The Pivotal -- and Pivoting -- Partnership

As institutions and contexts change, trustees and presidents must rethink how the board works, how priorities have shifted, and the ways in which they interact, Cathy Trower and Peter Eckel write.

 

June 27, 2019
 
 
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Presidential departures are once again in the headlines. The news this week of the abrupt departures of four presidents focused very much on those individuals, the timing of their stepping down from office and the lack of transition. The story centered on the presidents, yet such decisions involve multiple parties -- most centrally, the board.

While we do not know the details of each -- and the causes of such endings can be many -- we do know that the board had some type of say about the decision itself as well as the transition timing and process. It is common wisdom to acknowledge that boards and presidents act in a type of leadership and governance partnership. It is this partnership, however, that quickly can become tricky, as it seems to be constantly changing.

The word "partnership" is often used as a shorthand to describe the relationship between presidents and their boards. But a partnership can mean anything from an afternoon doubles tennis match to a lifelong matrimonial commitment -- complexity, nuance, interdependency and pivotal are all words used to describe this dynamic. Without the hard and fast rules of tennis or the intricacies and commitment of marriage, when this relationship works, it's great, but when it doesn't, it creates problems not only for the president and the board, but also for the institution.

There's no shortage of speculation as to why we've recently seen so much turnover early in a president's tenure as illustrated not only in these four cases, but also beyond. However, it appears broadly that a confluence of events and factors are at play, including: 1) these are especially trying times for higher education, making it difficult to lead and govern successfully, 2) more business people are serving on boards who are comfortable cutting ties quickly with a president who doesn't live up to increasingly high expectations, 3) boards are becoming less deferential to the president, and 4) the means of governance are changing, and boards do not know how to respond constructively.

In a nutshell, boards often are more anxious about their institutions; in turn they are more active (if not activist) in their roles as fiduciaries, which leads to increased strain on the board-president relationship. At colleges and universities where the relationship sours, there is a "loss of board confidence" (especially at public institutions), and the president is fired.

The fact is that boards sometimes make poor hiring choices, and presidents sometimes make mistakes. Other times, however, circumstances change and require different leadership, and it is this third situation that demands more attention. As institutions and contexts change, boards and presidents may need to work differently -- they may need, in short, to pivot to a new direction. But before we discuss how boards and presidents should do that, we want to describe three fundamental elements in the president-board relationship.

Three Functions

Presidents and boards have a complex, multidimensional relationship that crosses three spheres of work. The first dimension involves accountability. For all intents and purposes, boards are the supervisors of presidents. They hold the president accountable for setting and reaching targets and goals, and they influence what those targets and goals are. Words that often describe the board's role in this part of the relationship are overseer, boss and evaluator.

The second dimension, or function, is strategic. Boards can help presidents think through direction, strategy and priorities. Common descriptors used to capture this board role are colleague, strategist, collaborator and corroborator.

The third function is that of supporter. The job of a presidency is difficult and intense, full of contradictions and trials that test an individual's resilience. The presidency can be a lonely job, and boards can provide essential moral support. The words reflecting this function are coach, confidant, safe port and sounding board.

Many boards and presidents don't explicitly recognize the breadth of their collaboration. And the challenge for many presidents is that the board has a greater disposition toward one or two of these functions or isn't skilled equally across them.

Many presidents and boards think accountability first and do not pay attention to the personal dynamics of the relationship, for instance. These are the boards that drive the oversight and accountability agendas. We see other examples in which boards are all support and little challenge. They operate as cheerleaders, not supervisors. In the former case, presidents may feel isolated and overwhelmed -- not just by the nature of the presidency but also by the unrelenting focus of the board on performance metrics. In the latter case, boards may not give sufficient attention to accountability. If and when something goes awry on the campus, boards that have not attended to their oversight role sufficiently may find a mess on their hands.

These examples are extreme -- typically, two of the three aspects of the relationship are done fairly well. But it's always best if boards and presidents can develop the skills and knowledge to work across all three functions intentionally and well, and adapt over time.

The final important element related to the above is the challenge of seeking advice. Presidents, especially when new, may be leery or uncomfortable seeking advice from the board. Instead, they tend to either want to try to control the board or to keep it at arm's distance or in the dark. The literature on advice-seeking notes that people often perceive asking for help, particularly from organizational superiors, as a sign of dependency or incompetence. This is a risk many new presidents are unwilling to take. Consider the higher education search process. After the rounds of interviews, the vetting of candidates, the negotiation of contracts, the president surely doesn't want to signal the need for assistance.

