In our long-time roles as senior communications counsel to university presidents, we know first-hand that the presidency is among the most complex and challenging jobs in the country.
Julie and I took note of a recent report released by the Aspen Institute (and its task force of wise current and former presidents) that outlined the challenges and how to best prepare those who aspire to a college presidency. This is especially relevant for us at the moment, since several of our former colleagues have been appointed recently as first-time presidents: Sian Beilock at Barnard College, Martha Pollack at Cornell, Dave Munson at Rochester Institute of Technology, Ora Pescovitz at Oakland University, Mark Nemec at Fairfield University, and Karen Warren Coleman as head of Hockaday School.
We offer 10 guideposts that, in our experience, can help new presidents build a strong foundation for successful leadership in higher education:
Set an inspiring destination, and articulate it effectively. Leaders trained as scholars often start with a problem statement, but people need inspiration and positive energy to thrive. Even the most cantankerous of academic cultures can become more enthusiastic and united if they are pursuing a worthy mission. Never miss a chance to remind those around you why the work they do matters in the world.
Find the balance between your own vision and listening well. New presidents often tell us that they are surprised by how often they are asked about their vision, sometimes before they have set foot on campus. It is important (and tricky) to find the right balance, one that offers your high-level direction and aspiration for the future but allows for community engagement, faculty input, and the time you need to learn more about the institution you are now serving.
Assume the role with humility and respect for where the institution is now, even as you imagine where it can go next. No new president takes on a blank slate. Decades of hard work and institutional dedication are represented in the university as it stands today, and honoring that legacy sets a tone of respect for the community. Some new leaders, in their quest to set the next agenda, can inadvertently critique and offend those whose earlier work is the foundation upon which new leadership will build.
Be the president. Many first-time presidents transition from roles as provost, dean, or senior administrator. The step up is a higher one than some realize at first. Stay at the right level, setting direction and avoiding “getting in the weeds” where your time is not well spent.
Develop a high-functioning, collaborative executive team that shares values and enduring guiding principles. Organizations function best when the executives function well as a team. The leader sets the tone and expectations for collaboration, responsibility, goal setting and shared decision-making. One university we worked with codified a set of “guiding principles” for the leadership team, values the team went back to again and again. Here are a few examples:
- Place institutional above individual interest
- Responsibly advocate division interests aligned with institutional goals
- Work directly to resolve conflict
- Carefully consider long-term consequences in addition to short-term interest
- Speak respectfully and listen to understand
- Include all stakeholders in making decisions
- Make the process for each decision as transparent and possible
Become a student of your governing board’s culture, expectations and ways of doing business. It goes without saying that working well within your board’s culture is critical to leadership success. Spend time to understand what types of communication, information flow, input gathering and decision-making work best to foster a healthy relationship with the board as a whole and its individual members.
Get out of your bubble. Those who rise to the top leadership job may be unaware of how isolated they can become. People tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, and that limits the flow of critical information. It is the “stuff” you don’t know that can hurt you the most. Go out of your way to seek dissenting views and make it safe for people to tell you bad news— but ask that they also come with a proposed solution.
Understand the difference between a performance problem and a perception problem. Perception problems are relatively easy to solve—better information and more communication can address circumstances where people simply don’t understand the institution’s approach. But first, ask yourself if the institution has a performance problem—are you doing the right thing, and can you defend it proudly? If not, you may need to make changes to policy or practice. Do that early and visibly and you can turn a difficult situation into a leadership moment.
Strategically deploy one-on-one outreach. Your time will be sought after, your attention will be coveted, and your words will have great power. You can use them in an intentional way to win allies. Whatever the number of thank-you notes you have been accustomed to writing, quadruple it (with the help of your staff). Regularly take time for lunch or a cup of coffee with a faculty member or well-regarded staff member to find out what they are working on, and occasionally include your biggest critics. Over time this will develop a growing group of people who see you as a human being and better understand your vision. As an extra bonus, your vocabulary will be filled with their stories.
Make time for reflection. The most strategic and impactful ideas come from “zooming out” and seeing the bigger picture. You can’t do that if you are caught in the daily press of small decisions. That means building a strong team, then letting them handle things. A management coach we both revered, Dino Biris, once noted that senior leaders need to reserve 25% of their time for reflection. That’s a difficult but worthy goal.
And one more recommendation from our biased vantage point: Communications support is so important to a president’s success. Make excellent communications counsel and activities an institutional priority, both to help your leadership team handle sensitive issues effectively and also to advance the college’s good work and reputation.
Footnote: Three of the presidents on the Aspen Institute task force we cited above were also former colleagues of ours at Michigan: Jon Alger, Phil Hanlon and Nancy Cantor. It was a pleasure to work with these wise souls, and we learned so much from each of them as well as all the presidents we have had the privilege to serve.