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Veteran College CEOs Offer Advice on Partnering With Trustees

By Ellie Ashford

Experienced community college leaders offer advice for new CEOs about working with trustees.

This article is excerpted from an occasional series published in AACC’s Community College Daily on leadership issues. Read the full article.

Community college presidents who want to establish an excellent relationship with their boards of trustees should communicate with them frequently, put trustees in the spotlight and create a climate of trust. That’s some of the key advice from seasoned CEOs to new presidents.

Orlando George, president of Delaware Technical Community College, recommends that incoming presidents establish a strong and effective communications process to keep the board informed on important issues facing the college.

“You don’t ever want the board to be surprised when they see news articles about the college,” he says.

Stay ahead of the story

“You can never underestimate what your board wants to know and how much information you should give them,” says Katharine Winograd, president of Central New Mexico Community College.

Whenever there’s a crisis on campus — a fire, a break-in or a drug bust, for example — Winograd calls or emails board members right away. She believes it’s critical that board members hear about it from the president before they see it in the media. That goes for internal college matters, too. If a senior-level administrator has to be let go or decides to leave after lots of complaints, “make sure you talk to the board about it,” she says.

Winograd schedules a “work study” session with the board on the first Monday of the month to update trustees on campus issues. A recent session dealt with a water main break leading to parking problems.

“We’re not allowed to have anything that needs approval on the agenda. It’s truly just informative,” she says. “It’s a way for board members to learn firsthand about anything a community member might stop them on the street and complain about.”

One-on-one time

Devin Stephenson, president of Three Rivers College (TRC) in Missouri, finds it valuable to schedule one-on-one conversations with board members to discuss specific issues in their communities.

TRC serves 15 counties in rural southeastern Missouri, and three of the six board members are from the county where the college is based. The individual meetings help the other three feel less like outsiders, Stephenson says.

You can’t leave trustees on the sideline. You have to involve them.

“Board members need to know the president cares about their constituents,” he says. “You can’t leave trustees on the sideline. You have to involve them.”

A positive climate

When George took on the presidency at Delaware Tech 19 years ago, he shared with the board a set of principles to guide his leadership, including honesty, openness and high ethical standards.

“The most important thing a president does is to help create a culture at your institution as being a safe, supportive, nurturing environment for your employees and for your students,” George says. “When board members see a culture of respect, they get it.”

He advises presidents to “create a sense of honesty and a sense of transparency with the board.” One way of doing that, he says, is “to take every opportunity at public events to showcase members of the board and thank them for what they do.”

“We want to have the board engaged,” he says.

Focused conversations

Lonnie Howard started attending board strategic planning sessions even before he officially took on the role as president of Clover Park Technical College in Washington. That gave him a chance to outline his vision for the college and learn about board members’ institutional priorities.

Howard worked with the board to pare down a lengthy strategic plan to three simple objectives: increase student success and access, be more responsive to the local community and employers, and become more entrepreneurial.

He advises presidents to meet with every board member individually once a month to discuss the major issues of the college, such as accreditation, enrollment, the budget and the legislative agenda.

According to Howard, it helps the president to be transparent, consistent and proactive by having “the same conversation with every board member.” When meeting with trustees, he asks, “How am I doing? Are there things I should do better? Do you have any concerns?”

Defusing conflicts

George says there haven’t been many conflicts during his tenure but there have been instances where “a board member with all the right intentions steps over the line and gets down into the weeds on what should be an administrative matter.”

When something like that happens, he says, “you don’t ever want to embarrass a board member.” He advises asking the board chair to have a conversation with the trustee.

“The president is in the position to keep the board together—the last thing you want to do is create dissensions in the board,” George says.

At Central New Mexico Community College, “there are legitimate conflicts,” often having to do with difficult budget decisions or where to locate a new facility, Winograd notes. But while the board is made up of “seven very different personalities,” she says, “it’s a cohesive board. They don’t always agree with each other, but they do have the ability to reach consensus.”

And that’s something Winograd acknowledges she works hard to achieve.

“As president of the college, my role is to try to find the middle ground on issues,” she says.

A team effort

As a new president, it’s important to understand that much of one’s time will be spent on the serving the board, Winograd says.

“I really wish someone had said something to me about how much time and energy it really does take to create a relationship and a team approach to working with your board,” she says. “A new president shouldn’t underestimate we are part of a team.”

Part of that requires getting to know your teammates and their strengths, concerns and suggestions.

“As much as possible, if you can spend the time and energy to understand exactly what everyone is truly trying to accomplish, when you put a recommendation in front of them, it’s a reflection of that,” she says. “The nice thing about a board is you’re not in it alone. They provide an opportunity for support and advice.”

For more advice, read the full story in AACC’s Community College Daily.

Ellie Ashford

Ellie is associate editor of AACC’s Community College Daily.

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