Presidential First Steps -- II

Patrick Sanaghan and Kimberly Eberbach offer practical advice on reaching out to constituents, managing the staff and setting the agenda.

May 23, 2012

The first part of this essay may be found here.

Having completed a thorough on-boarding diagnostic, the new president can set out on the road to executing his agenda with a map of the terrain and a set of guardrails. The remainder of our practical advice is derived from scores of interviews with veteran presidents, as well as our own experiences and observations.

1. Build meaningful connections. This step is in first place because it is foundational, regardless of what the new president learns from the diagnostic. We have witnessed several failed presidents who were never able to build positive and authentic relationships with their campus stakeholders. They were smart enough intellectually, but they lacked adequate skills and tools when it came to relating to others.

In higher education, it is often said that relationships are the "currency" that makes things happen on a campus. A new president must be able to personally connect with the values, traditions, aspirations, and hopes of campus stakeholders. And, conversely, the president must be able to articulate to the campus community the elements and concerns that will be central to his goals as his leadership tenure unfolds. Building meaningful connections requires time and face-to-face interactions, curiosity about others, and careful listening in well-crafted conversations with individuals, small groups, and large groups.

The necessity of face-to-face communication is an important point. One of us knows of a new president who began his tenure with a national tour that had been arranged for him by the board and vice president of development. He spent 70 days off campus during his first six months on the job. As a result, in private conversations on campus he was referred to as "Casper the friendly ghost" and sometimes as "the visitor." Even good intentions to remain connected turned sour. For example, the president kept a daily blog in which he reported on his travels. This only reinforced the idea that he wasn’t present and accessible.

Finally, few things are less attractive than bad manners. Power and position at times spawn arrogance that can translate into treating others poorly. Our counsel is to build relationships with everyone on campus — the people who shovel the sidewalks, security guards, parking attendants, cafeteria employees, cleaning staff, maintenance workers, administrative personnel, faculty at all levels, and students — with the same diligence and respect that go into developing relationships with the board, donors, parents, and esteemed faculty. Simple and authentic courtesies such as, "Good morning," "Thank you," "Please," "Appreciate your effort," "How’s your family?" will establish miles of goodwill. People throughout campus will talk about their interactions with the president. Remember, they are watching all the time.

2. Demonstrate openness. One of us has written a series of articles about a pernicious leadership dynamic — "seduction of the leader." This seduction can take many forms, and it is one of the biggest traps new leaders can fall into.

As we noted earlier, for a variety of reasons, followers often will not speak truth to power on campus, and this is especially true with new presidents. In addition, campus stakeholders are often willing to approach the new president’s transition with a fair amount of goodwill. This honeymoon period, at its best, offers the new leader an opportunity to "go against the grain" or make a few minor mistakes without serious long-term consequences. At worst, however, this lack of honest communication creates a barrier to constructive feedback with respect to concerns about the new leader’s ideas, proposed initiatives, and impact on others. The leader is at risk of being seduced into a sense of infallibility.

New leaders inevitably fall off the pedestal in time. The wisest and most effective ones intentionally knock it over early in their tenure. One step in this direction is to encourage honest feedback and reward it immediately and publicly when it happens. People will scrutinize a new president’s reactions to tough questions, constructive feedback, or negative news. The president cannot be perceived as being above such forms of communication. How the new leader reacts will express volumes about how he views his role, how accessible and collaborative he is, whether or not he is willing to learn, and what he regards as acceptable conduct among members of the campus community.

The "word on the street" about how the leader responds to feedback and advice will quickly get around. If the new president is perceived as being open to the ideas of others, expecting his ideas to be tested, and welcoming contrary perspectives, the resulting climate of candor will help protect him from the seduction dynamic.

3. Manage your time strategically. A new president will want to make a positive impression with campus stakeholders, and one of the most visible ways she can do this is by working long and hard. Often she will model a strong work ethic as a means of setting a serious tone for her presidency. Unless the president establishes boundaries and protocols to protect personal time, however, 60- and 70-hour workweeks will become the norm.

A president’s job will always expand to fill the amount of time she is willing to give it. There will always be another meeting to attend, an alumnus or donor to wine and dine, or a student recital or sporting event to attend. There are scores of opportunities to be visible every week, and all take time for active participation.

Putting in the time to attend every meeting and every event will wear out a new president very quickly. And many of these commitments may not even add much value to the president’s effectiveness or campus relationships. This is another one of the many reasons why an early and thorough diagnostic is critical. Developing a deep and comprehensive understanding of the context in which the institution exists will allow the new president to be strategic, serious, and proactive in how she spends his time.

