Trust, Teams, and the Essentials of Leadership
A Primer for College Presidents and Their Senior Teams

Written for college and university presidents and their senior teams, Row uses a powerful metaphor – rowing – to describe the dynamics of a successful team. The book follows a series of conversations between a young president and a seasoned older man who is also a former rower. Over time, the young president grows in his appreciation for how teams are built and led. He then applies these lessons to his own senior team with amazing success.

Product Description

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vi
Preface  viii
The Cast of Characters x
Row – Chapter 1 1
References and Resources 117
Appendix A: Creating a Culture of Trust Inventory 119
Appendix B: Guidelines for Senior Team Communication 120
Appendix C: Trust-Builders and Trust-Destroyers 121
Appendix D: Senior Team Meeting Agenda Template 122
Appendix E: Code of Conduct for the Senior Team 123
About the Author 124

Chapter 1

Boston, and it is cold.

It is very late in the afternoon, very late in the month of November. The Charles is choppy; a blustery wind from the north carves the waves. Not quite whitecaps, but close. Gray clouds hang low, blurring the line between river and sky. Winter, though some 30 days away on the calendar, has arrived.

Hands deep in his pockets, the young man walked slowly along the asphalt-covered path on the Boston side of the river. Deep in thought, he takes little notice of his surroundings. The wind plucks at the scarf he wears around his neck and slices through the fabric of his light coat.

He knows that the weather is only partly responsible for the chill he feels. The rest is almost all his doing. His presidency is failing. After such great promise, he is in deep trouble.

It seems like just yesterday that everything was going so well. The search was relatively quick. Everyone said he was the right person for the job. Prior to this position, he’d been an academic chair and then provost at one of the nation’s great private colleges. Even the faculty on the search committee were supportive of his being hired.

During the interviews he had been impressed with his VPs. He also liked and admired the board chair and felt that they would have a great relationship. The work was important. The comp package was great. Importantly, his wife was excited about this new position. She loved Boston. She’d done her residency here and was glad to be back on familiar ground. The future was bright. Finally, he thought, after 20 years of teaching and serving as a provost, I’ve made it.

Almost immediately upon his arrival he chaired a strategic planning exercise. It was important to him that faculty and staff see that he had a vision. The resulting plan paid homage to the liberal arts and contained a large number of lofty goals. It was a beautiful document.

The first hint of trouble occurred about four months after his arrival. They’d struggled more than he would have liked to get the class, and the first-year discount rate had risen a full three percent. They’d also slipped in the number of out-of-state students, and academic quality was off a bit. It looked like they would finish the year in the red. No layoffs, but he’d had to eliminate the annual cost of living adjustment to faculty and staff. He’d also made the decision to postpone some strategic initiatives.

Another big disappointment was his senior team. They weren’t nearly as sharp as he thought they were. They did a lot of talking, but nothing seemed to happen. They seldom made a decision and when they did, there was almost no follow-through. He’d also discovered that his VPs weren’t particularly collaborative. They spent considerable time jockeying around trying to advance their own agendas.

A year into his presidency his VP for IT left. Shortly after his departure, the number two person in Student Affairs left as well. Then the senior person in HR left. He’d heard through the grapevine that his AVP for Advancement had applied for a job at a competitor school. These were people he was counting on and they were leaving. Worse, their departure was sending an unfortunate signal to the rest of the campus…and to the board.

The past 18 months had been ugly. They had missed this year’s class significantly and scores were down again. To make matters worse, they couldn’t find the gifts they needed to close the capital campaign. Alumni giving had fallen, and a couple of major donors were waffling on their commitments. He’d hired a CFO and then, shortly after his arrival, fired him. He had a new CFO in place, and she looked promising. But only time would tell.

There were rumblings from the faculty about workload. Someone had leaked his comp plan to the campus community and that only added fuel to the fire. A couple of senior faculty members had recently met with him and voiced their concerns.

The board chair, once very supportive, was the reason the younger man was in Boston. “Time for a chat,” she said. “Can you come into town for breakfast on Thursday? Let’s meet at The Bristol at 7:00 a.m.”

The breakfast was brutal. “The board,” she said, “has concerns. You don’t seem to be making progress on your strategic initiatives. Enrollment is off two years in a row and student quality is down. The capital campaign is in trouble and, based on the emails I am receiving, I know that faculty morale is down as well. Frankly,” she said, “the board is wondering if it is time to start thinking about a change.”

Her words were like daggers. He barely remembered what he ate, but he does remember the last thing the board chair said before she departed. “Let’s give it six months. If we don’t see any progress at that time, we need to talk about next steps.”

