Journey to the Presidency

Are you cut out to be a college president? Mark Putnam offers advice about what to focus on -- and what matters less -- in answering that question for yourself.

August 21, 2013

Have you considered pursuing a college presidency? Do you know the whole truth and nothing but the truth? The need for leadership in higher education is growing and we are not doing all we can to enable those interested in a presidency to be ready.  

As a relatively new college president, my own journey to this remarkable role is still fresh in my mind. But I want to share a few observations regarding the process of preparation. Too often candidates focus on the search process and potential success in a competitive environment. An incredible amount of energy is spent on career planning, and not nearly enough on personal and professional preparation.

I learned my detailed career plans and the specifics of the search process were far less important to me when the time came to seriously consider a presidency. What mattered to me most was the extent of my preparation in relationship to an enormous responsibility.

The idea of one day serving as a college president was first introduced to me at the age of 34. I was flattered that someone could see potential in my future, but found it to be intimidating to consider, especially at a relatively young age.

It was four years later I received my first call from a search consultant noting I had been nominated for the presidency of a small college. My heart pounded in my chest – more out of fear than excitement. The particularly difficult aspect of this call was that the nomination came from someone with a strong national voice in higher education. I had the privilege of working with him on some special projects and our professional connection led to this nomination.

Despite the affirmation, I declined. It was, however, a wake-up call. If one day I wished to be available for such an opportunity, I had a lot of preparing to do.

Perhaps that early experience was instrumental in setting my mind and heart on preparation. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What areas of knowledge do I need to explore in order to become an effective educator and academic leader?
  • What skill sets are most important to pursue on the developmental pathway?
  • What kinds of experiences will enable me to be an adaptable and flexible leader?
  • What perspectives do I need to gain that will enable me to interpret the contextual and conceptual frameworks for leadership?

Get ready. Even with the opportunity to plan well in advance for a presidency, don’t make it a professional goal. Instead, settle on the notion that you are responsible to be ready if the right circumstances emerge, but be determined this is not a pursuit of blind ambition. A significant part of my journey has involved working very closely with three college or university presidents over the span of 17 years. This offered me a unique window into the life and work of a president, ranging from days of great fun and enjoyment to periods of immense challenge.

The best advice I can give you is to see the unvarnished version of this kind of leadership. If you can see it for what it truly is and prepare appropriately, you can find, as I have, the great privilege and joy of serving as a college president. Resist the impulse to compete. This isn’t about winning. If you focus on your development as a leader, you will know if and when the right circumstances emerge for you. Be content with the journey of preparation. It has its own rewards.

Seek to be the beneficiary of incredibly good mentoring. One factor that contributes to preparation more than any other is the role mentors play in challenging candidates to succeed. This kind of mentoring is not occasional, gentle encouragement. The succession of mentors in my life each turned the ratchet another notch as if they had been meeting for years to discuss my ongoing development. Sometimes it felt like a conspiracy. While there was affirmation along the way, each of them created for me a rigorous professional experience, with intense demands, and high expectations. I will always be grateful. 

As I complete my third year in the presidency, I constantly look back on conversations with mentors behind closed doors that changed my personal and professional life. None of them were unkind, but all were deliberate in gauging my receptivity in being pushed. The more I was open to their teaching and coaching, the more they grew comfortable with candor.

Each of them would test me by placing me in their circumstances and asking the simple question, “You’re the president. What are you going to do?” It stretched me intellectually. It enabled me to manage the emotional content of difficult situations. It taught me to avoid the dispassionate distance of analysis and embrace the energy of leadership. Find these mentors in your life and be a mentor, too.

Know your visions of leadership. As your journey continues and you become persuaded that your time is coming, consider carefully what you believe your leadership can accomplish. Every institution is unique. Its mission, history, culture and tradition are already in place. In approaching a search, it’s most important that you know yourself. The search is a dance with wide emotional swings.

Knowing what you hope to accomplish as a leader will enable you to avoid losing perspective and just trying to win. There is too much at stake for you and the college or university you are visiting to accept a leadership role that is not aligned with your leadership abilities. Spend considerable time reflecting on your leadership strengths and weaknesses. Know yourself, and more importantly, be honest with yourself. With a clear mind you can explore any opportunity and begin with the question, “What does success look like for any individual interested in this opportunity?”

Once you have a clear understanding of yourself and the opportunity at hand, you can assess your leadership potential in this particular setting. As the process continues, the intensity of these questions will only become more pronounced. One of my mentors warned me that through the search process, I would learn more about myself than I ever imagined. He was right.

Accept the pace. One of the most important considerations will be your readiness to embrace a dramatic change in lifestyle. You likely have had many years of experience in higher education, but the role of president is unlike any other. Take a hard look at the season of life you are in with respect to your family. There have been wildly successful presidents with many different family configurations. If everyone involved is prepared to undertake this important challenge you can adapt to many circumstances.

The failures often come from expectations and assumptions about the roles and responsibilities that are simply unrealistic. My family thrived through the transition, including a move from the East Coast to the Midwest; from an urban/suburban setting to a small community; and from a relatively quiet lifestyle to one with constant activity. We talked about this openly as a family before I ever entered the interview process. All of us were clear this was not simply a move for a new job; it was adopting an entirely new lifestyle – for the entire family. We love it here. Be very sure you are ready for this as well.

Carry the weight. There is one additional aspect understood intellectually, but until you experience it for yourself, you may not truly know it. Friends and family often say, “Oh, you must be so busy.” The truth is you will be no busier than you have ever been given the leadership roles you played in the course of your career.

What is dramatically different is the weight. Every decision, every action, and every word communicated has consequence. There is symbolic impact in everything you’ll do. To be honest, I find it invigorating. I have the privilege of leading a wonderful academic community. I live and work with amazing colleagues. I have privileges associated with the role that are both humbling and incredibly helpful. I am always conscious, however, that the role I play is the embodiment of the institution. No one else can represent the college as I do and carry the hopes, dreams and values of a community. It’s an incredible experience, but you must be prepared to bear the weight.

During the transition, I received many messages of encouragement. What struck me was how often members of this community were eager to share their experiences as a guide for me. I leave you with a reflection I received from an alumnus. I have carried these words in my wallet as a reminder of why I am here:

“I can tell you that you have signed up to lead a special group of people who invested not only in my academic education, but also in my development as a person and a citizen of the world.”

Academic leadership is a great calling. It’s about people whose lives will be changed. It’s about fostering an academic community, rich with intellectual and personal development. It’s about citizenship in the world through active participation. Never lose sight of why you are doing this in the first place.

If it’s a path you desire to take, I wish you the very best in the journey.


Mark Putnam is president of Central College, in Iowa. He authors a blog, Mark: my words.


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