One of us worked recently with two new presidents who established ground rules for how they would allocate their time. They then made the ground rules public so that stakeholders would understand the boundaries between campus and personal commitments. Both, for example, declared Sundays off-limits as a time for family, worship, and renewal. Both established two days a week that would end at 5:00 p.m. so they could maintain personal balance. And, significantly, both encouraged their senior team members to establish limits around their own time as well. This sent a powerful message that could be expected to reverberate throughout their institutions.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect that a president’s first year, in particular, will be demanding. To survive these rigors, however, the new leader must maintain personal connections with family and make time for rejuvenating activities such as exercise, hobbies, and well-earned vacations. Furthermore, allocating time for reflection is essential, because the first year will provide a vast harvest of learning. Only by consciously dedicating time to reflect upon and synthesize this learning can the new president maximize the impact of his leadership.

4. Focus on small wins. Often a new president will want to quickly establish his presence with one or more “home runs” in his first year. This quest to make a big impression may take the form of the new leader promoting a “big idea” — perhaps announcing a new research initiative, starting a new statewide interdisciplinary program, or launching a record-setting campaign. Each of these is a laudable goal, but there will be plenty of time to enact big ideas after the first year. Obviously, if an extraordinary idea or opportunity comes along, the president should take advantage of it, but these are few and far between.

Our counsel is to avoid actively seeking out big ideas to make a dramatic impact in the first year. If a new president will instead concentrate on hitting a lot of "singles" in the beginning, these smaller successes will help him build momentum and credibility. Moreover, if those "singles" can bring to fruition the dreams of campus stakeholders, even better. Look for opportunities to reduce the amount of non-value-adding work for faculty, put energy behind fulfilling the needs of the student body, or identify ways to further the causes of others in the first year. Opportunities to pursue such actions can be readily discerned during the initial assessment with enough good listening. In addition, hitting a few “singles” provides an opportunity for the leader to exercise new muscles, come to grips with competing agendas and forces on campus, and prepare for the big stuff to come.

The same urges that drive a new leader to push for big ideas can also lead him to succumb to the strange notion that when he becomes president, he must also become a "visionary" leader. This may come as a shock to some, but years of experience have taught us that a new president has exactly the same visionary qualities the day after he assumes the role of president as he had the day before becoming president. Vision does not come with the office, although even many boards appear to embrace this notion. They tell the new president they want bold ideas, powerful ideas, ideas that will "take our breath away."

Truly visionary presidents are as rare as blue diamonds. Most presidents are extremely smart, but smartness does not automatically translate to vision. Building a new business school or law school may be a great idea, but it is not a particularly visionary one. Moving into Division I athletics or developing an online M.B.A. program would be an important accomplishment but, again, is not especially visionary.

Over a 25-year career, one of us has worked with only two visionary leaders in academe. These leaders truly helped transform their institutions with the boldness of their ideas. (Note that crucial word: helped.) They also had big endowments. If we look to the corporate sector for examples of visionary leadership, a handful of individuals like Steve Jobs of Apple and Richard Branson of Virgin Airways come to mind. But even in the wide world of corporate pursuits, there are not thousands of visionaries, only a handful. Higher education is no different.

Although  we argue that times of transition are ripe for innovation and change, we believe that the first year of a new president’s tenure is best leveraged by laying the groundwork for bigger things that will come. The new president would be well-served to free himself of the notion and resist any pressure that he must somehow become a visionary. If the new leader does smart things — pays attention to his people, acts with integrity, moves good ideas along, deals with tough issues — he will have a great first year. And he will position himself for even more productive years in the future.

5. Make the most of early decisions. The most powerful communication vehicle for a new leader is his first handful of decisions. These actions communicate louder and more clearly than a multitude of addresses, louder and more clearly than the "word on the street," and (counter to common wisdom) much more loudly than formal campus communications. These decisions are so important because they put into motion a course of actions that will have a tangible impact on the campus community. They provide an opportunity for the leader to establish new operating norms, demonstrate cultural standards, and portray courage early on.

One powerful first statement of principles is the set of decisions the new leader makes with respect to his senior staff. Sometimes a new president will inherit difficult, underperforming, or even toxic individuals in leadership positions. Ideally, the board and outgoing president would deal with such leaders before the new president comes on board, but there will be many times when this does not happen. When an individual has a long history of problematic behavior that has not been addressed, a new president can gain immediate credibility by taking swift, well-informed remedial action.

In our discussions with veteran presidents, several have commented that one of their biggest regrets was not dealing with staff issues immediately. Bad leaders usually don't get better on their own. If a new president encounters one of these individuals among his senior staff, he needs to assess the situation and act swiftly. Action means confronting the poor behavior directly. The question of whether this engagement should be public or private may be arguable, but addressing the problem privately is typically the most judicious course of action. Confronting bad behavior requires that the president establish and communicate clear standards regarding what is expected from his staff and what they are to model for the institution.