It was the conversation with his board chair, more of an ultimatum really, that brought him to the river. He spent the day walking around the city thinking about his problems and some possible solutions. Now he was sitting on a bench facing the Charles. Cambridge is across the water.

He noticed a boat slowly moving along the river. It is small and impossibly slender. White in color, it blends into the gray water. There are five people in the boat. Four of them are rowing. He knows it is a racing shell. The Charles is home to a number of rowing teams, and fours and eights are a common sight.

He can see that the boat is really having difficulty. The wind is blowing hard and the crew is having trouble keeping the boat set.[1] The craft seems to lean first to one side and then the other. The younger man grimaces at the occasional clash of oars. He could see the guy at the back of the boat yelling at the rowers. He doesn’t need to hear his words to know what he was saying. The rowers appear to be fighting each other as much as they were fighting the wind and the waves. The look on their faces is plain: discouragement, frustration, and fatigue. They want to get off the river and out of the boat.

Out of the corner of his eye the younger man sees another boat. It, too, is a slender, four-person shell. This boat, red in color, is gaining rapidly on the first boat.

Soon the red boat is alongside the white boat and begins to pass. The rowers in the red boat are in sync. Their faces reflect a stoic determination. He can barely hear the coxswain as she steadily counts out the pace. The wind, which seems to have had such an impact on the first boat, appears to have little effect on the second.

The rowers in the first boat see the second boat and respond. They try to row faster, but in their haste they clash oars again. The coxswain yells. One rower stops. And then another. Soon no one is rowing.

The red boat continues past the white boat until it is directly in front of the younger man. The white boat falls behind.


[1]“Set” refers to how well a boat is balanced left to right.

Chapter 2

“That red shell is pretty impressive, isn’t it?”

The younger man had been so busy watching the two boats that he didn’t notice the older man on the other end of the bench.

“I’m sorry,” said the younger man, “are you talking to me?”

The older man made a point of looking around before returning his gaze to the younger man. With a smile he said, “Well, you’re the only one here, so I guess so.”

The older man was clearly prepared for the weather. He wore a well-used grey nylon pullover with just a glimpse of a wool sweater at the neck. On his head was a faded Red Sox baseball cap. His pants were thick whalebone. A pair of duck boots clad his feet. Nothing he wore was new, but everything suggested comfort, and utility.

More than his clothes, the younger man noticed the older man’s face. Weathered, almost ruddy. Gray hair. Aqua-blue eyes behind wireframe glasses. A small scar on his left cheek.

Nodding at the boats, the younger man said, “They look so fragile out there.”

“Well,” said the older man, “they are and they aren’t. It all depends on the crew. The crew in the white boat is really struggling. You could see that one rower catch a crab[2] a couple of times. He was completely out of sync with his teammates and they were having trouble making headway. The red boat, on the other hand, is well-crewed.”

The younger man looked at the widening gap between the two shells. “They seem like different boats.”

The older man responds, “I can see why you might think that, but it’s just the colors of the boats throwing you off. They are actually pretty similar. They are both coxed fours. That means four rowers and a coxswain. They are in the 42-foot range and weigh around 115 pounds empty. The hulls are carbon fiber. They look like Pococks.”

“You seem to know a lot about rowing,” said the younger man.

“Well,” said the older man, “I used to row a four on this river when I was in college. My daughter rowed here as well. And now my grandson rows. I try to get down here and watch him as often as I can.”

The two men watch the boats for a few more minutes. Soon the red boat passes under a bridge and is gone from sight.

The older man turns to the younger man. “So what brought you to the river this afternoon? The weather’s pretty unpleasant, and you don’t really look like you’re dressed for it.”

The younger man almost replied with the expected, “Oh, out for a walk,” when he realized just how lame that would sound. “I’m not really sure,” he said, “I have a lot on my mind and just kind of ended up here.”

“Sounds like you have a story to tell,” the older man said.

The younger man shook his head, clearly reluctant to discuss what was troubling him.

“Look,” the older man said, “there’s a great diner just across the street. I’ll let you buy me a cup of coffee.”

The younger man started to say “I don’t have time” but something about the older man pulled him up short.

“I suppose I have a few minutes,” he said. With that, the two men stood and walked across the street to the diner.


[2]To “catch a crab” means one of the oars enters the water too deeply, at the wrong angle, or out of time with the rowers. When this happens, the oar effectively sticks in the water and the rower holding the oar will either be smacked in the chest, or if s/he holds on to the oar too long, catapulted into the water.

Additional Information


Dr. Robert A. Sevier





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