Presidents

Boards need to be more curious to be effective (essay)

Good boards ask good questions, and great boards ask great questions. The ability to ask meaningful questions is an important skill in the boardroom and fundamental to effective governance. Said the chairman of Bain & Company, Orit Gadiesh, in a 2009 Harvard Business Review interview, “The most distinguished board is useless and does a real disservice to the organization, in my view, if the people on it don’t ask the right questions. If you’re not asking questions, you’re not doing your job.”

Too many boards struggle with asking questions at all, let alone asking good or great questions. Statements, not questions, frequently carry the day. Why? They lack sufficient curiosity.

In some instances, boards develop a culture in which curiosity is perceived as an indication of ineptness. Advancing arguments or making statements, not inquiring, is rewarded and reinforced. In other boardrooms, presidents and staff don’t readily welcome questions from trustees; “let us explain to you what you need to know” is the modus operandi. And too often, boards just don’t have the proficiencies or the structures to foster curiosity.

Boards can particularly benefit from a collective curiosity because trustees come from a variety of sectors and industries. The questions that a successful leader of a local bank has learned to ask over her career are in some key ways different from those that are essential to a multinational manufacturing firm and from those asked by a successful tech entrepreneur. Yet boards can weave together these different ways of understanding and questioning to create a powerful approach to governing -- one that yields deep and broad insight into higher education’s complex issues. Boards are ripe for curiosity-driven work.

Boards are composed of accomplished people, many of whom have learned over time how to ask impactful questions. The ability to ask and answer meaningful questions is how they get ahead, challenge norms and find innovative pathways. Reportedly A. G. Lafley, two-time chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble, asks himself each week, “What am I going to be curious about?” as a reminder of the power that questions have to provide strategic insight.

Boards that lack sufficient curiosity risk:

  • Complacency and disengagement. It is too easy for the work of boards to become routine. Boards go through the motions of governance without the drive to really understand what they need to ask and discuss in order to govern well. When there is little investment in meaningful work, trustees -- particularly busy, accomplished individuals -- become disengaged.
  • Lost opportunities to add value. Boards that lack curiosity foreclose occasions for trustees to meaningfully contribute. What are the contributions of boards, beyond philanthropy? Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich once spoke publicly about his experience as a trustee, memorably noting, “We ate well.” Such statements don’t say much for the impact he felt the board gave to that institution.
  • Advocating answers to the wrong questions. Boards that don’t develop the capacity for curiosity risk applying solutions regardless of the problems. Without understanding the real challenges, boards may pursue the wrong solutions.
  • Falling short in their fiduciary duties. Boards that are not curious may be underperforming in their most fundamental responsibility: acting as a fiduciary. Without asking questions, boards cannot fulfill their duties of care, loyalty and obedience.

On the flip side, curiosity in the boardroom can deepen engagement, intensify observation among board members of important issues, add diverse and better informed perspectives to discussions, minimize trustee solutions in search of problems, and increase individual trustee fulfillment.

What Should Boards Be Curious About?

Boards have much about which to be curious these days, including demographic trends; changing faculty work; student learning and degree relevance; student persistence and success; the intersection of access, affordability and excellence; opportunities to grow revenue; the impacts of technology on higher education; and many other issues. However, what might be most important is not the topic itself, but the nature of the problem and the ability to grasp the complexities and opportunities behind the issues.

Leadership scholar Ron Heifetz argues that there are two types of problems: technical and adaptive challenges. Technical problems are those that are easy to spot and can be solved by applying current knowledge. They are well defined and widely understood. Adaptive challenges, in contrast, are difficult to identify (and easy to deny), do not have “right answers,” and are unsolvable with current skills and knowledge. The challenge, Heifetz argues, is that too often organizations treat adaptive challenges as technical problems, only to make matters worse.

In the table below, we provide some comparisons of technical versus adaptive challenges relevant today.

