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At recent meetings where chief academic officers can be found, I have asked two questions of the university provosts and liberal arts college deans whom I’ve convened over fine food and wine:

  • What’s been your sharpest “growing edge” as a chief academic officer?
  • What were the attributes of your best learning experiences as an academic professional?

With those questions, I’ve been seeking to learn what tools CAOs are missing and what remedy would leave them saying, “That was worth it.” The answers I’ve received have convinced me that academic leaders are deprived of time for mindful reflection on higher education’s persistent challenges. Worse, they lack the budget for those opportunities that are done “just right.”

Each dean and provost is different, of course, but my dinner conversations with them revealed five developmental challenges -- the “backhand,” to use a tennis phrase that Robert Kegan appropriated for adult development -- that most academic leaders need to work on.

No. 1. Cleaning up someone else’s mess. The newly appointed chief academic officer’s first week on the job will tell them a lot about the year to come. Their inherited reality all too often subverts the vision and plans so confidently laid in the interview process. What, then, are the particular skills required of someone following a provost who had lost the confidence of the faculty, or of someone “walking into a half-baked accreditation process” and needing to get it back on track -- and quickly?

I saw heads nodding with rueful familiarity when one dean admitted his surprise at discovering “shared governance dysfunction under a longtime president.” For others, the problems were aggravated by a president’s cabinet that wasn’t transparent and did things in ways she didn’t agree with: “We didn’t see eye to eye.”

No. 2. Leading across academic differences. For provosts who come from serving as a dean at a more academically “homogeneous” school within a university (say, business or engineering) or a narrower domain within a small college, their challenge is managing the heterogeneity of disciplinary cultures across an institution. That breadth of difference isn’t just theoretical. Just ask one land-grant provost, new to the vagaries of agricultural extension: “Suddenly, you’re the one being contacted when there’s a lost cow.” Another -- a former dean of a law school -- described the shock of learning that she was responsible for “orphaned” nuclear waste. Even on the smaller scale of liberal arts colleges, chief academic officers at the dinner said they struggled to develop the talent of “getting everyone on the same page.”

No. 3. Balancing patience and change. Academic leaders also need help “managing change, at an institution where it hasn’t.” They struggle balancing the time it takes for culture change against the urgency of so many issues in these times. Three chief academic offers admitted that they needed help cultivating patience in themselves and in others: “Things take time to have an effect, or to realize they haven’t changed at all … It’s depressing.” This challenge is compounded when all problems are presented as crises even when they’re not. One senior administrator said wryly, “Faculty can’t stand two things: the way things are and change.”

No. 4. Letting people go (or managing those who won’t). I keep hearing from provosts about the 90-10 rule: 10 percent of the faculty occupies 90 percent of CAOs’ bandwidth. (The more fortunate among them call it the 80-20 rule.) Whether new or experienced, academic leaders are pleading for help in influencing those few people -- some hyperengaged, some entirely disengaged -- who make change leadership difficult. In extreme cases, such individuals are truly bad actors. With increasing reports of serious misconduct by faculty members and tenured administrators, deans and provosts must now learn to navigate “third-rail” separation actions.

Yet some institutions, particularly those with strong cultures of collegiality, have no traditions of or professional standards for letting people go, “from the executives to the janitors.” Strategies for managing those who make up the 10 percent are crucial because the troublemakers limit provosts’ ability to listen to the other 90 percent.

No. 5. Adjusting to volume and pace. Finally, CAOs shared their struggles managing time and making choices through “the sheer volume and flow of the work” at the highest administrative levels. For one new provost, a presidential transition happened earlier than originally planned, compressing everything that needed to get done into a shorter time period. Others were caught between the demands of trustees or presidents and those of the faculty. The intense pressures have a lasting impact. As one CAO explained, “I had to develop ‘armor,’ because I can’t give faculty members everything they ask for … and yet, I’m trying to show them I don’t always say no.” These leaders need strategies, not merely defense mechanisms.

Five of the provosts offered to sum up their developmental needs in one statement:

  • “I need a mindfulness that allows me to make the right decisions, to read all the data.”
  • “I need more time learning how to make good decisions.”
  • “I want to talk with provosts about being change agents, and then time map it out.”
  • “I want to pause, then share, then reflect on the challenges people have.”
  • “I need the space to unpack the role of provost as an ER doctor, untangling the important versus the urgent.”

Ultimately, what does the experience look like that would help CAOs develop their backhand? In an upcoming essay, I will report on their answers to that question and why that experience is so hard to find.

I’m grateful to these academic leaders who opened up to me about their professional blind spots and leadership troubles. They appropriately live the idea, coined by one CEO in An Everyone Culture, that “it’s better to feast on your weaknesses than to starve on your ego.”

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