How to Have Tough Conversations with Your Board

Ready for your board meeting?

Part 1 of 3

Examine the vitae of most everyone at RHB and you’ll discover that we share the experiences of being practitioners on campuses around the country prior to coming to RHB. We’re fortunate to be able to counsel from having walked in your shoes—or at least your colleague’s. None of us have been university presidents (yet!) but other than that role, you’ll find someone here with deep empathy for what you face each day. We’re particularly blessed to have two specific industry leaders who I’ve asked to help me with this post series. And to provide a closing to this, you’ll see I’m joined by my business partner Tammy, whose experience as a university trustee is particularly pertinent to the post. 

This continues to be a year or two we will be referencing for years to come. These pandemic years have turned our heads more than once (sometimes making them spin!) as new challenges and opportunities have arisen. Because so much of what we have experienced in the past year or so has been new for so many, finding answers and solutions has been particularly challenging since there have been few previous experiences to draw upon as examples. Every campus has become its own case study. 

The realities you have faced make board meetings challenging. You can tell the truth about conditions and activities, but it’s been difficult to analyze, interpret and project what the data truly means. How do you prepare for a board meeting? What do you say to your board? How do you keep them informed? How do you provide confidence in a time of a high level of disruption?

In this post, I’m suggesting four ideas to keep in mind as you prepare for your next board meeting. I’ve enlisted the help of Ken Anselment, the Dan Saracino Chair of Enrollment Management at RHB and the Vice President for Enrollment and Communications at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, as well as Rob Zinkan, Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB, who came with 17 years of leadership at Indiana University. These two are literally our A to Z of expertise in these areas, and their insights from their own experiences at the front lines will help make these recommendations real for you. Their posts will appear as part of this series of three.

Come with Realistic Optimism

Your board does not want to hear you grumble about impossible odds. They’ve put you in charge to lead, to go forward despite tough circumstances. Neither do they want to hear you to paint a false picture of the challenges. Always tell the truth. Provide the data so they can have confidence in your assessment of reality. But show the way ahead and how you plan to persevere and succeed. Unless they have asked you to lead through a closure, your job is to show the path to achieving your mission even if or when you are adjusting your goals.

Remember that your board has heard or read the public discourse about a diminishing sense of the value of higher education in the US as well as the ongoing reports of despair for campuses and students. They’ve heard a few success stories that they will encourage you to emulate. They’ll come with well-intentioned counsel about how one school’s success could be yours. As you tell your true story, you may be well-served to proactively refer to popular news stories and misperceptions propagated in some news media. Give the facts. 

Frame New Challenges Thoughtfully

As you give facts, you may be tempted to illustrate how colleges and universities around the country are troubled by similar challenges without success; you may intend to lower expectations in order to buy yourself some time or your extended contract. Better to address how market conditions have caused you to change your game plan. Explain how your audience behaviors have altered your strategies. Describe what you are doing or intend to do in order to adapt to market pattern shifts. Your board will trust your new agenda when you include them in your strategic thinking.

That being said, come with a plan. Tell how you are implementing strategies to address the challenges you are facing. Talk about how you are offering training to on-campus teams to pivot their efforts to accommodate change.

Expand the Horizon

Though it’s tough to find much to be grateful for amidst a pandemic and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives as a result, COVID-19 forced some stretching in our thinking and capacities. You have acquired new skills because you had to; you’ve overcome the fear of change. Many of your experiments have worked better than you expected; you will not behave exactly as you did prior to the pandemic. The calamities you faced are opening doors to new opportunities: ways to make better use of technology, serve constituents without in-person contact, save travel costs, realize that imitating reality may not be necessary when virtual may in fact offer something better. Your board wants to know what you’ve learned and more importantly, what you plan to do with what you now know.

Reconsider your Positioning

In some ways, the pandemic leveled the playing field among colleges and universities. For example, distinctive delivery modes became less distinctive since campuses had to follow guidelines that forced what appeared to be generic. Beautiful campuses became less an ace than before. Exceptional facilities weren’t a drawing card. Nor was face-to-face connection with caring faculty. Nor was easy access to campus. Small classes were common rather than exceptional. Hanging out on the quad wasn’t realistic for most. If anything, the pandemic forced institutions to reevaluate their distinctions among peers. And for many, this has been a golden moment to rearticulate what sets them apart. Are you helping your board gain clarity about your market position?

We’ve often written about the challenges and possibilities for positioning in RHB Insights. If you’d like to read more, you can filter our posts by clicking “positioning” in the left margin under “filter by topic.”

And now a word from a trustee. RHB CEO Tammy Bailey serves as a trustee of her alma mater, Spring Arbor University in Michigan, where she’s held a variety of offices: vice chair, secretary, treasurer and a committee chair for governance and strategic planning. I asked her to speak about board expectations and duties from her perspective and here she offers the final word:

“As a trustee, my assignment is to assure that our one employee, the President, has the support he needs and to be a resource for him in any area I may be able to contribute. I have responsibility to come to board meetings prepared based on the information shared prior to the meeting and I’m ready to ask follow-up questions and express any concerns regarding challenging areas or new initiatives. Each year seems to have its own opportunity or challenge which I need to understand in order to contribute action steps and decide responsibly when called upon to vote. When it comes time to hear reports from the vice presidents for enrollment, advancement and marketing, I want transparency and a real picture of what they are facing—and the status of their choices and actions. I want that transparency both in the difficult times as well as the times of great success so that we have the ability to assess what brought the success or difficulty. I hope that I am always an encourager of efforts and that my contributions are truly useful. This also brings us back to supporting the President as he manages all areas of campus.

“The COVID-19 crisis has been a challenge for every campus. Spring Arbor University addressed concerns immediately and because they were well-versed and equipped for distance learning, there wasn’t too much anxiety about the pivots that needed to occur. As a board, however, we heard a need and responded by establishing a fund to help students who had a gap in their financial ability to return to campus when that was possible.” 

Be sure to read parts 2 and 3 from Ken Anselment and Rob Zinkan.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.