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Interview with Linda Davis Taylor: Exploring Interrelationships (Trustees+President+CAO)

Board Chair Scripps College

Interview Excerpts

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?

This is such a great question because it really sets the foundation for any effective relationship. The first things that come to my mind are qualities of openness and a willingness to communicate with candor. Those two characteristics encourage an environment of communication that enables effective dialogue to take place, which is vital necessary for solving problems and moving institutions forward. Another motto of mine is that all parties, not just the CAO and the president, but of course also the board chair have an “its not about us” mindset. We need to keep our focus on the institution, and be wary of allowing any personal agendas to affect our actions. And I would say, we have all agreed on a “no surprises” policy. That’s a two-way street. Finally, an atmosphere of respect both toward the board, and going the other way, for the professionals who are the ones who have the background, experience, and responsibility to carry out the job.

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 it makes sense at the outset for the President and Board Chair to talk about the relationship. The first thing our president and I did was to attend a workshop where we had the chance to do that. While we all have limited time, it is very important that the president, the CAO and the board chair take the time to discuss their mutual expectations. This gives everyone chance, before dealing with the actual duties, to be quite intentional about how you are going to communicate, to get familiar with personal styles, preferences, and the parameters we all bring to the relationship. When our president and I started we were both new to our roles, so we had different objectives and needs than we do now, with four years of experience behind us.

WG: From your perspective, how does trust develop in your relationship with each of these key positions? Were there specific steps you took? Was it strategic and intentional, or did it happen effortlessly?

This is such a crucial relationship. If it goes well, then you have double the resources to put to work toward institutional philanthropy. But if roles begin to get confused or competitive, then that is obviously counterproductive. The best is when the skills and interests are complementary and the president and CAO develop a partnership in which they work collaboratively with trustees regarding their philanthropic goals. I believe there should be a direct relationship between the CAO and the board chair and other trustees so that the President does not have to shoulder the entire responsibility of major gift development with trustees.

Our President began her first year at the same time I became Board Chair, so we knew that we were both going to be learning together. Now that our President has been in her role for four years, she doesn’t need the same things from me that she once did. I think we have been able to use that trajectory to function at a very effective level at this point. You want to have the openness to ask: are we functioning at the highest level we can? The beginning of every academic year provides a re-check. Our president develops a set of goals and objectives with me that is discussed with our full board and; then mid-way through the year we have another re-check to see if anything needs to be tweaked. We have a lot of communication! I think that keeps that “no surprises” rule at the top of everyone’s mind. Trust develops through solving problems together and to communicate as issues arise and circumstances evolve.

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?

We have had the great pleasure of a new CAO joining us this year and it is so refreshing to have someone who is very experienced, is passionate about the work, and brings a positive, proactive, solution oriented, respectful mindset to the job. If as a board member you recognize you have a CAO who is proactive, has a plan and can communicate effectively, trustees will be less likely to delve into operational issues or micromanaging. The best way for the advancement committee and board chair to help the CAO be effective is to start out being clear about expectations. That way, we can help optimize the philanthropic health of the institution.

WG: What keeps you up at night regarding your board? What are your greatest challenges in regard to engaging them in raising philanthropic support for Scripps?

Are we keeping our board engaged in the institutional vision we signed on to? I think about what got us involved in the first place- a commitment to the transformative power of education-- and hope that we keep those objectives front of mind while tending to the inevitable short term challenges that arise. Is there so much what I call “compliance” work that we run the risk of not keeping our work as board members interesting? A board member recently said to me, “We join these boards because it is so interesting to be part of an educational mission.” But we all know there is so much administrative work that it can be wearing over time. What can we do about that? Keep the vision compelling, and don’t forget that faculty and students can help remind board members why they are there. It is important for the CAO to be decisive and proactive about the strategy, communicate it well, understand why trustees are there, and manage your team and all the communication with the board so the members don’t feel “nickel and dimed.” And I don’t mean in the financial sense, but rather with respect to the use of our time and talents., You want to keep board members thinking at a very strategic level.

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?

Early on, meet with each trustee one on one. Everybody says they are going to do that and then with schedules etc. it’s soon a lost opportunity. Once the meetings start, and the committees, the work and the agendas, it’s not the same. Many board members have served for 20 and 30 years, and they offer a tremendous source of knowledge and institutional culture. These people have invested years in the institution and by forging those relationships early, new presidents and CAO’s can benefit greatly by reaching out proactively with their board members. This can save missteps later on. Do your homework. Our presidents have demanding jobs, their roles are so complex and advancement work is challenging. CAO’s should make sure their president is prepared and briefed as thoroughly as possible about each trustee’s unique relationship with the institution.

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?

We work very intentionally on our board culture. I believe that culture is everything, so if you can strengthen and develop the way in which your board interacts, discusses issues, and makes decisions, this will translate into strong relationships, effective meetings, and effective engagement. We try to use the skills and talents o each trustee as well as possible, so that they feel valued and valuable. I am a believer in small working groups. We have 30-35 trustees, and when you get all those people around a table, it is challenging to have effective dialogue. We have formed small working groups on a number of occasions to study a particular issue and bring it back to the full board for debate and discussion. The ideas that emerge and the interrelationships have been greatly enhanced. Those small groups have been very effective for us.

We decided to ask each trustee arrange for the president at least one new strategic introduction or speaking opportunity in their community. Most of us have been in our communities for a while and that also makes the board member feel as though the college has acknowledged them, and their community.

WG: Are there any final thoughts you would like to share that we haven’t yet covered?

We can’t take ourselves too seriously. Again, it’s not about us, it’s about the institution. I try to keep in mind, that for whatever reasons, my colleagues have asked me to assume this responsibility at this time; yes, it takes a great deal of work and time, but it is a life experience that is a great opportunity for learning and service.. I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to serve as a board chair to try to find a way to say yes. . It’s a wonderful leadership experience. And to the institutions: think about ways in which your board members can be effective in these jobs. Our institutions can not afford to lose great talent and sometimes a creative approach makes it possible for the perfect trustee to say yes to that invitation to serve as Board Chair.


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