Reflections of a Former Board Secretary Or KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

by julia.hanigsberg | April 29th, 2011

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the annual meeting of the Canadian University Board Association (CUBA). Until last October, I had been a member of CUBA as Ryerson’s general counsel and secretary of the Board of Governors. I was deeply honoured to be invited by my CUBA colleagues to address them at their Board Professional Development session. In my talk, I reflected on the enormously important work that university governance professionals do across the country. I shared with my audience the ways in which I’m a better VP for having been a board secretary, both in how I work with Ryerson’s Board of Governors and the way I lead my team and manage my portfolio. I also reflected on what I wish I had known then, when I was secretary, which I know now. 

Here is some of what I said to the CUBA board professionals on April 28, 2011, in Saskatoon: 

“I subtitled this speech KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON (you can all picture that classic British wartime poster I hope), not only because we are less than 24 hours away from the Royal Wedding but because the board professional’s job description could truly be condensed into those four words. Whatever happens in the course of planning a board or committee meeting, whatever policy crisis emerges, whatever emergency decision requires an urgent special meeting – you are there to do it. Failure is not an option. And you do it with calmness and professionalism. 

On the plane here, I was thinking that probably each and every one of you could plan the Royal Wedding:

  • For the board professional, no detail is too small to care about.
  • Sequence and adherence to procedure and precedent are critical.
  • Ensuring that the rules are followed and the objectives met are fundamental.
  • And everything must be done calmly and while making it look easy.

As board professionals, you are just that: professionals. You are the gatekeepers of good governance. That means you care not only about the substance of the objective to be met, but that it meets the governance parameters dictated by your institution. 

What does that mean?

  • You care about the legislation that governs your institution (you may be the only person who’s ever read it!).
  • You understand the delicate balance between the board and the senate (or other academic governance body), while still nurturing the board’s enthusiasm for the academic priorities of your institution because, of course, if board members weren’t interested in what the university was doing academically, why would they bother volunteering so much time and being so devoted to your institutions?
  • You assist your board and management in skating on the sometimes tricky boundary between management and governance.
  • You are often the matchmaker and marriage counsellor in the relationship between president and board chair. You mind the relationship, have the trusted ear of both and listen and discern signs of tension so they can be diffused perhaps before either party actually realizes they are emerging.

Herding cats 

You are also sometimes herders of cats. And, yes, I am now one of those cats! 

I took on the role of vice president, administration and finance, at Ryerson almost seven months ago. My portfolio includes human resources; financial services; IT; information security, discrimination and harassment prevention; equity, diversity and inclusion; internal audit; business services; facilities and sustainability; and capital projects and real estate development. So, as you can imagine, my items show up at the board with some degree of frequency. And, as a new , I needed to develop the board’s trust at the same time as dealing with the range of challenges that a VP admin and finance faces. 

So, how did my experience as a board professional influence the way I handled the job of a new VP: 

1) KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON: I mustered the secretarial stiff upper lip. 

2) Focus on the big picture: As board professionals, you’ve developed mechanisms to align the information in board reports to your universities’ priorities. That attention to the big picture allowed me to elevate what I was sharing with Ryerson’s board to the strategic level that is appropriate to its governance role and aligned to the priorities the board itself had approved.

3) No surprises: You know how important it is to keep your board chair up to date on what’s going on. Between you and your president, you make sure the board hears about things from you before they hit the newspaper. I could take that relationship-based no-surprises perspective and apply it to my portfolio. What were the issues that had the potential to cause anxiety? How could I get out ahead of them with the board? How could I identify solutions, before problems had even fully emerged?

4) Governance: And where there were problems, how could I use transparency and improved governance and process to create confidence?

5) Quality, consistency, clarity: I don’t think I have to elaborate. You know that these are values that you espouse with your boards and so do I in my new role. 

Lessons from day-to-day management 

I’ve also been influenced by my experience as a secretary in what I do as a VP on a day-to-day management level. 

1)     I try to treat everyone “like a board member.” I also expect maximum client service from my team to everyone they interact with. We all must be accessible, open and transparent.

2)     I connect to strategic priorities in everything I do and I expect the same from my team. How can we all enhance the ability for our students to develop entrepreneurship and innovation? How can we enhance the research objectives of the university? The same values that infuse our desire to recruit diverse board members infuses the way I look at my team and, through them, to the entire organization. Strength emerges from our diversity.

3)     I nurture relationships. At one of our previous conference board professional sessions I facilitated a discussion of the board chair–president relationship. I take the same relationship focus to my team and down into theirs. I try to work on how I can serve my senior team to help them meet their objectives, and I reach out to their staff to enable relationships with the folks who do the work, and know much more about that work than I can ever hope to. 

Juggling work and deadlines 

Finally, what is the one thing I wish I’d known as a board secretary that I now know? This takes me back to my cat herding image. In fact, I may be the “meower in chief” of this board year. I thought I knew this (but I really didn’t fully appreciate) the extraordinary amount of work that goes into each of those board presentations. 

And, despite the fact that I of all people know those trains need to run on time, and that we have our deadlines, and I did get the board work plan issued nine months ago, and the chair’s briefing is in my calendar, and I do know the board materials go out a week before …. A confession: I don’t think I’ve made a single board deadline since I became a VP. Seriously!

Why? Simply, I believe it is ridiculously hard to manage the enormous day-to-day volume of operational work at our institutions and carve out the time to think, craft and improve on the incredibly important work product that goes to the board. So, despite Ryerson’s superb Board Secretariat and a spectacularly efficient executive assistant who knows well the importance of the board, the pressures of the “work” (and it’s no more “real” than the work of the board – don’t misunderstand me) can overwhelm. And to do the board work right, you need to give it time –lots of time: hundreds of hours of prep for something critical like the university budget.

I’m going to fix this. I promise that next board year I will be a reformed and on-time VP! But, in truth, as board secretary I was less than sympathetic to missed deadlines. I wondered whether they indicated a lack of due respect for governance. Nope. It is just awfully hard to do it all. I might have been a bit more understanding. Yes, perspective is everything….     

Thank you, CUBA

It won’t come as any surprise that I am enormously respectful of the work you all do. You make sure we stay on point and on priority. You are the guardians of key elements of our institutions: good governance and autonomy. You make us all look good.

I wouldn’t be able to do my job if it wasn’t for the Board Secretariat at Ryerson. I wouldn’t be the VP that I am (for better or for worse!) but for all I’ve learned from you over the years. I am enormously grateful for your generosity in knowledge and experience.

CUBA is a jewel in the crown of the Canadian post-secondary sector. And you should be very proud of the work you do individually in your institutions and collectively as this association. I am very proud to have come from among your professional ranks. Thank you.”

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