03/12/2013 11:12 am ET Updated May 12, 2013

Trustee Leadership

Given the enormous changes, challenges and opportunities facing the entire educational industry and every individual college, a critical foundation of effective organizational stewardship that will foster the imperatives of change is harmony. Harmony among trustees, and especially between trustees and the CEO, creates the environment necessary for the Board and CEO to implement the strategic changes that are absolutely required today.

For over 30 years as a CEO, I have worked directly for four community college boards and served on numerous community-based and business boards. This experience affirmed that trustees and CEOs must fundamentally trust each other in order to achieve the optimum relationship necessary for an organization's success. Establishing and maintaining trust requires mutually respectful behaviors -- harmony. Trustees of any and all organizations must assert the lead to establish the foundation for the organization's success.

Recently, I had the opportunity to briefly address the nation's community college trustees at their annual conference in Boston. I encouraged the trustees to act according to three principles that determine whether their organization flourishes or fails. From a higher education perspective the principles are:

1) Stewardship: All trustees, individually and collectively, must stand united for the best interests of the students, protecting the community's investment in the assets, including the employees, and continuously seek a collaborative consensus among themselves and the CEO. The individual trustee must set aside the personal agenda, and often the agenda of particular groups or individuals who have the trustee's ear, maturely discuss/debate issues, take a vote and then respect the majority decision. The board acts by majority decision, not by individual preference. The board that permits individual directives to the CEO, or even worse, those reporting to the CEO, reaps havoc for the leader and organization and contradicts the effective benefits of cohesive, trusting stewardship.

2) Strategic Leadership: All trustees, individually and collectively, must affirm a clear, strategic agenda for the CEO and organization. A board's success is determined by clear, transparent direction. This is expressed in policy and resolutions made by the board voting in formal session. They provide intent to the organization. The more closely aligned policies and resolutions are to the strategic agenda, the greater the positive impact and effectiveness of the Board, CEO and organization.

3) Delegation: All trustees, individually and collectively, must establish clear strategic charges for the CEO who is the board's only employee; they must delegate the implementation of their policies to her/him and clarify expected results. The Board and CEO must communicate continuously and the Board must formally update its charges regularly and visibly support the CEO in the implementation of the agenda. The Board that ensures employees and students understand that the CEO is acting on its behest will enable a more harmonious relationship within. In return, the board should expect the CEO to provide full and continuous information on the implementation of the Board's agenda, especially before controversies arise so the trustees understand the context and complexities of the issues and can assure the CEO that they will stand with him/her. It is only in this environment of mutual respect that real institutional progress can be made. Courage has always been a key requirement for a CEO, but is especially critical in today's dramatically changing environment. A board cannot expect the CEO to lead, take risks and challenge the status quo unless the trustees are fully supportive and back him/her if challenged. That's honest stewardship and strategic leadership because it is through the CEO that the board acts. If there is no clear strategic and philosophic agenda, trustees may become at odds with each other and with the CEO, and personal agendas prevail. Those opposed to change will seize the opening and the CEO will be jeopardized, setting the board's agenda into disarray to the detriment of the institution and its stakeholders.

These principles are fundamental but often an individual trustee asserts his/her personal agenda by contending that stewardship requires "speaking out for one's constituency or representing the stakeholder's 'trust.'" Such personal agendas must either win the support of the majority of trustees or be set aside. Certainly, a trustee with major disagreements with the CEO should seek to resolve them privately with the assistance of the full Board. If the disagreement is with fellow trustees than she/he should consider collective strategies that achieve a more productive direction. In extreme situations, the trustees collectively must assert their stewardship responsibility with their peer and address the problem collectively. Otherwise, trust and harmony are lost and it is the CEO and organization that suffer the consequences of a distracted or dysfunctional Board.