When I became an academic vice president and then a president, I was fortunate. A good friend and former president agreed to be my sounding board. In the beginning, I am embarrassed to confess, I called him for advice at least once or twice a week and -- in moments of what I believed to be crisis -- more often.
Understanding that confidentiality would often prohibit my turning to campus colleagues, I valued my friend as someone to help me think through complex situations (many of which he had already faced) and as someone I trusted to keep confidences.
I’ll always cherish his first admonition. "If," he said, "I ever hear you using 'the royal we,' our friendship is over." When I now share that caution with new senior administrators, I also encourage them not to talk about "my faculty" or "my college."
In recent years, I have become a sounding board for former colleagues, candidates and friends moving into administration. I’ve served formally as a consultant to presidents and their board chairs. These experiences have led me to think about what it takes to be a successful administrator.
What prompts this essay, however, is something more immediate: the call I recently received from someone who had just accepted his first vice presidency. Although comfortable with his level of knowledge about his new responsibilities, he put his concern bluntly: "I don’t know how to be a vice president."
What follows then are my recommendations both philosophical and practical -- to those who are embarking on a new academic leadership position, ranging from dean to president. (I covered the president-board relationship in a previous essay.) I’ve organized these recommendations into sections devoted to how to gain an understanding of the institution, how to make decisions, how to work with people who report to you, how to communicate, how to be a dean or vice president and some actions to avoid. I recognize that at large universities, the role of president or chancellor may not allow this level of involvement in the life of the campus, although I can only wonder if being so involved would make these positions more personally satisfying.
How to Gain an Understanding of the History, Culture and Values — Spoken and Unspoken — of the College
There is no substitute for listening to people. Thus, I encourage you to spend at least your first few months (the first year if you are a president) in your new position asking everyone you meet what it is that you need to know to be effective in your new role. Listen rather than talk. Then follow up with an e-mail thanking those with whom you’ve talked.
Schedule meetings with academic and administrative departments, again to listen and learn. Choose a congenial setting and serve refreshments. (Note how often food is a component of my suggestions. Here, I was influenced by a friend who, as a dean, changed contentious faculty meetings into collaborative ones by serving wine and cheese.)
In your first months, at least several times a week, walk around the campus for an hour or two, stopping in faculty and staff offices to ask people to tell you about their work. Similarly, create occasions to talk with staff members who don't have offices. For example, show up with coffee and donuts when the early shift of facilities staff or custodians or food service folks arrive. If people are working late at a time of pressure (e.g. the financial aid office at the end of the admissions cycle), arrive with pizzas, soft drinks and most of all thanks. Continue this practice of scheduling walk-around-the-campus time as often as you can, as long as you serve the institution.
Whenever possible, hold meetings outside of your office. The sidewalk conversations that you will have on the way to and from those meetings are often very revealing because people who would feel uncomfortable making an appointment to tell you something will feel quite happy to tell you what’s on their minds if you stop to have a few minutes of casual conversation. But don’t be accompanied by an entourage since that will discourage people from approaching you and create the notion that you are unapproachable. Meeting in offices other than your own also has a practical value: You can end the meeting simply by leaving.
In all of these sidewalk conversations and also when people stop you, as they inevitably will, at college events, the grocery story or a movie theater to give you ideas or to ask for something, listen and then ask them to send you an e-mail with their thoughts, saying that you always function best when you have something concrete to think about. In my experience, most will choose not to follow up, but if they do not send you the requested e-mail, they cannot take cheap shots by saying things like, “I told her about my great idea, and she did nothing.” Those who do follow up often have good ideas, and you can respond accordingly.
Create occasions to talk with and listen to students. All of the following have worked for me:
- Ask each department chair to select a major to join a student advisory committee with whom you meet for a monthly breakfast.
- Schedule a monthly meeting with the editor of the student newspaper and any writers she/he wishes to bring. Give them your private e-mail address so that they can reach you directly if they have a question. It is better that you have a chance to inform stories with your perspective. These meetings also give you an opportunity to suggest topics.