Example

Technical Problems

Adaptive Challenges

Sexual assaults on campus

Compliance problems

Institution’s culture regarding risk and safety

Fund-raising down

Insufficient outreach

Mission no longer resonates

Lack of alumni and donor engagement

Website hits declining

Outdated website

Message no longer effective

High faculty turnover

Low faculty salaries

Low quality of work life

Excessive student drinking

Poor alcohol policies

Harmful student culture

Student protests over race

Lack of diversity

Lack of inclusion

Developing the capacity for curiosity can help boards move beyond what might be initially framed as a readily solvable technical problem to understand the situation as an adaptive challenge.

How to Increase Curiosity

Curiosity isn’t simply an innate talent. It can be developed intentionally among a collection of people if they:

Break routines. Too often board business is conducted in ways that eventually become routine, if not ossified. Routines are the enemy of curiosity. They create expected patterns of behavior that tend to elicit similar types of questions. If the board always conducts its business in one way, over time, it learns the types of questions to ask and not to ask within that framework. Expectations, not novelty, shape the work.

By creating new routines in board and committee meetings, boards can spark innovation and curiosity. Seating trustees in small groups, rather than around the typical large board table, can spur different types of interactions and conversations. As one trustee recently said of this format, “I can look the other trustees in the eye.” Holding board meetings off-site, such as at innovative corporate headquarters, a high school or a community center, can alter perspectives leading to new conversations. At one institution, a board “field trip” to the construction site of new campus drastically altered the conversation. Changing the order of reports and discussions or assigning different trustees to lead various sections of the agenda also can disrupt the commonplace.

Commit the time. Routine becomes curiosity killing unless it is to create opportunities that promote curiosity. Too often the agendas of board meetings are overly full, and therefore, overly scripted. Developing the time for reflection and discourse can encourage curiosity. Embedding board educational sessions as a continuing of board work can be powerful. Be judicious about the number of topics addressed in a board meeting and finding ways to “steal time” for probing questions are other strategies. Moving to consent agendas can help streamline routine board work. Limiting reports by staff members is another strategy to make time. Show-and-tell sessions with questions at the end don’t leave much room for exploring new ground.

Take a statement/question census. Some boards may believe that they are asking a significant number of questions. To check that assumption, charge someone with tallying the number of curiosity-driven questions asked over the course of a board meeting against the number of statements made and questions for clarification. The comparison will probably be telling. Some boards may need permission to be curious. Board leaders may need to not only “ask for questions,” but also demonstrate curiosity themselves by raising an initial set of good questions.

Relabel some challenges as puzzles. As scholar Spencer Harrison suggests in his work on curiosity in organizations, labels matter. He argues that issues framed as problems invoke a negative emotion and the search for solutions. Such work may foreclose curiosity. The same issue framed as a “puzzle” -- and using that word or related terms -- may lead to a mind-set geared toward exploration and divergent thinking. He argues that puzzles (and by extension, puzzling challenges) can be invigorating in ways that problems rarely are.

Craft agendas as questions. Too many board and retreat agendas are framed around a series of statements, when what the board really needs are questions. An agenda that is simply a list of topics -- enrollment, campaign update, risk -- as such doesn’t create the expectation for questions and curiosity. In contrast, agendas posed as questions, such as the following from a recent retreat lead to curious inquiry: What are the key trends in the regional economy and changing employment needs? How is the higher education marketplace changing in the region? What do we know about the next generation of students?

Adopt curiosity-invoking activities. Boards can leverage a set of small behavioral changes that can lead to new levels of curiosity. Practice matters. Before a particular agenda item, the board can engage in a 90-second brainstorm in which each trustee writes down a list of questions associated with the topic. Another powerful strategy is to ask trustees at the end of the board meeting to write down one question that they have when looking back at the board’s work of that day. One can make a second request asking each trustee to write down one question she or he had earlier in the day but didn’t ask for a variety of reasons. The responses are collected and read back to the group. The next-generation questions and the unanswered questions are ways to provoke and encourage curiosity.

Understand not all questions are curious ones. Boards often report that they are good at asking questions. And many are. The challenge is not the frequency of questions but the style and type of questioning. Some questions can lead to curiosity, while others are simply interrogations. The latter are rarely helpful in moving conversations ahead. Questions such as, “Why did you do that?” or “Didn’t you consider X?” seldom spawn anything but defensiveness.

