance (Washington, DC: AGB, 2014), 9, 18.
  5. Davis, M.G., (2014), Rx for a Successful Board: A Healthy Board Culture, AGB Trusteeship, November-December, 21.
  6. Legon, R. (2015), The Presidential Initiative, Unpublished letter to college and university presidents, AGB, Washington, DC.
  7. The President-Board Relationship: Making it Work, Making it Count, AGB Trusteeship, November-December, 2014, 28, 29

 

 


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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