Millicent Valek: Sustaining Long-Term Relationships with Boards

Each year, nearly one in four of America’s community colleges experience leadership transitions. While some of the change is due to an aging baby boomer population and impending retirements, a significant amount of departures are due to a variety of other reasons. Many times, these transitions follow controversy of some manner and often they are related to presidential/trustee relationships.

According to a 2012 American Association of Community College survey, the average tenure of a community college presidency is seven years. Whether elected or appointed, the average tenure of a college trustee is just a bit longer. So, if a President stays in his or her role longer than the average CEO, the Board composition will likely change over time, and the president will no longer be working with the trustees who hired him or her. This raises many questions about sustaining board relations over time and the systems required to achieve progress toward multi- year goals in the midst of changes in governance roles.

While there are varying perspectives on this topic, experience proves there are three key elements to sustaining effective relations between the trustees who serve on governance boards and the college presidents who work with them. Those key elements are communication, building relationships, and having an appraisal system.

Communication

Planning and supporting an effective board meeting is the most basic communication means with the Board. This requires a carefully prepared agenda with appropriate resource material, succinct and professional presentations by staff, and preparation for anticipated questions. It also requires practice for the actual conduct of the meeting and review following the meeting to assess outcomes and make improvements for future meetings. This may seem like “overkill” for a single meeting; however, board meetings are the building blocks for communication with the Board, so attention to detail and continuous improvement is worthwhile.

It is also important to provide an opportunity for the Board to participate in long-range planning outside of regular business meetings. Developing an annual calendar that includes a Board planning retreat helps develop a strong governance team, ensure common understanding, provide ongoing professional development opportunities, and allow time for extended deliberation on mission-critical topics. Capturing the outcomes from this important annual meeting in written documents will help guide the strategic planning process, provide measures for accountability, and serve as orientation material for new members.

Building Relationships

The board-CEO relationship is complex because it is hierarchical. The board works for the public and the CEO works for the board. However, serving on a community college board is a complex matter. Board members rely on the president to help them understand the institution’s intricacies and critical issues. So the relationship between the board and the CEO is also interdependent.

Further adding to the complexity is the reality that relationships are built with individual members of the board and yet trustees have no formal individual power. Power is vested in the entire board. But individual members can have great influence when they speak and act. Therefore, it is critical to continually be cognizant of the importance of relationship building with individuals.

Relationships that are built on mutual respect and support can withstand the inevitable challenges that presidents face. If you practice the rule of “no surprises,” board members and the CEO will communicate relevant information on difficult topics in a timely manner.

Given the constraints of open meeting laws and public information requests, building relationships is best accomplished with in-person conversations and phone calls. Constant open communication that occurs equally among board members and the CEO is a major component of expressing mutual support and respect. It is the essential linchpin to building strong relationships.

Appraisal System

There is great power in a sound appraisal system for both the CEO and the board. Notice the word “system” in the former sentence. Appraisals need to occur regularly, and a sound system includes a calendar that is consistently adhered to in practice. The CEO’s appraisal is ideally built on shared goals and an approved position description. This approach lends objectivity to the process and provides accountability for operational effectiveness as well as support for his or her role as leader.

Stipulating an annual evaluation as a term in the CEO’s contract has proven helpful. Another effective practice has been to establish two separate times in the appraisal calendar for CEO review:

(1) formative evaluation: progress toward goals and overall leadership is reviewed, and

(2) summative evaluation: contract renewal and terms are considered.

This allows the board and CEO to have meaningful conversations about overall college leadership, opportunities for growth and development, and expression of support for the work of the president separate from the politics that may accompany contractual considerations.

Concurrently, the president should support the board in the development of an appraisal system that allows them to reflect on their effectiveness as a board and also their own contributions as trustees.   Building the appraisal system on policies that embody the board’s code of ethics, responsibilities, and best practices provides a common basis for discussion.

Scheduling the board evaluation during the same executive session in which CEO formative evaluation is conducted is effective. It allows for open yet confidential communication about everyone’s respective roles. The consistency of these practices allows for a strong and ongoing commitment to defining board effectiveness, professional enhancement. It also strengthens the concept of the board and CEO as one team.

Conclusion

Like any human relationship, it takes constant work and reinvention to keep board relations strong and viable. While there is no template for sustaining a strong partnership between the board and CEO, the practices discussed above have proved valuable and greatly influenced the culture necessary for high performance over time.

Millicent Valek is President of Brazosport College and has served in that role since 1996. Brazosport College was named a top ten college by the Aspen Institute in 2013 and 2015.

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