Board members who have worked through an institutional crisis recognize how seismic events can galvanize a board. Crises generate more interaction, more meetings, and more communication — often outside the usual channels. And, as crises ebb, so does board engagement. Professional board watchers recognize these stages as belonging to recurrent cycles in board behavior.
It usually takes seismic events to jolt boards into new patterns and move them along in the cycle. Those who govern should expect that recessions, denominational upheavals, sudden reductions in major revenue streams, or presidential transitions will disrupt the status quo and force change. They should be especially mindful in the course of such events to tend the links between the board and the chief executive — the president, rector, principal, or dean — because that relationship is the locus of tension and the source for transformation.
Consider the stages as identified by Miriam Wood in her article titled "Is Governing Board Behavior Cyclical?":
Founding boards of new institutions are highly committed and may even provide volunteer executive leadership in service to mission. The board embodies the mission and exudes a sense of ownership. Once the institution is established — which can take years — founding members begin to leave and are replaced by a second generation that feeds on the original vision but expects the work to be more routine. Second-generation board leaders rely more on the executive to accomplish results — at least until a major crisis occurs.
Crisis propels the board into a super-managerial or activist board that alters its relationship with the president. The board wants more accountability and transparency to be assured that the organization and its future are being safeguarded. In this mode, board members seek information from other stakeholders and funders in addition to what they hear from the executive. The board may also recruit new members with a wider range of skills and networks than represented on the founding board. Members sometimes even fill vacuums in presidential leadership.
Once the institution is stabilized, the board, now made up of many professionals, grows to expect increased professionalism in its own work and in the presidency. It becomes a corporate board. Committee work is carefully distributed and committees meet regularly. Most information flows through the president's office. Policy handbooks are developed and strategic planning is the order of the day, with agendas and board recruitment matched to strategic initiatives. The president expects formal evaluation. Board loyalties are devoted to the success of the institution and to the executive insofar as he or she is capable of leading it to success.
But sustaining this level of engagement proves to be tough and, as energy diminishes, the board can morph into a ratifying board — one that exhibits less cohesiveness as a group and whose members are less familiar with each other and less engaged with the success of either the president or the institution.
Falling asleep at the helm almost inevitably leads to crisis. First, the board returns to the supermanagerial phase — either by challenging the executive or working alongside the executive to achieve desired results. Then, if the institution survives, a corporate board emerges again.
But is this behavior predetermined? Certainly the cultural mores in higher education inform our preference for the corporate mode. But as people of faith, we expect more of ourselves than following good process. Boards and presidents can practice assessment and accountability as a spiritual discipline, one that tempers their communication, promotes mutual growth, and envisions institutional forms for the sake of mission. After all, our mission is too precious in the sight of God for us to tolerate inadequacy or outright failures in either governance or leadership.
Board cycles are addressed in the following:
"Here We Go Again: The Cyclical Nature of Board Behavior", by Julia Classen, in Nonprofit Quarterly, March 31, 2011.
"Is Governing Board Behavior Cyclical?" by Miriam M. Wood, in Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Winter 1992.