Furthermore, some questions that trustees ask are merely rhetorical; others are posed not to expand the conversation but instead to place blame; others are intended to go unanswered because they are part of a soapbox or soliloquy by those who like to hear themselves talk.

Roger Schwartz suggests in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article the You Idiot test. He offers that the person ready to ask the question first ask themselves privately the question and add the phrase “you idiot” to the end. Why did the administration project the budget so poorly (you idiots)? Why did you not think students would protest (you idiot)? He says if the question sounds natural with that phrase at the end, it’s not constructive.

Strive for a culture of curiosity. Curiosity is contagious, and boards can create cultures where it flourishes. Developing the right culture that encourages constructive questions, that is defined by curious minds, that carefully and intentionally frames questions, and that appreciates the time and work required to engage this way will serve boards well. Look at patterns of engagement. Who speaks and with what effects is an artifact of culture, for instance. Do discussions end when certain board members speak? Does the board expect constructive “devil’s advocate” perspectives? Does it welcome devil’s inquisitors? When is a consensus that is too easily reached questioned as being too simplistic?

The End Result

Boards that are intentionally curious develop deep investments in the institution and its trajectory. They create more rewarding experiences for individual trustees, are better strategic partners with the administration, challenge well-worn assumptions that may block progress and bring their collective expertise to the problems (and puzzles) the institution faces.

Elon Musk was quoted in a recent Inc. magazine article saying, “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer. If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.” Boards need to continue to develop the curiosity to pose and pursue just such questions.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass.

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William Paterson Faculty Votes No Confidence in President

The Faculty Senate at William Paterson University in New Jersey voted no confidence in its president, Kathleen Waldron, last week.

The vote stemmed from concerns that Waldron could not meet performance goals, including enrollment benchmarks, and was not helping elevate the university’s reputation, among other things.

The resolution also cites a lack of transparency and collaboration with faculty and a disrespect for promotion recommendations. Six faculty members were denied promotions in the last year, despite available slots and committee recommendations, according to Arlene Holpp Scala, chair of the Faculty Senate and professor of women's and gender studies.

“A no-confidence vote is not a call for dismissal,” Holpp Scala said. However, she said, it would take time and a new collaborative approach to working with faculty to improve a working relationship that has deteriorated since Waldron’s hiring seven years ago. “If she wants to turn things around, she will have to be more attentive to what people are saying. It is important that the president take immediate actions after this no-confidence vote to show greater respect for the faculty.”

The vote came out 24 in favor of the no-confidence resolution, 10 against and seven abstentions.

The university responded to the vote in a statement provided to Inside Higher Ed.

“The University Board of Trustees fully supports President Waldron and remains very confident in her leadership,” the statement said. “The 45-member Faculty Senate’s vote was related to enrollment and issues that are part of statewide labor negotiations between the faculty union and the state of New Jersey. Those negotiations have been underway for months.”

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Bryan Trustee Resigns Over President's Actions

A trustee has resigned from the board of Bryan College, a small Christian college in Dayton, Tenn., over his concerns with the president’s actions, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

Wayne Cropp’s resignation is just the latest disturbance attributable to Stephen Livesay, the president of Bryan College.

Eight trustees resigned in 2014, around the time the faculty overwhelmingly voted no confidence in Livesay. The next year, the college changed its requirements so that it became extremely difficult to call a faculty meeting. In the years since, four vice presidents and many faculty members have also left the university.

Cropp is a graduate of Bryan and had served on the board for almost a decade. Several people told the Times Free Press that he was the only trustee who tried to hold Livesay accountable. Cropp resigned because he could not tolerate the administration’s lack of transparency and the president’s conflicts of interest, he said.

"I have come to conclude that I have not been effective, and cannot be effective in the future, in holding the leadership of Bryan College accountable to certain principles that I consider important for a not-for-profit institution and especially a Christian institution," Cropp wrote in his resignation letter.

