Essay reviews impact that chiefs of staff and executive vice presidents have in higher ed
In two previous articles I have discussed the “seduction of the leader” syndrome, a pervasive and pernicious leadership dynamic that affects many presidents in institutions of higher learning (as well as other leadership contexts). This seduction happens when a leader doesn’t have access to honest and accurate information about difficult or uncomfortable situations that arise in the organization. It also occurs when the president doesn’t receive truthful feedback about his (or her) own leadership effectiveness or the quality of his ideas or decision-making.
Because many followers won’t "speak truth to power,” a president can easily become ill-informed, ill-advised, and even clueless about what’s going on. This article will focus on what I call "structural seduction." The way a president's office is organized creates the potential for this dynamic to rear its ugly head, and a board's expectations for the president can keep this form of seduction in play. No president of a large institution can function without executive assistance, but presidents need to be cognizant of the impact that how they organize their office has on their efforts to lead their institutions effectively. These organizational ramifications become all the more important for a leader who is often away from his or her campus.
I will begin by examining two common forms the role of presidential deputy can take and will conclude with a discussion of how a president can maintain a close relationship with all of his stakeholders even in circumstances of frequent travel and robust executive assistance.
Chief of Staff
Many presidents are fortunate enough to have a chief of staff who helps them manage the pace and complexity of their office. This individual can expedite day-to-day tasks, manage the president’s calendar and schedule, and generally help keep things running smoothly. Most of the time this role is invaluable to the president.
There are potential downsides in this important relationship, however. If the chief of staff shields the president from "unwanted" individuals and controls the information getting through to the president — breaking it into "manageable" chunks, "translating" reports, and providing watered-down versions of difficult news — the president is ill-served.
A year ago, I was meeting with the chief of staff for a new president. This individual had worked with the new leader on another campus. He was interested in talking with me about presidential transitions, something I have written a book about. Unfortunately, the chief of staff was one of the most dour individuals I have ever met, which is not a recipe for success in a position that requires exceptional relational and political skills. He was convinced his role was to "protect" the president from all the "static" and “clutter” that would keep him from being successful in his new position.
I strongly suggested that this approach would not be effective because a new president needs to build authentic relational capital with campus stakeholders, especially faculty, and not be “protected” from them. Not surprisingly, we did not resolve our different perspectives about this individual’s new role and he continued to pursue his diligent efforts as gatekeeper.
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Before long, the new president was isolated from his campus stakeholders and misinformed about some important campus issues. He became embroiled in some conflicts that could easily have been avoided had he been better-informed about the politics and personal dynamics involved. Uncomfortable news traveled slowly to the office of the president, it was difficult to schedule a meeting with him, and he seemed disconnected from the campus. If the chief of staff had seen his role as facilitator, not blocker, the president’s transition could have been much smoother. Now the president will need to redouble his efforts to build bridges with his constituents, conduct face-to-face meetings, and make himself more visible on campus. He will be lucky if he gets this second chance.
To avoid a situation like this, the president must clearly convey to the chief of staff that the chief’s duty is to expedite office business in ways that build relationships with stakeholders and to convey information to the president promptly and fully, even if it means being brutally honest with the president.
One way to ensure this is happening is for the president to periodically assess the chief of staff’s effectiveness by anonymously polling the cabinet and other campus leaders about the responsiveness and honesty of the chief of staff. Incorporating such data collection into the performance appraisal process is usually helpful.
A president who has a bulldog for a chief of staff is sending a powerful and negative message to the campus community that he is being protected and really doesn’t want to be bothered by others.
Executive Vice Presidents
Another organizational feature that is finding favor on more and more campuses is the position of executive vice president (EVP). Higher education has adopted this element from the corporate sector with mixed results.
I first encountered the executive vice president role about 15 years ago while working with a large, urban university. I was being interviewed by a vice president about a potential consulting engagement. She had worked with me before on another campus and we had good rapport.
At the end of our meeting, she told me that she was going to “bump me up” to the EVP level and let them make the final decision about my employment. She mentioned that I would meet with "them" next week. I was a little surprised that there was more than one EVP and asked about it. The response was interesting: this institution had one EVP for academics and one for operations. I also found out that it was these two powerful individuals who actually ran the institution and that their primary responsibility was to keep the president from interacting with people on campus!
