We work with a great many new and first-time college presidents. Even in good times, taking the helm of a complex, decentralized and highly political organization presents career-defining challenges for new leaders. But in the time of pandemic, these challenges multiply and accelerate, forcing an incoming president to battle unimaginable crises and weigh in on urgent decisions — before the freshly appointed can even set a foot on their campuses.
A recent headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education summed it up aptly: “Welcome to the College Presidency. Oh, the House is on Fire.”
All of this demands we re-think the traditional playbook for the introduction and onboarding of a new leader. Successfully navigating leadership transition in these early months of a changing world requires first-time and incoming presidents to re-calibrate their approach, their emphasis and their timetable.
And it can’t be all about the crisis. It’s precisely when the house is on fire that we must make decisions about what will be preserved over the long term, what should be rescued, and what needs to be imagined afresh. Because in the midst of such a dramatically shifting landscape, there is also opportunity for bold leadership that can help distinguish institutions like never before and position them for future strength.
Here are 10 guideposts as we consider leadership transition in the midst of COVID-19:
Lead with empathy: New Zealand’s president Jacinda Arderns is receiving a great deal of attention for her empathic and effective leadership style. Our stakeholders are tired, worried down to their core, and already experiencing the negative consequences of global illness and shutdown. And we know there’s more to come. Understanding, sharing and expressing the emotions of those in our flock makes our leadership more personal and more relatable. The human connection has never been more important.
Make sure there’s no daylight between outgoing and incoming leaders: Institutions benefit from stable leadership transition, a sort of smooth and orderly “handing of the baton” in more normal circumstances. Now, however, it’s critical that the current and incoming presidents make decisions in lock step, and work together closely with their board and community in a way that is visible to all.
Move from a crisis mindset to vision and strategy…quickly: Normally new leaders have more time to listen, assess, and identify the next set of institutional priorities. Not now. Incoming presidents need to double down on institutional opportunities and develop a robust and decisive vision, fast, even in the midst of the short-term crisis management they’re walking into.
Emphasize innovation as central to the work ahead: A recent essay in Inside Higher Ed described March 2020 as “the month of whack-a-mole” — moving traditional, in-person teaching online in an emergency situation, relocating students, and working heroically to make it effective…sort of. But those measures were short-term and stop-gap. The real gift of this unprecedented time is the unleashing of our collective creativity and innovation as we re-think every darn thing: the way we teach, the way we team, the way we support our students, the very value we offer. This is the time to question long-held assumptions and act boldly. Those institutions that embrace substantial innovation have the best shot at future differentiation and growth.
Solidify the value proposition: The daily news scan was chock-full of skepticism about the value and cost of a traditional college education long before the pandemic struck. It is now an existential threat for parts of our sector. New leaders, offering fresh vision and driving innovation, must guide their institutions toward sharp differentiation and high value —anticipating a world very different than the one we knew before COVID-19.
Lock in on stakeholder engagement and outreach: Stakeholder relationships are always important, but in this time of rapid change and high anxiety they become job one. Board members, faculty, staff, students and alumni need care and outreach. But perhaps one of the toughest parts about quarantine for new leaders is the inability to be there in person. No campus receptions, alumni dinners, conference room Cabinet meetings or faculty drop-ins in the short term. This year, new presidents need to build a robust virtual engagement strategy and remember that it’s not as much the “in person” that matters, it’s the personal.
Look for innovation partners: PRG’s daily and weekly scan of higher ed headlines has noted a sharp increase in the numbers and types of collaborations and partnerships colleges have initiated over the past few years, especially as the sector began to experience the downward pressures the pandemic has kicked into overdrive. Now is the time for leaders to encourage collaboration on a larger and even more creative scale. Look for partners with whom to innovate: other higher ed institutions, the corporate sector, alumni, faculty and students who can help spark change and create new opportunities.
Commit to inclusivity and transparency: Both are crucial for successful change management. Our institutions are not used to the pace of change and nimbleness needed in this moment. This will require many voices, many ideas, and an invitation to participate in the process. It will also demand trust-building: your communities have a high need to know, to understand fully the factors necessitating urgent change, and the vision for what the institution will look like on the other side.
Communicate, communicate, communicate: Regular readers of the PRG blog know we’re a broken record on this. But we’ll say it again, anyway: Effective, consistent, clear, and empathic communication builds trust and mitigates stakeholder fears. Communicating often — and humanely — about decision-making and planning is as crucial as the decisions themselves.
Focus on quality: Institutions received tough feedback from students about the quality of their educational experience during the scramble to move instruction online almost overnight this semester. It’s a stark reminder about the need for leadership’s laser focus on educational quality, learning outcomes, and the student experience writ large as our institutions reboot and reimagine in the months ahead.