One of the most helpful insights in Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and his other works on executive leadership is that teams don’t fail because of ill will or lack of professional expertise or intelligence, but rather due to inattention to the dynamics of team interaction, errors of interpretation and a failure to focus on what really matters. His five dysfunctions—absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results—can happen to the smartest and most qualified teams.
My purpose here is to identify some dysfunctions specific to higher education boards of trustees, especially in private, regional, not-for profit colleges. The antics of public university boards receive a good deal of attention in the press (think the stacking of the New College of Florida’s board with anti-“woke” conservatives), but less attention has been paid to the structural factors that negatively impact the boards of already fragile small private colleges—the boards I have dealt with most closely as a president and senior administrator.
Board members I have worked with are by and large smart, generous and dedicated people who want nothing but the best for the institution they serve. But they are handicapped from the start by the board’s very composition, specifically its members’ typically limited understanding of higher education.
I had an excellent executive coach who had previously worked with corporate executives. In trying to ascertain how higher ed boards worked, he said, “Corporate boards are mostly made up of executives from industries like the corporation on whose board they serve. So I assume private higher education boards are staffed mostly with current and retired private higher education executives?”
I responded, “No, they are staffed mostly with corporate executives who know little about higher ed, though many have attended the college on whose board they serve.”
After a pause, the executive coach asked, “How could that possibly work?”
One reason it sometimes does not work is Dysfunction No. 1, what I call the ignorance-to-arrogance continuum. Those who have expertise and success in one area are prone to pass judgment quickly in other areas both because things always look simpler from the outside and because passing judgment is a familiar go-to behavior for any “expert.”
We see this tendency in both academics and corporate CEOs. As an unusually perceptive history professor once said in a faculty meeting, “I know nothing about this issue, but I have a strong opinion about it, because I have a Ph.D. and that’s what we do.” CEOs on boards also sometimes mistakenly believe that their business expertise and experience can be easily translated to what they perceive as the much simpler world of higher education.
For example, I worked with a board member who had been involved with numerous corporate mergers. To him, the obvious solution to the college’s financial problems was to merge with another institution. In order to educate him on how higher ed mergers worked (and how rare successful ones were), I gave him some of the recent books on college mergers and acquisitions. When I asked him what he thought, he said that he had skimmed a couple of them and that they were basically “M&A 101” and thus far below his level of expertise on the subject. Instead of acknowledging that a different kind of judgment and expertise might be required in higher ed mergers, he assumed, based on his very real corporate expertise, that there is a simple continuum of M&A expertise on which his would be automatically superior to that of any professional educator.
The most extreme example of this dysfunction is when boards literally substitute their judgment for the administration’s by attempting to manage the institution themselves. This temptation is common enough that regional accreditors have specific rules prohibiting boards from crossing the line from strategic oversight to management. Recently, Ohio State’s board decided to manage the institution themselves during a presidential transition, deliberately crossing the line between board-level strategic oversight and administrative management. The board of a small liberal arts college also undergoing a presidential transition read about this and decided to follow suit, without understanding the damage that this overreach would do to shared governance, retention of administrators, relations with accreditors, and the basic operations of the college that required professional expertise lacking on the board.
This dysfunction can also take the form of board members appointing one of their own as interim president, even if they lack expertise in higher education administration. I’ve seen this happen, with predictably poor results—including unwise investment of resources, increased debt, administrative turnover and neglect of the basics of running a college. At a large university, both the president and the board depend on others to manage basic operations, which makes it easier for an outsider to take over, but at a small college the president needs the comprehensive operational understanding of a small-business owner.
Dysfunction No. 2 is the bright shiny object syndrome, the belief that there is one yet-to-be discovered thing that will put the institution on the map and/or solve its financial problems. College presidents also fall prey to this dysfunction and can push boards to expend scarce resources on untested ideas. As president of institutions with solid missions but financial challenges, I always cringed when a board member would say, “We need to find something no one else is doing and do that.”
This can be a twofold error. One, although it is essential to a college’s success for it to identify and promote its distinctive assets, whether those be a suite of academic programs, distinctive pedagogy or a special connection to the region, all colleges are basically doing the same thing—preparing students for future engagement with the world—within a fairly narrow range of options, as any review of institutional mission statements will show.
Furthermore, if no one else is doing it, there may be a reason, and a financially troubled institution should think twice about putting their eggs in such a basket. The pages of the higher ed press are littered with what one consultant calls hopefully promoted “funnel-busters,” such as passing out free laptops and hiking boots to encourage the mindful use of technology, focusing on a narrow field such as women’s leadership in health care, investing in online education and, perhaps the most common one, creating centers of innovation. Don’t get me wrong—such initiatives can add genuine value to a college’s programs, and I have promoted many of them myself; the mistake is to think that investment in such programs alone will achieve an adequate financial and enrollment return in the absence of attention to the more mundane fundamentals of running a college, such as marketing, recruitment, retention and basic attention to students’ needs.
Getting a board to move away from bright shiny objects toward operational best practices can be challenging, but I’ve seen it succeed: I watched a vice president of enrollment and marketing turn a board enrollment committee meeting into a seminar on strategic enrollment management. Board members acknowledged that they had never before understood how complex enrollment management actually is, and they were mostly cured of the illusion that one shiny idea would cure enrollment problems.