- Meet (with refreshments) at the beginning of each semester with the members of student government and student media, bringing with you members of your cabinet or staff. Have them explain their responsibilities so that the students know where to go directly for help and don’t have to come to you first.
- Host a monthly dinner for the first 30-40 students who sign up, preferably in your home. After dinner, ask the students the what-you-need-to-know question and answer their questions. Include other members of your administration so that the students understand the other resources available to them. You will learn a great deal and successfully put to rest the inevitable rumors that thrive on campuses. (One example: when I first arrived at Puget Sound, a student criticized me for turning down a gift from Nike for a new football stadium. I explained that no such gift had been offered and that therefore I had not turned it down. Eleven years later, another student congratulated me for turning down a gift from Nike for a new football stadium, praising me in his words for "rejecting money earned by exploiting overseas laborers." I again explained that no such gift had been offered and that I had not turned it down but that I nevertheless appreciated the praise.)
- Other ideas: Guest lectures. Encourage student clubs to invite you to the first 30 minutes of their next meeting. Sit in the student section of the football and basketball stands. Attend student concerts and plays.
Institute an open door policy, talking with those who drop in your office if you are not in a meeting. This approach will save you time later since people will be appreciative of a few minutes of your time whereas if they are required to make an appointment, they will come with expectations of at least a 30 minute discussion.
Ask your current colleagues who among retired faculty and staff best exemplifies the values of the institution and then ask two or three of those who are named individually to have coffee, again to tell you what you need to know. Because they are retired, they have no immediate agendas, typically care deeply about the institution and will be pleased to be asked for help.
As you do all of this, be wary of those who come courting immediately and who flatter you because they often will be those who become your greatest problems. The moral of the story here: be gracious to everyone, but be cautious about deciding on whom you can rely until you have a sound understanding of the college and its people.
How to Make Important Decisions
You, like every senior administrator, will consistently be confronted with the need to allocate precious resources, human and financial. In doing so, you will often need to choose among compelling albeit competing claims. Here, I suggest that you make mission-driven decisions rather than arbitrary ones, decisions that are informed by data and considered judgment rather than intuition or whim. Of course, for you to be able to do this, there needs to be a clearly understood and well-defined mission (a topic, to be sure, for an essay of its own). Ideally, the institution is also working from a good strategic plan that clearly defines the institutional imperatives and priorities that derive from the mission. A good plan is also the product of careful and comprehensive cost-benefit analyses.
My former colleague Tom Staley, provost when I was arts and sciences dean at the University of Tulsa in the late 1980’s used to say, "While the soul of an institution can be found in its curriculum, its conscience can be found in its budget." I soon came to understand that in addition to reflecting the institution’s values, the budget is in fact the institution’s chief planning document.
A carefully crafted budget is far more important than so-called strategic plans that are nothing more than wish lists meant to please as many constituencies as possible. (My favorite example of a wish-list that was neither strategic nor a plan was a lengthy document that on the same page listed as comparable goals "improving the academic program" and "buying a new piano").
How to Work with Those Who Report to You
Don’t let those who report to you "delegate up." Instead, ask them to come to you not with problems they want you to handle but with recommended solutions to those problems that they can handle.
Don’t allow those who report to you to jockey for position or to criticize one another, i.e. don’t tolerate this version of sibling rivalry. Instead, insist that together they work out their differences, only coming to you -- also together — when they are unable to resolve an issue. Be clear that you expect to mediate only in rare circumstances and preferably not at all.
If you can give someone an answer to a question or make a decision about a proposed action, do so right away. If you know you are going to say "no" to something, say "no" fast. Waiting for an answer creates anxiety and the longer the wait, the greater the anxiety. Thus, while people are happy to wait for a “yes,” if the answer in the end is negative, their anxiety often turns to anger.
Set aside time at the beginning and the end of each day to read e-mail and respond to every e-mail as soon as you read it (just like in the old days when time management courses told us to handle each piece of paper only once). If you don’t, you will find yourself facing an avalanche of messages that take on increasing importance to the sender because they have gone unacknowledged.
