Personally Speaking/Called to a Position of Trust

While I was still in my 40s, I was surprised, humbled and honored when I received an invitation from President Tom Manion to join the board of trustees of St. Norbert College. Hoping to make a positive first impression, I purchased a fine suit to wear to my first meeting. When I arrived, I was welcomed by the entire board – dressed casual! Desperately wanting to fit in, I came to the second day of meetings in sweater and slacks – where, to my dismay, I discovered everyone else around the table in formal attire. But if anyone noticed, nothing was said; I survived.

Not long after, I received another invitation – this time to join an advisory board organized to support a new campus initiative: Faith, Learning & Vocation. At our first meeting, we were introduced to a contemporary interpretation of “vocation” considered rather revolutionary at the time; a line of thinking that suggested each one of us – and not only priests and members of religious orders – is called by God to use our gifts to make a contribution. Each and every one of us has a unique and distinct vocation that can lead to a life of purpose and meaning.

As I became more committed to and involved with the program, I began to reflect upon my vocation as a trustee and, more specifically, as a trustee of a Norbertine, Catholic institution of higher learning. It would be an exaggeration to say I considered the invite from President Manion some sort of special “call” – for who wouldn’t be delighted to serve on the board of his or her alma mater? But I did recognize that this opportunity to serve could expand my horizon and greatly enrich my life.

Even as a student, living on campus for four years, I understood that the St. Norbert College community was unique and far from ordinary. Following graduation, I continued to have sufficient touch-points with the college and the Norbertines to realize that St. Norbert was still the very special place I knew as a student.

I was also aware of college programs that continued to wrestle with those big questions we all face at different periods in our lives: questions about the meaning and purpose of life; about our role and place in the world; about our responsibility to contribute to the common good. And that unique dimension at St. Norbert interested and intrigued me.

I could have taken a different trustee path by campaigning for a position on the board of a for-profit corporation. That may have had an impact on my business skills, but likely would have done little to expand my personal and spiritual growth. With dissimilar goals and objectives, nonprofit and for-profit boards often have a slightly different emphasis and approach when it comes to mission, vision and values. Looking for more purpose and meaning in my life, I feel I made the right choice when I decided to engage with nonprofit boards.

Historically, a board was given the charge to recruit, appoint, support and evaluate the president; review and approve the financials; and then step aside. In other words, to govern, not manage. While the mantra “govern, not manage” holds true today, governance has become much more involved. Today, an engaged and effective board of any nonprofit organization focuses on its vision, and protects and lives its mission.

We live in a time of accelerating disruptive change; futurist Bob Johanson argues, “In a VUCA world – one characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – traditional leadership skills are not enough.”

Partnering with a motivated president – a focused senior leadership team, and a talented, engaged faculty and staff – each and every year, the college gets better and better and better. Despite the many and serious challenges facing higher education today, I am confident St. Norbert will not only survive the times, but prosper and thrive.

I feel so blessed to be part of this vibrant community of scholars. I can’t even begin to articulate all this place has meant to me – all that I have learned – over the decades. As President Kunkel is so fond of reminding us, “St. Norbert College – always building on momentum!”

June 27, 2016