Dysfunction No. 3 is what one consultant who works extensively with small-college, alumni-heavy boards refers to as “fond memories of an institution that never existed.” Most board members have limited knowledge of higher education anyway, and what they do know is often based on their experience at the institution they now govern. Their memories undergird their dedication as board members, but those memories are hardly reliable. In addition to the distorted memory of late adolescence that we all experience, there is the problem that a student’s perspective, while essential for administrators to understand, is radically different from the perspective a board member needs.
For example, board members who hear about financial difficulties often assume that there has been a sharp decline in the institution since they attended: “When I was a student here, the faculty were happy and productive and there were no financial problems.” Granted, many small liberal arts colleges had an easier go of it in decades past, but most colleges also do a reasonably effective job of protecting students from many of the challenges that boards need to understand. It’s hard to govern an institution through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia.
Dysfunction No. 4 is misplaced accountability. My administrative teams and I have provided board members with ever-more-detailed metrics: benchmark-laden strategic plans, Gantt charts of projects and milestones in every administrative area, enrollment trends and projections, five-year financial forecasts, cash-flow projections, and monthly budget-to-actual spreadsheets, to name a few. Some board members feel that that if we just gave them more information, they would somehow be able to solve our financial problems, or we as an administration would automatically do better work if we were crunching more data.
I am all for flexible, data-driven planning, especially using the tools of human-centered design, as I have written before. The question board members want the data to answer—“What does success look like?”—is essential, but simply increasing measures of accountability (unless they are truly inadequate to start with) can be an exercise in rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs. I’m sure many presidents have been tempted to say (as I admit I have out loud), “Success looks like keeping the doors open and the bills paid.”
Conversely, boards are rarely held accountable in any real way for the most important decisions they make. There are many resources for board self-evaluation from Credo, AGB and others, but the problem is just that—it’s self-evaluation. Despite specific board-related regional accreditation standards, I have rarely seen boards cited for violation of those standards unless there are egregious violations of shared governance or ethical standards.
Self-evaluation can identify areas for improvement such as diversity of membership, committee structure and board giving, but most boards are poorly equipped to ask and answer the most important question: “Have our decisions as they relate to our primary board responsibilities, such as hiring/firing presidents and maintaining fiduciary oversight, had positive results?” That’s not an easy question for a board to answer, especially given Dysfunction No. 1, which prejudices boards toward positive self-assessment. It’s also the case that the results of board-level decisions are often not known for several years, which complicates the assessment of their success or failure.
Limits on the length of time a board member can serve can help here, since fresh eyes can provide a perspective that longtime board members may be blind to. But when one board was informed that a majority of boards enforce such limits, their unanimous reaction, even while acknowledging significant previous board-level misjudgments, was that they were different, they had functioned just fine without such limitations and the college needed the experience of long-term board members more than it needed turnover.
Dysfunction No. 5 is that boards get limited and sometimes bad information from both internal and external sources. Board members get most of their campus information from the president and the senior staff, which is at best incomplete and at worst inaccurate. At two different institutions I have heard board members praise a previous president’s relations with the faculty, while faculty members reported that the relationship was characterized by mistrust on both sides. And the informal communication with the campus that boards engage in is often grounded in less-than objective complaints from students, faculty, staff and alumni.
I have seen good board chairs understand this issue and institute both formal 360-degree reviews of the president and regular meetings with the president’s direct reports, faculty and students, but I have never seen a board that is truly successful at assessing its internal sources of information. And although the president is the most important source of information for the board, even they can be left out—I was once an interim president whose interim title was removed in a two-line email, with no discussion about how long I intended to stay or how I would view my position differently in a noninterim role.
Meanwhile, the common go-to source of external information for many board members who have spent their careers in the corporate world is The Wall Street Journal, despite encouragement from the administration to follow the higher education press. As befits a business-oriented publication that paints with a broad brush, the WSJ usually treats higher education as a single industry, when in fact the differences among elite privates, public flagships, regional privates, regional publics and community colleges, despite considerable overlap in their missions, are often greater than their commonalities from a business perspective.
This can lead board members to assume either that the college’s problems can easily be solved by reducing faculty (not usually the largest expense) or investing in bright shiny objects, or that all small private colleges are headed for the “demographic cliff” and should close or merge, without understanding how those population trends affect different regions, different sectors of higher education and differently ranked value propositions.
Perhaps the worst effect of this kind of information intake is that it relieves board members of accountability (see Dysfunction No. 4): if a college’s financial problems can be attributed to external demographics, then board members can get off the hook for years of bad decisions.
These dysfunctions provide a few key takeaways:
- Boards cannot be successful without understanding the potential pitfalls of these dysfunctions. Board education needs to move from self-assessment to education on both the problems generated by a board’s very structure and an honest evaluation of the board’s long-term successes and failures.
- Board members need to set their egos aside in addressing these problems. As in Lencioni’s framework, these particular problems are not the result of ill will or personality flaws, but rather failures of interpretation, trust and attention to what is important.
- The best way for boards to succeed is to balance truly strategic and intergenerational oversight with a trust in the administration to run the college in the present moment and plan for the near-term future. If they can’t trust the president and senior administration, they should fire the president and find someone they can trust (with the deep experience in higher education that board members should know they lack)—but despite their success in other fields, they shouldn’t try to do the job themselves.
- Boards should regularly evaluate their information sources and the quality (not just the quantity) of the data that influences institutional decisions.