Why College Presidents Benefit from Coaching

The essay below, by Mary Sue Coleman and Lisa Rudgers, originally appeared April 20, 2021, in Inside Higher Ed.

Mary Sue Coleman

Being a college president is tough under the best of circumstances. While the pandemic has exponentially expanded the day-to-day work and uncertainty, the job has in truth always been extremely challenging. Pressures from stakeholders across the institution, economic and political stressors, and the precariousness of the sector’s financial model can threaten to undermine even the most determined leader’s ability to sustain forward momentum.

Lisa Rudgers

This is especially true for those taking on higher education’s CEO role for the first time. New presidents must learn how to navigate the institution’s governance and culture, all while balancing the seemingly endless demands from internal and external constituents.

Increasingly, wise boards of trustees and campus leaders are recognizing that executive coaching and mentoring can be an important component in successful presidential leadership over the long haul. Although executive coaching is common in the corporate sector, higher education has been slower to understand the benefits that external coaching and expertise can bring to bear — and the reasons why an experienced, outside perspective is so valuable. Here’s what we’ve learned.

You don’t know what you don’t know. For people joining a new institution, there is simply a lot to learn. And even for those chosen from within the college, ascending to the presidency often comes with little understanding about how this role differs substantially from anything experienced previously. In fact, it takes about a year for new leaders to fully grasp all the issues and complexities at hand and to begin putting the pieces together into a larger whole. It helps to talk with someone who has been there before and can assist in identifying and mitigating the pitfalls that frequently emerge when leading in a new environment.

Everyone has an agenda, even the most well-intentioned and good-hearted. Recently, we talked to a college president about her early experiences in the job. She reflected that, for her, one of the hardest parts of those initial months was discernment. How do you suss out the various agendas of those around you and then decide where you land on a particular issue? Leaders have to triangulate various opinions and advocacy and recognize when some outside perspective would be helpful in evaluating the options and directions presented to them.

It’s easy to be in an echo chamber beset by the self-censorship of others. Being a college president can be isolating. Just ask anyone who has done it. The senior administrators and staff around you are inclined to tell you what you want to hear. Faculty members see you and your team as “the administration” and may not speak openly until eruptions of discontent occur. Board members have expectations that may or may not align with reality. Getting out of the insular presidential bubble is vital, as is inviting viewpoints that are different from your own.

Effective relationship building with board members is key to success. Finding a coach who focuses on building and developing effective relationships with board members can be of great service: for the president, for the board and ultimately for the institution. We have written before about how important it is to become a student of the governing board’s culture, expectations and ways of doing business. No president can be successful without effective board engagement and knowing how to marshal the board for forward momentum. Here is where experience really matters. A seasoned coach can help prioritize this work, suggesting opportunities to build bridges (not burn them) and finding ways to navigate through disagreements or challenges.

Listening is as important as leading. Although new presidents are constantly pressed for their “vision,” we know that listening well is the most important part of real leadership. In fact, in our experience, institutional agendas find presidents just as often as presidents set their own vision. What are you hearing from your stakeholders? What are emerging as the institution’s greatest needs and opportunities? Whom are you reaching out to so you might gain greater understanding? Whom can you use as a sounding board to talk through all the input you are gathering to bring greater clarity to future direction?

And for new presidents: the euphoria of the appointment announcement is short-lived. Serious preparation to lead successfully begins immediately. We find that the time between the announcement of a presidential appointment to the first day on the job is crucial when it comes to managing an institutional transition well. The board and senior leadership can bring a disciplined approach to developing a carefully considered transition plan, one that ensures a smooth handoff between the outgoing and incoming leadership, and that sets the new leader up for success.

And finally: boards have a vested interest in supporting professional development opportunities for their presidents. When boards encourage executive coaching and professional development, they help make certain that the leadership transition will be successful — creating greater stability for the institution and supporting the long-term success of the president in achieving institutional goals.

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