As consultants who have worked in higher education for more than 20 years, we have had the opportunity to work closely with at least 50 presidents. Additionally, we learned a great deal during our research for a book on presidential transitions in higher education. We interviewed scores of presidents, provosts, chief financial officers, and trustees. Among many other things, we discovered the critical importance for presidents — especially new presidents — to devote effort and energy to building relationships — and we don’t just mean with donors.
Without positive, mature, and authentic relationships throughout the campus, a president cannot lead successfully. Relationships are the “currency” in higher education. They need to be proactively established and carefully maintained if a president hopes to take an institution to a better place. Building meaningful "relational capital" requires attention to both the who and the how.
Despite all the pressures that accompany the start of a new position, it’s the smart — and, more importantly, the successful — president who takes a prioritized approach to building relational capital. All relationships matter, but in higher education, four are critical: the board (particularly the board chair), the faculty, senior staff, and students. Other constituents, such as alumni, community leaders, donors, etc. are important, but these four are the ones most likely to impact the success of the president’s tenure.
Given their responsibility for hiring and firing the president, it stands to reason that the relationship with the board is most critical for a new president. Unless the president was appointed from within the institution, the relationship with the board begins developing during the interview process. That’s when the board begins forming judgments about the president and how he or she will operate. At the same time, the president is beginning to form impressions of the board members and what they’ll be like to work with. In most searches, the president will spend a significant amount of time getting to know the board chair. As important as the relationship with the board is, the relationship with the board chair has even greater significance. In most cases the board chair will have a great deal of influence on other board members. It’s important for the president to maintain regular phone contact with the chair — especially if the chair lives far away from the campus,making face-to-face interaction more difficult. There is a tendency today to rely on email for regular communication, but it would be a mistake in this case. It’s convenient and efficient but it is a dangerous tool when attempting to share the sensitive types of information that must be exchanged between a president and board chair. In the best of situations the chair is the president’s ally. Taking care with this relationship is crucial to ensuring that it remains that way.
On a day-to-day basis, the relationship with the faculty may be the most important in terms of defining a president’s success. Unlike the board, the faculty does not have the authority to hire or fire a president. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of unplanned presidential departures, one quickly discovers that the departure was in some way driven by faculty displeasure with the president’s performance. Attending to this relationship places constant demands on the president, but the effort invested will pay dividends. The president must demonstrate ongoing interest in academic matters (while taking care not to undermine the role of the chief academic officer). Fund-raising responsibilities dictate that the president be present at various athletic events. The wise president takes care to attend at least as many academic activities, such as lectures, symposiums, and, if appropriate within the culture, academic senate meetings. Routine face-to-face interaction with faculty — both in small and large groups — cannot be overemphasized.
Along with developing and maintaining relationships with the board and the faculty, a president would be wise to invest effort with the cabinet. No president can do it all alone. He or she must rely on those in key leadership positions to oversee the various initiatives that will move the institution forward. All the individuals whose formal or working titles include the term chief (e.g., chief academic officer, chief financial officer, chief student affairs officer) must know and be known by the president. This can be accomplished only by spending time with each other, in both formal and informal settings. Regularly scheduled meetings — both individual and group — are essential for a president and his or her cabinet to gel.
Today’s presidents are required to maintain an extensive external focus. Investing time to build relational capital with senior staff will ensure that those attending to internal operations are in sync with the president. One of the first steps along these lines is initiating the process of assessing the cabinet to determine whether any changes are needed. It’s possible that the new president has different standards than his or her predecessor, or that the demands of the positions have changed since the incumbents were hired or promoted. A key consideration in this area is whether the issue was discussed with the board during the interview process. It would be unwise to make wholesale changes within the cabinet unless this had been discussed with the board. And even when it has been discussed, care must be taken when making these types of changes because it sends signals throughout the community. Unless the individuals are known to be poor performers — and in some cases even if they are — there can be a backlash when a president moves too quickly.
The final constituency group that demands regular and ongoing attention is students. Students lack the power of the board, the clout of the faculty, or the ability of senior staff to accomplish things. But they are the reason the institution exists. And if the president doesn’t invest effort and energy in establishing and maintaining effective relationships with them, bad things are likely to occur. Too many potentially negative matters affecting students arise in normal day-to-day activities for this not to be a top priority. Whether it’s poor service in a dining hall, too few student tickets to intercollegiate athletic events, or a leaky roof in a residence hall, things happen to upset students. If the only contact presidents have with students is when there is a problem, the relational capital will be spent quickly.
But how does a president go about building relational capital? Especially when transitioning presidents are overwhelmed by their commitments during the early stages of their tenure. In most cases the demands commence even before the president begins drawing salary. Various campus events occur between the time of the announcement of the president’s appointment and his or her first official day in office. Each one represents a potential opportunity for the president to begin to build the relationships that will be essential to his or her success.
Fortunately, building relational capital does not require charisma, which actually can be a liability in higher education. Most faculty don't trust charm but do appreciate authenticity, intelligence, and integrity. The very best presidents lead quietly and nurture respectful relationships throughout their institution.
Presidents can take the following steps to build their relational capital.
- Be transparent in decision making, especially about important or contentious campus matters. Stakeholders appreciate understanding the thinking behind and the rationale for important decisions. This is usually best done in small groups and face-to-face meetings. A key consideration when pursuing this type of transparency is being explicit that the president has ultimate responsibility for making the decision. He or she will be influenced by the input, but everyone should understand that the president may opt to go in a different direction from what the input might suggest. This approach will take time, but the payoff is worth it.
- Be visible and accessible on campus. People need to feel the presence of their president. Attending on-campus events — both large and small — is one way to do this. Holding “town hall” meetings periodically during the year is another great way to build community, hear people's hopes and concerns, and check the pulse of the campus. “Chews and chats” is yet another excellent way for the president to engage with the community. Whether it’s the occasional morning coffee and bagels or brown bag lunches, unscripted conversations go a long way toward establishing the president’s accessibility.
- Share relevant information widely throughout campus. A weekly or bi-weekly president's e-mail message is an effective way to communicate what is going on. Posting the message to a Web site expands its reach.
- Be a good listener. Many presidents consider themselves excellent listeners, but this rarely is the case. Too many chief executives are better at advocacy than inquiry. Listening well and authentically is hard to do. It takes patience, curiosity, and humility; all wonderful but challenging leadership qualities. When followers truly feel listened to, they will share their hopes and fears, aspirations and stories. Most importantly, it conveys respect and value for others. And keep in mind that this cannot happen if the president is texting or taking calls during meetings.
- Understand the importance of "cultural travelers." These individuals are able to travel throughout the different campus cultures (e.g., faculty, staff, students) and maintain productive and authentic relationships within each group. They often act as bridge builders and translators between different groups. Cultural travelers have tremendous influence and insight and have deep awareness of what is occurring on campus. Oftentimes these individuals lack fancy titles and do not appear on the organizational chart, yet everyone knows who they are. They enjoy solid reputations built on trust and credibility. In fact, they are exemplars for building effective relational capital. Presidents need to know who these individuals are and build relationships with them. This will leverage the president’s time and efforts in powerful ways.
Serving as a president is a challenging endeavor. There are numerous examples of individuals who failed to survive in the role. Any number of factors can lead to a president’s downfall. One surefire way to reduce the likelihood of surviving the problems that routinely arise on campuses is to fail to invest in establishing and maintaining effective relationships with the various constituencies that comprise a campus community.