It seems that the president, who was well-known nationally, had two strange gifts. He was a "visionary" who had a daily "great" idea. However, the plethora of ideas created havoc when he talked about them throughout the campus. People didn’t know if they were supposed to research the proposed ideas, drop what they had been doing and start carrying out the suggested initiatives, or simply ignore the president.
Unfortunately, the president was also a micromanager. He loved ideas and details. He asked lots of questions about the details of almost everything, and this constant questioning created anxiety and confusion for campus stakeholders. The president would periodically pop up at meetings throughout the campus, ask tons of questions, and generally stir things up — then leave feeling he had done his job. People would often get phone calls from him about the smallest things. None of this was a good use of the president’s time, but he couldn’t help himself.
The EVPs were put in place to keep the president out of the way and to minimize his interaction with campus employees. The board had decided he needed to be on the road fund-raising and representing the institution nationally — two things he was good at.
I have found that senior leaders who micromanage are really deeply distrustful of others and controlling, not a good combination. A senior leader who has this crippling habit stifles the people around him, creates unnecessary stress for everyone, and slows things down. Followers are reluctant to take the initiative on any issue — let alone the associated risks — and caution permeates everything that happens on the campus of a micromanaging president.
I am sure such an extreme need to "protect" people from the president is quite rare, but I have also seen this kind of "protection" approach in play when the board doesn’t have much faith in the president. This situation could arise with a president who has a weak personality or is an indecisive leader, a poor public speaker, or someone uncomfortable around people. The board wants to limit the president’s interaction with internal and external stakeholders, so a strong EVP is put in place to handle as many matters as possible, to carefully manage the unavoidable interactions, and to make sure good decisions are ultimately made. A board can get away with this approach for only a limited period, because, at the end of the day, people begin to sense the depth of sheltering and maneuvering around the president. The EVP will come to be seen as a "puppet master," which is a role suited for a spy agency, not an institution of higher education.
The primary role of an EVP is to free up the president’s time so he can focus on the "strategic stuff." On paper, this makes sense, but unless the EVP is a highly skilled leader, it can create unintended barriers. Such barriers can keep the president from meaningfully interacting with the senior team, prevent the president from understanding the complexity of campus issues, and isolate the president from the tone and tenor of campus politics, culture, and aspirations.
I have worked with more than 20 EVPs over the past decade and have found that about 70 percent of them do an outstanding job, 20 percent are fair to middling, and 10 percent create more problems than solutions. The ones that are highly effective tend to be great listeners and facilitators who can steer their campuses with intelligence and integrity. However, despite their fine qualities and effectiveness, they still contribute to the seduction dynamic.
There is one supervisory practice followed by many EVPs, even the best of them, that creates a negative dynamic for the president and promotes seduction.
In many institutions, the EVP meets with each senior team member separately for an hour or so on a weekly or biweekly basis to review progress and identify potential problems. At first glance, this seems like an efficient practice, but it might not be as effective as imagined.
These one-off meetings put the EVP in a powerful decision-making role where his (or her) opinions and perspectives might carry too much weight. It also puts him into the "lone translator" role for the president. With such a filter, the complexity and nuance of campus issues might not be communicated effectively.
This one-off approach can also cause problems for the senior team. The senior team, as a group, never gets a systemic picture of the institution. Instead, team members tend to view issues from their silos (e.g., financial, technology, student affairs). They don’t get robust feedback from other team members regarding their proposed ideas and strategies. They might not see how their decisions and actions impact others on the team. This limits the quality of their decision-making and the potential for synergies that could benefit all parties.
This silo approach within the senior team can create a similar dynamic for the institution. Campus stakeholders might feel responsible for only their own college, division, or department and not have a sense of ownership for the whole institution. In such an environment, collaboration can be challenging because there are few models of cross-boundary work visible to stakeholders. Everyone on the campus knows whether or not the senior team is really a team, which will influence behaviors throughout the campus.