Even if you need more information or input before you can give an answer or make a decision, it is still good practice to respond immediately with something as simple as "Thanks for writing. Once I know whether or not we are able to move forward on this, I’ll get back to you," or "Thanks for writing. I’m forwarding your e-mail to my colleague X who is responsible for this area and who will, I know, get back to you." If you promise a response, you need to get back to the person once you’ve made a decision. If you delegate, you need to be sure that the person to whom you delegated will follow up, and promptly. Given the number of requests that you receive daily and to ensure follow-up, routinely send copies of your responses to your administrative assistant and ask him/her to check back with you in a week or two about a follow-up. Ask those to whom you refer a question or a decision to get back to you within a prescribed time with their response and again, copy your administrative assistant who will track all of this for you.
Create an advisory group of those who report directly to you and of their direct reports. Meet monthly for 90 minutes. (Bagels, coffee and juice are welcome additions to such meetings). View these meetings as occasions when you can ask for advice and answer questions. Also view them as a way of breaking down silos. At Puget Sound, I constituted a PAG, the President’s Advisory Group, which included vice presidents, deans and directors of administrative departments. People were initially uneasy, asking what the directors of athletics, the library and food service, for instance, had in common. At the end of the first meeting, I was delighted to see people (some located in the same or adjacent buildings) walk across the room and say to one another things like, “I’ve talked to you on the phone for 10 years and am so glad to meet you.” At the end of the first year, everyone in the room advocated continuing our monthly meetings.
How to Keep People Informed
Over-communicate. Try to imagine what it is that you know that others would also like to know and, if at all possible, then tell them. E-mail is a wonderful tool if used judiciously.
Give people the information that they need to make their own choices. This is particularly true in terms of performance evaluations. Lay out your expectations clearly and preferably in writing. Follow up performance evaluations with a memo, trying to cast your conversation positively but also making your expectations clear (e.g. "I’m glad that we talked this morning about how important it will be for you in the future to do x, y and z.")
Avoid Behaviors that will be Detrimental to You and the Institution
Do not confuse yourself with your role. For example, understand that you are in demand socially not because you are a fascinating conversationalist (although you may be that) but because of the role you play.
Do not confuse the college’s resources with your own. For example, if you find yourself traveling in circles of very affluent alumni, trustees or donors, be frugal in terms of how you spend college money. Those who have spent extravagant amounts of money on the President’s House, travel or entertaining have done so at their own peril and often have harmed the institution that they pledged to serve.
How to be a Vice President (or Dean)
Think institutionally not functionally and strategically, not tactically. In other words, approach all problems as if you were the president, charged with the well being of the entire institution and not just the areas for which you are responsible.
A president’s time (if she or he is effective) is the institution’s most important commodity. Therefore, ask for the president’s time with great care and "prep" the president as fully as you can for each event and meeting. Think through the event as if you were the president. (For example, don’t — as once happened to me — arrange for your president to stand on a bar in a singles bar in order to be seen and heard by the alumni in attendance). Alumni relations, development and admissions should coordinate their events to maximize the president’s time when she or is in a particular location and cut down on unnecessary travel.
Provide your president at least a day before you meet with an agenda and pertinent materials. This will allow the president time to think about what you are going to discuss and be able in many cases to answer your questions or make decisions in the meeting.
Always remember that the president has a myriad of demands on his or her time and therefore be immediately responsive to presidential requests and require your staff to do the same.
Give the president your honest counsel at all times.
People typically become administrators because they want to make their colleges and universities better places. Thus, they care a great deal and take problems very much to heart. Here my advice is simple: remember (and remind those who report to you) that today’s crisis will inevitably be replaced by tomorrow’s crisis. And if you are anxious, don’t show it. Your demeanor will influence the behavior of those around you. If you are calm and thoughtful, they are more apt to do the same.
As a decision-maker, strive always to be fair, to behave with integrity, to have all the knowledge you can possibly muster within the time you have before making a decision and then to communicate as fully as you can within the boundaries of confidentiality to those for whom the decision is important.
Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, president of SRP CONSULTING and senior consultant for Academic Search.