3 Critical Steps to Developing Effective Working Relationships between Presidents and Boards of Trustees and Why it Matters

The relationship between higher education presidents and boards of trustees is a key predictor of how well an institution will perform. A positive working relationship, rooted in trust and respect, paves the way for a unified vision that inspires and energizes the institution as a whole. A fractured or dysfunctional relationship can lead to chaos and shift leadership’s focus from institutional performance to resolving internal disorder. Here are three important steps to developing effective relationships among trustees and presidents.

01. Define President and Board Roles

In most cases, defining or redefining the leadership roles of the president and the board happens as the result of change or conflict. To get it right, effective leadership begins at the top, and it’s a balancing act between the board chair and the president. In the best scenario, the president’s role is to provide academic and operational leadership, while the board’s role is to provide leadership from a governance perspective, including strategic direction and financial oversight. Individual board member roles should be defined up front, either at the start of each academic year or at the board’s annual retreat. A proactive definition of roles assures that institutional boards will be balanced and that all parties understand what is expected of them.

02. Build an Authentic Partnership

The most effective relationships are constructed on a foundation of mutual respect and trust. This foundation takes time to build, particularly in organizations where the group composition morphs or individuals change roles regularly. A fundamental way to ensure the ongoing cultivation of a true partnership is consistent and transparent communication. The board chair and president should engage in regular dialogue to discuss opportunities and challenges, institutional priorities, and potential roadblocks and resolutions. The board should be apprised of critical topics and asked to devise or weigh in on actions that ensure organizational health.

03. Collaborate on a Shared Vision

The higher education landscape is changing at a dramatic pace, and successful colleges and universities will be those that can adapt to – and capitalize on – that change. The board and president, as partners, should continuously monitor trends and assess how impending change will affect their institution. Together, this leadership and governance team can then develop a strategic vision for how the institution will evolve and thrive. The vision will drive the identification of goals and strategies to be included in a jointly developed institutional strategic plan, in which all parties have ownership.


Effective relationships boil down to mutual respect and understanding of the assets, liabilities, viewpoints, and concerns of all involved. In higher education in particular, the establishment of a robust partnership between presidents and trustees can be challenging to achieve, whether it be due to time, geography, personality differences, or another barrier.

These hurdles are more easily overcome with commitment and a laser focus on the success of the institution.

By AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education

Posted on 08.01.2019