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One River, Not Two Streams

A governance expert talks about improving relations with your board of trustees.
University Business, Dec 2006

It's no exaggeration to say that college and university governing boards suffer from an identity problem. Administrators have increasingly gravitated toward leadership roles, reducing the board's relevance to essentially being a rubber stamp for strategies and projects that have been determined without their counsel.

In their book Governance as Leadership (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), co-authors Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor encourage boards and administrators alike to consider their roles in a new light-"not as separate stories that shape two distinct areas of practice, but as two intertwined plot lines in a much larger story." Their goal is not to tear apart the existing structure of boards, but to enhance the tools and techniques already in place for the benefit of the institution.

Chait, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spoke with University Business about how administrators and boards can improve their relations to work more closely and effectively toward a common goal.

We chose the term "generative" because it is actually rooted in genesis. You might think of generative work as the headwaters of a decision-making stream. That's where issues, problems, and opportunities are discovered, defined, and framed that then get converted into discussion about strategy plans and tactics. Most boards have historically entered into conversations at the time when the problems have already been identified and framed, and were in the process of finding solutions. The argument we make is that a large part of governance is to be present at the genesis, to be present upstream in the decision-making process, so you have one river, not two streams. That is what's different-it isn't just asking, "Do we have the time, do we have the space, the facilities, and the funds?" It's not asking, "How does this relate to the market and strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats?" Instead, it's asking, "Is the problem we are addressing actually the problem? Do we have the right question? What are the values and beliefs that underlie the issue?"

Right. For example, if you are going to build a new student fitness center, you don't want to just have a conversation about where to put it and how large it's going to be. And you don't want to have a conversation about how it compares to peers, and whether it provides an advantage in admissions or not. You really want to first ask a different set of questions: "Is this about a social mission or a business plan? What sense do we make of the amenities arm race? Do we want to play or pass? And if we do want to play, by what principles do we play?" That way, after you've built the fitness center, when someone comes along and says we need a cineplex on campus, you're in a position where you've already thought about the general issue and not the specific issue. That, in a nutshell, is what generative work is.

Yes, another way to put it is that if boards cannot macro govern, they are going to micromanage. What executives need to do is to create those opportunities for a board to macro govern or to have macro engagement as opposed to micro monitoring, is another way to put it. They are going to do something. And it's better for everyone that they be in a position to help you think through whether you got the questions right or help management decide what to ponder and what to worry about, rather than react to just those issues that management has chosen to worry about. It is about creating issue displacement. You want to get more value-added issues on the table and low-value issues off the table.

Exactly. It's what they do every day. When people ask us what is generative thinking, we ask them to tell us what they do at work. Inevitably, what they tell us is the definition of generative thinking: What sense do we make of what is going on here? How do we put cues and clues together? How do we take seemingly disparate information and connect it into some kind of coherent story? No executive goes to work and says, "Whatever is in my in box is what I'm going to do today." Yet board members go to board meetings and everything is predicated in a way that says, "You're at the bottom of the decision-making stream. The last thing we need you to do is approve the budget or the tactic for a strategy that we have already developed." And then they just go right for the budget.

Part of it is that they are wearing bifocals instead of trifocals. They see fiduciary and strategic work; they've been instructed and socialized to do that work. Some executives would rather allow trustees to manage if the president gets to govern, rather than let the board govern so the president can manage. We called the book Governance as Leadership, but there are executives who prefer leadership as governance. They are willing to trade off and in a sense divert the board's attention. But a lot of it has to do with learning how to think about governance and governing that opens up a line of inquiry that most boards haven't thought about. We're inviting trustees to start to think of governance as having these three component parts.

It would have been better if there had been more attention paid to what mattered most and less attention to what didn't matter quite so much. That means generally taking a longer-term perspective, rather than a short-term perspective. The board could have been more sympathetic to the idea that what management needed from them was a forum to think aloud and to discuss issues that were emerging, rather than to just come with transactions that needed to be executed.

You don't want to focus on one mode to the exclusion of the others. What we meant to convey in that sentence was that it's dangerous if trustees very intermittently and almost spastically assert themselves upstream in the decision-making process, or get into it and then get out of it. You don't want a board that says, "Okay, once a year we'll really do generative work. Let's focus on what is going on in the larger world of higher education, and let's do a lot of big picture thinking for an hour and then we'll all go back to work." That's very unsettling and uneven. The idea is to take the three perspectives and apply them to the lion's share of the board's work, and not to separate them out and do them one by one in some sequence. To go back to my earlier example of building a new fitness center, the board shouldn't say, "Oh, we'll just focus on the budget." It should instead be asking the question before the question: How did we get to this point? Why did someone decide it was a good idea to build a fitness center? Just because everyone else is doing it? What is that telling us? So, for the board to attack these issues every now and then in a very uneven and unpredictable way is the wrong approach. You have this highly compartmentalized conversation about the larger context and making sense of the larger environment-then it's dropped for a year and picked up again the next year. There has to be continuity to it.

They can both do it in the same way: By agreeing on the most important questions that they need to address together. It's what the corporate governance sector calls the decision agenda: What are the decisions we have to make in the next year that are consequential or fateful for the institution? If we can agree on those, then management can start to work on those issues. But you can begin to ask questions that don't presume tactical answers but help make sense of the circumstances in which those questions will be answered. If you get the questions right, that's a huge start. It's what we call a fusion of thinking and not a division of labor. There has to be a meeting of the minds about the issue before there is a meeting of the board to act on the issue.

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