In his letter, Cropp mentioned the transfer of land worth $6.9 million from the National Association of Christian Athletes to Bryan College.

Livesay was chairman of the NACA board and named so many Bryan trustees to serve on it that they soon made up a majority. When the board voted to transfer the land to Bryan last summer, Cropp voted against it and acknowledged Livesay’s conflict of interest. Because of the land transfer, Livesay was able to show a major asset boost in his performance review, which included an examination of the college’s financial state.

"But for the transfer of NACA property to Bryan College in June 2016, Bryan College would have finished the year with a deficit," Cropp wrote in his letter.

The university did not return a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

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College VP Sends Email on Possible Closure

A Holy Cross College administrator mistakenly sent an email to the entire student body last week that contained confidential information suggesting the college might close, The South Bend Tribune reported.

Kelly Jordan, the vice president for student affairs at the Catholic liberal arts college in Indiana, sent an email chain with messages dating back to early April.

In it, Jordan wrote that he might “spend the better part of the coming school year closing down the college.”

The emails -- sent to an administrator at Culver Academies, a boarding school in Indiana -- also detailed some of the financial and administrative woes the college has experienced of late. Last month, the president left his post, and three out of five vice presidents resigned from the college soon after. In the emails, Jordan said the college president was fired by the board “quite unexpectedly.”

“I am not sure how all this is going to play out for the college (i.e., if it can even remain in operation),” Jordan wrote April 23. “All of this, of course, is strictly confidential, and I know that I can count on your discretion.”

The messages appeared to be sent to the more than 500 students enrolled at Holy Cross, and possibly some faculty and staff. After it went out Friday morning, the college tried to recall the email, but many students had already opened, saved and shared it.

The interim president, the Reverend David Tyson, sent an email to students, faculty and staff Friday afternoon addressing the incident. “You may have heard about, or received, an email this morning that included some alarming information about the future of the college,” Father Tyson said in the email. “Please understand that this was one person’s opinion and does not reflect the conversations that the Board of Trustees and administration are having about the future of the college …. Regardless of what rumors may be circulating, I am looking forward to classes beginning in August and working with the faculty and students to create a bright future for the college that fully reflects the Holy Cross mission.”

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A president's spouse secretly tries to stay abreast of campus issues (essay)

Presidential spouse Mort Maimon takes a CIA-like approach to try to uncover the campus issues his wife is coping with.

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Thursday, May 4, 2017
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President Helped End Machete Attack on Students

A former Transylvania University student was subdued by the president of the university and the chief of the public safety department Friday after he attacked a female student with a machete and appeared ready to use the weapon on other students, The Kentucky Herald-Leader reported.

The attacker, 19-year-old Mitchell Adkins, entered an on-campus cafe with a bag full of weapons and begin singling out female students and asking them which political party they identified with, one witness told LEX 18.

When the first woman said she was a Republican, Adkins passed over her. The next woman, however, had a different answer, and Adkins stabbed her with his machete.

Gregg Muravchick, director of public safety at Transylvania, happened to be next door to the cafe when he received an alert that someone had pressed a panic alarm. When he approached the building, he saw the female student suffering from a stab wound.

Muravchick drew his handgun and told the attacker to drop his weapons.

President Seamus Carey, who also happened to be in the area when he heard students were in trouble, helped with the handcuffs while Muravchick restrained the attacker.

Other university and city police officers arrived to help, as well as an ambulance for the student victim, who had been aided by an employee in the accounting department.

The victim was admitted to a hospital but is not suffering from life-threatening injuries.

Adkins left the university in 2015. In November of that year, he wrote an article for BuzzFeed about harassment and discrimination he faced on campus for his conservative political beliefs.

He is charged with first-degree and fourth-degree assault, plus multiple counts of first-degree wanton endangerment. Adkins is being held in the Fayette County Detention Center and is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.

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Saint Rose Faculty Call for President's Ouster

Faculty at the College of Saint Rose voted last week to request that its president, Carolyn Stefanco, be removed from her position, The Times Union reported.