Power at Play

A second key dynamic in this relationship is related to power. Most people recognize the power that the board holds -- and can wield -- over the president. The board, after all, hires, evaluates and compensates the president, as well as decides when to fire them. But the relationship has another side: the power that the president has over the board.

The president -- who is more likely to have an academic background than most of the trustees -- has expert power to leverage. The president understands higher education and the culture of the academy and has developed, over time, administrative and management expertise on which the board relies. Presidents also have informational power by virtue of being board's "gateway" to the institution or system. Finally, power comes with the position. The president gains influence at a level that other people simply don't have.

Understanding how these sets of power matter to the relationship and to the board as a whole are important. Power is neither good nor bad until it is invoked. Leveraging different sources of power collaboratively to move institutional and board agendas ahead is greatly beneficial. The reverse can be said about putting them together for personal and not institutional gain. Unfortunately, we see this happen too often, as well.

These sources of power can also come into conflict. For example, depending on the aims of the president and the chair, power battles between them do occur. When that happens, regardless of which individual wins, the institution usually loses.

Further, the dynamics of power between presidents and boards change over time. The longer presidents serve, the more power they accrue, as they gain more knowledge and expertise and have more access to, and control over, information. Things can get especially tricky if a long-term president becomes impervious to feedback and keeps their board at arm's length or in the dark.

When Things Change

In a rapidly changing environment, the most effective boards are those that can evolve. The dynamics today require presidents and boards to understand the situations they face and undertake change when necessary. That change includes how the board works, how institutional priorities shift and the ways in which presidents and boards interact.

For example, the relationship between presidents and boards can change quickly with the election or appointment of a new board chair or the hiring of a new president. A distant relationship can quickly become an intense and up-close one. One that was driven primarily by facts and figures can suddenly become conversational, and one that was future-focused can become more immediate. While presidents and chairs know this intuitively, the realities often take a while to settle in and manifest themselves.

Other changes are more contextual, driving boards to approach their work in new ways and presidents to work with boards differently. The president-board relationship should be one of continual focus and evolution. Problems often occur because of familiarity and comfort that turn into complacency on either side.

To keep the relationship current, boards are well-served to discuss how they can best support, strategize with and hold accountable the president as the institution responds to change. Boards can start by asking a series of questions:

  • How well do we oversee and hold the president accountable? Are we effective strategic thought partners? How well do we support the individual leading this institution (or system)? Are we better at one function than the others? What evidence supports our assessment?
  • What is the balance of time we spend on oversight, strategy and support of the president? Is it the right balance given institutional challenges?
  • Given changing circumstances and institutional needs, what do we currently do that we should keep doing? What should do more or less of?
  • Are we, as a board, asking the right questions on the right issues at the right time?
  • Do we as a board have the self-awareness we need to approach our work differently? Do we have the will to change how we work collectively and with the president? And do we have the knowledge necessary to bring about the change?

Presidents would be well-served to ask themselves questions, too:

  • What do I need from the board to move the institution forward? To what extent am I getting it?
  • What do I need in terms of oversight and accountability for progress on new or redefined goals?
  • In what ways is the board supporting my presidency? Is it providing me the tools, advice and cover needed to make change?
  • How well does the board function as a thought-partner? Do their ideas and insights make it to the boardroom? How willing and able is the board to translate their corporate and other outside experiences and insights into the higher education context?
  • To what extent do I have the relationship with the board that encourages these types of discussions? If I don't, how can I (quickly) build that relationship to improve how we work together?

Trying times demand trying work. As the old saw goes: when the president is performing poorly, the board fires the president, and when the board is performing poorly, the board fires the president. Most institutions can ill-afford such disruptions. Instead, they should more intentional about the elements of the board-president relationship, being clear about that relationship and its strengths and weaknesses, and how that relationship might need to differ moving ahead. Better communication and intentional dialogue about what presidents and boards need from one another is all the more important when there seems to be little time for it. Our advice: make time!

Bio

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a governance consulting firm. Peter Eckel serves as senior fellow and director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He co-directs the Penn Project on University Governance.This essay is adapted from a chapter in their book, Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently about College and University Governance.

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