Building a Better Board


Antonia (Toni) Jackson is very proud that, after many years of service to her alma mater, she has been chosen by her peers to serve as chair of its board of trustees. She is the first woman in the history of Flynnhurst, a small regional liberal arts college, to serve in this role. It is a time of great risk and opportunity for Flynnhurst. After a failed three-year presidency that saw declining enrollments and lackluster fundraising, President Jeremiah Staples stepped down and has been replaced by Dorothy Cardon, a former provost at a solid second-tier university in Chicago.


Toni headed the search committee that brought Dorothy to Flynnhurst and is very eager for her to succeed. She wants the Flynnhurst Trustees to play a constructive role in the new administration, but is not sure there is consensus among her fellow board members about what this would look like.


Toni’s fellow trustees, many of whom have served on the board together for years, are worried about the College, feeling that they should have acted more quickly and decisively to make a leadership change. Henry Philpott, the retired CEO of a small manufacturing company, spoke for many board members when he said “Flynnhurst started failing on our watch, and it’s up to us to get it back on track!” Henry and other trustees have not been shy about sharing their concerns with the new President. Some trustees believe that the current, long-serving advancement vice president should be fired and “a real fundraiser” hired to turn around the development operation. Others feel that the Dean of Admissions should be let go and replaced with a new “superstar.” Sam Farley, chair of the Faculty Affairs, Tenure, and Promotion Committee believes that he and his fellow committee members must get much more deeply engaged in assessing the tenure and promotion files and the curricular proposals that come before them if the academic quality of the College is to improve. He has been offended by the resistance of the Dean of Faculty, who seems reluctant for board members to delve deeply into academic matters, and has not been reticent in sharing his negative opinion of the Dean with the new President.


After one semester on the job, President Cardon has her own perspective on these issues and an additional set of concerns. She is grateful to the Board for the opportunity to lead the College, and sensitive to their anxiety about its recent challenges. She knows that they want fast action and are inclined to a “hands-on” approach to fixing the institution’s problems. She is painfully aware that they have just fired one President for moving too slowly, and she doesn’t want to be perceived as indecisive or obstructionist. She also wants to channel their energy and commitment into productive work without abdicating her own responsibilities or alienating the faculty.


Furthermore, President Cardon worries that, despite their election of the College’s first woman chair, the Flynnhurst board seems to function as a bit of an old boys’ club. Meetings tend to be informal, there are no term limits and many of the trustees have served a decade or more. New candidates for the board are often classmates, friends, and fraternity brothers of incumbent trustees. While all board members are philanthropically supportive, many of them make annual gifts that seem below their capacity. Although the last campaign ended four years ago, a number of trustees grumble that they are still “tapped out” from that effort and that “it is time for others to give.”


Both Toni and Dorothy believe that developing a high-functioning board should be a high institutional priority, but neither is sure that the other – or the trustees themselves - recognize the need for improvement. Neither Dorothy nor Toni is sure how to begin the conversation – or how to ensure that it leads to a positive and productive dialogue.


How could we help? Either the Board Chair or the President could take the initiative in reaching out to us with her concerns. The next step would be for us to take the temperature of the other institutional leader, and, if indicated, of board members, to develop consensus about board development going forward. In addition, we might:

· Work with the Board Chair and key Trustees to develop (and, if requested, administer) a self-assessment process for the Flynnhurst Board of Trustees.

· Work with the President, her senior leadership team, and key Trustees to review Board development processes and strategies: is there an effective process for identifying and vetting potential Trustees? Are there clear protocols for determining how invitations to join the Board are extended and expectations are communicated?

· Work with the President, Board Chair, and key Trustees to implement a comprehensive governance review of the board, its committee structure, the charges to each committee, and each committee’s working principles.


Your suggestions are welcome too!

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