Often, this fragmentation of the team forces the senior team members to spend time offline checking in with each other in an ad hoc fashion, trying to get reality checks and a sense of what is going on. This time-waster could easily be avoided if the EVP would run an effective, collaborative, and well-managed meeting with the entire senior team on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, many EVPs don’t know how to do this. Finally, the members of the senior team never really develop a sense of camaraderie and connection with each other. If a team member is struggling, and you can bet that at any given time someone is, most of the others won’t know about it. If the team members don’t understand someone else’s predicament, it is difficult to help out.
The Dilemma of an "External Presence"
Many presidents spend a great deal of time off campus meeting with potential donors, legislators and alumni. Some presidents can spend 50 percent of their time on the road. And if they sit on institutional boards, present at conferences, or are on the lecture circuit, they can be away even more.
Boards often strongly encourage this kind of external activity because it helps with fund-raising, branding and institutional visibility. The problem with this arrangement is, who is actually leading the institution?
Although the traveling president might receive daily e-mails and updates, and even a phone conference or two, while away, these are second-rate communication vehicles. It is difficult to communicate the complexity of institutional culture and politics in an e-mail. Phone conferences are often hurried affairs conducted while the president is running for a plane and end up being poor attempts to keep him fully informed.
When the "visiting" president returns to campus, he is usually briefed about what has taken place in his absence. The briefing usually involves mostly headlines and not the full story. The complexity and tone of campus life can be easily lost.
With even the richest e-mails, updates, phone conferences, and briefings, it is important to bear in mind who is conducting these communications. It is usually the EVP, and once again the specter of leadership seduction is hovering over the relationship. What gets discussed is chosen by the EVP, which, once again, puts this individual in the translator role, deciding what is important to convey and what should be left by the wayside. This filtering is not ill-intentioned. It is simply part of the natural dynamic that all too frequently occurs. The president is not fully informed about the nuances and intricacies of his institution and may be oblivious to real problems that could be brewing.
Even a president who has limited time on a campus can stay connected to his institution in meaningful ways. The one-on-one meeting with team members is a practice has been employed effectively by several externally oriented presidents I have worked with.
The "visiting" president meets individually with each member of the senior team in an open and honest discussion. The president usually sends out a small set of focus questions prior to the meeting to ensure that the team members can come prepared with thoughtful answers. For example:
1. What is happening in your part of the organization that would be important for me to know?
2. What challenges are you currently facing, and how can I help?
3. Are there things across the campus that I might not be aware of? (Please don’t assume I already know.)
4. What accomplishments have you realized that you are proud of?
5. What is one piece of advice you would like to give me that would help me in my role as president?
The inquiries don’t need to be complicated. The right handful of questions can provide the president with much of the critical information and sense of the institutional climate he needs to lead effectively. If the senior team members believe the president wants to hear the "real deal," and they don’t need to fear retribution, they will bring the president a gold mine of information.
These one-on-one meetings with team members should take place twice a year. This frequency is not burdensome to any of the parties, yet will help a distant president monitor the pulse of the campus. Periodic meetings cannot substitute for a president’s actual presence, but they can serve as an effective bridge.
Information gleaned from the team member meetings should be shared with the EVP. The objective of applying this strategy is not to “go around” the EVP. It is meant to give the president face-to-face access to the important leaders who help make the institution work. The president’s open sharing of information with the EVP will model desired behavior that the EVP should enact in return.
The direct meetings do not usurp the authority of the EVP in the least. If the EVP does feel threatened by the president’s contact with individual team members, this is not a good sign about how he sees his role — which is another crucial piece of information the president needs. At the end of the day, the primary responsibility of the EVP is to help make the president successful, not restrict his contact with the people that make his institution work or shield him from direct, honest information.
The future of higher education will be filled with pervasive ambiguity and complexity, and things will only move faster and faster. Presidents need access to straight, honest information now more than ever. If presidents can actively solicit advice and feedback, engage in constructive debate and dialogue about institutional issues with their senior team members, promote open discussion of contrary ideas and opinions, and make sure those closest to them don’t overly protect them, then our institutions will be well-served.
This is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. The president must be constantly vigilant against leadership seduction. It lies just around the corner, with the next conversation or incident. The president is at the very heart of this seduction dynamic, and remaining attentive and proactive is essential.
Patrick Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, a consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning and leadership development.