Many hands make for great governance

My big project this week is crafting the script for an upcoming In Trust webinar titled “Maximizing the Power of Shared Governance in a Time of Rapid Change” – a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. However this time around, I’m less optimistic my message will be heard and heeded.

stick_figures_lift_arrow_9273Shared governance is a tough sell even in the best of times. Given the challenges bearing down on colleges, universities, and theological schools these days, we’re talking a snowball’s chance in you know where that I’ll win over the skeptics.

For board members who’ve not worked in an educational setting, shared governance is a mystery or worse, the enemy of institutional well-being. In fact, nothing (except maybe the board’s role in fundraising) sets trustees’ teeth on edge like references to shared governance.

Ironically, just as leaders in higher education are ready to give up on shared governance, the business community is grabbing hold of the potential of participatory decision-making and power sharing.

Consider Angela Ahrendts, current CEO of Burberry Corporation, Apple’s soon-to-be Senior Vice President for Sales, and the cover story in this month’s issue of FastCompany magazine. Her leadership style encapsulates the four pillars of shared governance – accountability, communication, transparency, and trust.

You’ll want to read the FC article for yourself, but here’s some of what I found in Ahrendts’ story to bolster the case for shared governance in times of rapid change. Okay, so the words “shared governance” don’t show up in the FC piece. But, as the saying goes, if it walks like a duck, and quakes like a duck , it must be a duck ( or in this case, shared governance).


“It is always putting yourself in the other person’s position. I know it might sound weird, but empathy is one of the greatest creators of energy. It’s counter-intuitive because it’s selfless.”


At Burberry, she [Ahrendts] communicates constantly with her 11,000 employees, sending emails to thank them for a particular contribution . . . Her main message is usually ‘thank you.’ Sometimes that’s an epilogue to an all-hands call to action.”


She[Ahrendts] is adamant that significant news be shared first with the staff, so that they never learn about their own company by reading the papers.


“When you have trust and you get that trust in place throughout the company, people are empowered – people are free.”

Finally, for those who believe shared governance is too cumbersome, time-consuming, and/or risky to keep up in times of rapid change, consider this prediction about Ahrendts. “If she restores the shine to Apple’s sales force, it will be a joint effort involving at least 30,000 people, much as her wins at Burberry resulted from the work of 22,000 hands.”

Or as Ahrendt says, “No executive creates – or fixes – problems alone.” In good times, and especially in the bad, many hands make for great governance and great organizations.


  1. David Brandt says:

    Thanks for bringing this topic into the daylight. The issues are at the heart of some of our governance problems in higher education. I, too, read the Ahrendts article in Fast Company and appreciate your application to higher education. The difference between how accountability, communication, transparency, and trust function in the world of business and what “shared governance” means in higher education is not always the same. My experience in higher education is that, while the board tends toward panic at the words “shared governance,” other segments of the governance chain tend to behave as though their segment is the true power and authority. So, I believe Ahrendts has it right. The trick will be to convince all segments of the governance chain in higher education to think about shared governance in the same way. Just as Ahrendts will ultimately “call the shots” at Apple retail, so the board is the authority in our institutions.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply — and one written with the experience of a longtime dean, provost, and president. You’re right that boards are under-believers when in comes to shared governance and faculty are over-believers, at least when it comes to their part in the sharing. When I present on shared governance in theological school settings, I ask that faculty be present for at least part of the day. Sometimes the president and board chair comply. More often than not, however, there’s reluctance to create opportunities to learn/think together about what shared governance does/should mean within the culture and context of the particular school. As I wrote in an article for In Trust magazine, we need to teach to the governance we want. If we don’t, we get what we get.

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