After calling for her ouster by a more than two-to-one margin, the faculty asked the Board of Trustees to dismiss the president. In response, however, the trustees announced their “unwavering support” for Stefanco.

The faculty said it had lost confidence in Stefanco’s leadership because she created an “atmosphere filled with fear of retaliation” at the private New York college.

Since filling the position in summer 2014, the president has overseen dramatic cuts to academic programs and faculty member positions. When the college was facing a $9 million deficit in December 2015, Stefanco suggested slashing 23 faculty positions and 27 academic programs.

At the same time, many faculty and administrators have left the university of their own accord, according to The Times Union. Three of the four deans at the college have said they are leaving.

“Morale is low among everyone at the college,” said Kathleen Crowley, a professor who voted for Stefanco’s ouster.

From the trustees’ perspective, Stefanco has navigated many difficult situations in her three years with Saint Rose. She oversaw the largest first-year class in the college’s history last fall as well as new master’s and bachelor’s programs.

"President Stefanco is leading this institution through a changing environment impacting higher education institutions throughout the nation," the trustees said in a letter to the faculty after last week’s 63-29 vote for Stefanco’s removal.

"Change is difficult, but this is the time for the administration and the faculty to get together behind the strategic plan we have charted to help our college succeed."

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Lawmakers Criticize Retiring President's Payout

The president of Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts is retiring with a $334,000 payout for unused sick days, and state lawmakers are not happy, The Boston Herald reported.

Daniel Asquino, president of the college, accumulated more than 1,250 sick days in his three decades at Mount Wachusett, accounting for $266,060 of his payout. The remaining $68,079 comes from his unused vacation time.

Lawmakers are hoping to use this case to reinvigorate their efforts toward capping unused vacation and sick days.

“It’s mind-blowing,” State Senator Ryan Fattman, a Republican, told the Herald. “There has to be something that can be done legislatively, and I think these are the types of stories that give those efforts a lot of traction.”

Asquino’s payout surpasses that of a former Bridgewater State University president, who came away with about $270,000 in 2015. Until now, that was believed to be the biggest payout in public higher education in Massachusetts in the last decade, according to the Herald.

After the Bridgewater State case, the state Board of Higher Education adopted new rules to limit vacation payouts to 64 days. Asquino and Mount Wachusett are following that law in the retirement payout, but it’s Asquino’s massive supply of unused sick days that accounts for most of his take.

Governor Charlie Baker said the payout is “disappointing.” He is considering a proposal that would limit the number of unused sick days state employees can cash in on, but even that would only apply to the executive branch.

Others in the Legislature are hoping to expand on that proposal to include public colleges and universities’ employees as well.

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Wright State President Resigns Amid Budget Crisis

The president of Wright State University resigned last week -- almost four months sooner than he had planned to retire from the institution -- in light of a budget crisis at the Ohio college, The Dayton Daily News reported.

“We have a substantial undertaking to bring our budget into alignment with our revenues,” said David Hopkins, outgoing president of Wright State, in an email to faculty, staff and students on Friday.

In lieu of the $432,000 salary he would have earned in the year following his retirement, Hopkins will now be eligible for an annual faculty salary of $200,000 in the College of Education and Human Services. He will still receive $150,000 in deferred compensation.

Cheryl Schrader has been selected as the next president of Wright State. She will take office July 1. In the meantime, the Board of Trustees chose Curtis McCray to serve as interim president. McCray has previously worked with the university as a consultant for its operational review.

The budget crisis that has consumed Wright State over the last few years stems from overspending, officials told The Dayton Daily. This year, the university is projected to spend $40 million beyond what it earned.

“That cannot continue under Dr. McCray’s leadership,” said Michael Bridges, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “You have to live within that budget.”

The trustees hope to bring the university out of as much debt as possible before Schrader takes over this summer.

Last year, the university laid off 23 people to help cut down on costs. An announcement about additional layoffs is expected next month. Wright State has also been under a hiring freeze since February, when Hopkins instituted it.

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Presidents need wide range of skills, panelists at ACE conference say

ACE panel participants say presidents need more skills than ever as the world changes around higher education.

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