Dealing with a truly toxic leader may require a course of repeated confrontations and expectation-delineating sessions. Should the behavior continue without signs of improvement, the new president needs to make clear to the individual that increasingly negative consequences, including termination, will ensue. In some instances, an individual may require outside support to gain the necessary skills needed to match new expectations. This is fair and may be a good approach to resolving the situation. In our experience, however, reconciling the problematic behavior of toxic or underperforming individuals should take only a few months, not a year or more.

Fortunately, a new president will have a variety of resources at his disposal to help deal with problem staff members, as well as a ready pool of individuals who would be all too happy to come aboard to help him advance his mission. The wise president will leverage these assets to their fullest to ensure that a fair and thorough process is followed in managing poorly performing members of the leadership team.

6. Build a team (not a "kitchen cabinet"). In some cases, a new president will inherit a large senior team or cabinet. In an effort to manage the complexity of a large group, the new president will informally rely on a small handful of these leaders for wise counsel. Often, these individuals are chosen because they have a good personal "fit" with the president due to similar background, personality, or philosophy. Although the new president may have only the best intentions in turning to such an inner circle, the impact on the senior team will not be constructive.

The creation of an informal "kitchen cabinet" sets up a negative dynamic — who’s in and who’s out — that can impair the functioning of the larger senior team. Heavy reliance on an inner circle can create distrust in the larger group. The "outsiders" will spend a considerable amount of time wondering why they weren’t chosen to be “insiders.” They will also be curious about exactly what takes place in discussions within the smaller group. This sense of separation can impact the decision-making process because the outsiders may become skeptical, believing that all the real decisions have already been made by the insiders.

We have witnessed several presidents restructure large cabinets by dramatically changing the reporting structure to make it more effective, and the changes did produce some grumbles. However, if the president makes his rationale clear, a thoughtful and well-executed restructuring can set the stage for strengthening the senior team.

Building and nurturing a high-functioning team is hard work and requires courage on the part of the president. It takes patience, persistence, skill, and attention — commodities that are in short supply during the first year of a president’s tenure. However, only the president can build a great team. Although a human resources officer or a highly trusted and skilled outside party can add value, it is the president who defines and fosters the leadership team’s values, culture, aspirations, and goals. This is not a responsibility that can be delegated, but the payoffs for the effort are robust.

When a senior team is a cohesive, high-functioning unit, several outcomes are achieved:

  • The senior team works together toward what is best for the institution as a whole and does not devolve into a collection of individuals advocating exclusively for their particular silos.
  • A collaborative culture is fostered throughout the campus because stakeholders know the senior team is working together effectively for the good of the whole.
  • People cross institutional boundaries to help each other be successful, because they understand that this is the institutional norm and an ongoing priority.
  • Negative politics will be minimized because there are no sides to be taken.
  • People work together toward shared aspirations and worry less about office politics or what is politically correct.
  • The strategic assets of the institution are leveraged in powerful ways because senior leaders are all on the same page and are working toward common goals.

The unfortunate reality is that some new presidents simply do not possess the skill set needed to create a high-functioning team. Others have never experienced working as part of an effective team and, therefore, have no real picture of what one looks like. Still others subscribe to the myth that "if you just let these smart people do their jobs, all will be well." In our experience, this is rarely the case. A strong and cohesive team must be built through purposeful action by its leader.

Consequently, we believe that leaders would do well to become students of team-building. Some effective strategies for developing the needed skills are to consult with experts in team building, to read about high-performing teams and discuss these readings with members of the senior team, and to seek ideas from sitting presidents who are known for the quality of their leadership teams.

Although a president should resist a retreat to the comfort of a "kitchen cabinet" and should instead work toward developing a strong senior team, this does not preclude the president from having specific individuals who offer wise counsel. New presidents are encouraged to actively seek out mentors and advisers (e.g., a former president or board chair) to help them navigate the enduring whitewater of the presidency.


The first year for a new president in higher education is a time of great challenge and even greater opportunity — if managed effectively. A carefully crafted and executed on-boarding diagnostic will provide the new leader with foundational knowledge that can guide his earliest actions. The new president will be best served by getting to know his institution, establishing constructive stakeholder relationships and demonstrating openness, learning to manage his own time, resisting the urge to remake his institution overnight, maximizing the value derived from early decisions, and purposefully building a cohesive senior team. Less will produce more over the long run for the president who forgoes early big wins to establish operating norms, builds trust, focuses on the interests of existing constituents, and deciphers what really differentiates his institution from others. Setting the stage in this manner will leave the new president poised for long-term success in his challenging position.


Patrick Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, a consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning and leadership development. Kimberly Eberbach is vice president of human resources at Independence Blue Cross.

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