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Exploring Interrelationships (Trustees+President+CAO)

This article was first published June 26, 2015.

William L. Fox, President St. Lawrence University

Excerpt from recorded interview with President Fox

WG: In your view, what are the ideal characteristics of an effective Board Chair, Board Advancement Chair and Chief Advancement Officer with regard to developing a strong, mutually respectful relationship with a president?

I think they all need to have a certain compatibility with each other. And I don’t think, you can have a weak link in those three key roles. With the board chair, the relationship between that person and the president is pivotal. And all challenges can be faced, all problems can be solved, all ambition can be realized, I think, if that relationship is constructive and trustworthy in every possible way. And then I think the lines of communication that crisscross with the other two individuals you’ve mentioned, will flow by good example. The advancement chair of the board needs to really understand the vocabulary, and that it is not sales and marketing. I think a trustee sometimes, given their backgrounds can confuse the idea of making one’s draw or quota in an organization like a university.

WG: As a president, what are your expectations, in general, of a CAO? How did you arrive at these expectations? Are these expectations formally discussed and agreed upon? Or was/is this an evolving process resulting from the dynamic nature of your work together?

I think that’s always evolving as the relationship matures and ripens. And I think from a president’s perspective, when you are working with the complexity of a senior staff, the person you’re going to spend maybe the most time with is the chief advancement officer. You’re going to be together in the car a lot, or on planes, or at events. And you have to have a partner that is adaptable and complements your own strengths as president.

My expectations are that I will have somebody I can learn from, working with me. And I’m very emphatic in my choice of prepositions. Working with is different from working for. And I very much think the relationship is, you know, among equals in work with donors. As the president, in terms of lines of responsibility, you’re first among equals. Primus inter pares, you know, as our political philosophers would tell us.

WG: What guidance would you provide to facilitate a new CAO’s collaboration with the Board Chair? The Advancement Chair? Other members of the board?

I think it needs to be a priority, when you come into one of these jobs as somebody new – it’s the old line about drinking from a fire hose. There’s so much coming at you, and you don’t know what’s urgent and what’s important, and those distinctions take time to figure out. And everything will seem of equal importance. Every email from every alum; or a staff member who’s anxious. But I think the priority has to be, make time to get acquainted with trustees. That’s the critical factor from the very beginning, in the relationship, that’s going to drive everything else. So, that can be courtesy calls, or when the board’s on campus, or at alumni events where there are board members present. It has to be very intentional.

It can be done with the president. The president has a certain symbolic prestige, and advancement officers are sensitive to this. Being a president, you need to be aware of it—that when an advancement officer is in the field with the president, it conveys a very important signal to others who are present, that this staff member is important. And so, I think the president can lend a helping hand in that period of getting acquainted, understanding the board culture, learning the story.

WG: What keeps you up at night regarding your board?

I think it has to start with the board’s 100% engagement with philanthropic endeavors. You need to have a very secure participation rate as your base. Without that, that would be a symptom of deeper underlying issues and problems with your board’s culture. That will keep you awake. So, knowing what to look for in a board when you’re new, is pretty important. Their record in involvement with comprehensive campaigns or the annual fund; their faithfulness in attending board meetings of course, but also other things where they have important ambassadorial roles to fill. So, that’s one thing that you look for. And if you don’t have that, then you’re going to lose some sleep.

WG: What “top tips” would you give to new presidents as they begin their tenure in building/enhancing a board and its role in fundraising?

Talk about the process of vision. I often say that vision is the president’s responsibility You’ve got to listen very, very skillfully to understand how to set that course. Most presidents – even with the greater number of nontraditional candidates, most presidents have a strong academic bent. They’re drawn to the mission, whether it’s teaching or research. They love to be in the realm of ideas and discourse. And I think your budgetary skills, especially in today’s climate, are going to be critical. If this is a deficiency, you’d better work to fill the gap—get tutoring. In coming to St. Lawrence, we had the great recession. In both cases, big problems to solve right away. And you need the board to help you with that while you gain the confidence of faculty and alumni. You’ve got to be able to say, “We can do this,” and believe it.

WG: Are there any anecdotes you can share that are examples of lessons you’ve learned, or strategies you find to be particularly effective in partnering with your Board and CAO?

Yes. A couple of things. In one instance, the board was lagging in this area significantly and didn’t understand, I think, the philanthropic role of a trusteeship, in a way that was on par with what the institution deserved. And so, in that case, a board retreat, which had not been the pattern, really helped to catalyze people’s enthusiasm for the institution—understand the great cause that they were asked to serve.

I think your senior trustees, who have done a lot of the heavy lifting and been involved with the institution a long time, can carry a very powerful message and help educate their fellow trustees by example. Only a trustee can model and teach some aspects of philanthropy that are important for an institution. When it comes from another trustee who’s a leader, it’s the right message and the right messenger. And as president, you try to broker that. I, for instance, can say to my generation, who are now serving as volunteer leaders, it’s our turn. To help interpret that, you need other voices within your board to explain that others made this possible in prior generations.

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