Five Key Skills New Presidents Will Need

Campus leaders will have to employ them early on in their administrations if they are to face down the challenges that COVID-19 is presenting this fall, advise Katherine Haley and Tom Horgan.

 

August 11, 2020
 
 
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As the fall semester fast approaches, American higher education institutions are responding to the COVID crisis in a myriad of ways according to their own context and values. This crisis is presenting distinct new challenges to every college and university president -- especially to those who have just arrived on campus. New presidents must employ particular skillsets early on in their administrations if they are to face down the challenges that COVID-19 is presenting.

Despite signs of skepticism from many people, most institutions are insisting they will open in mid-August and report they have plans in place to ensure students, faculty members and administrators will be safe. At the same time, a significant number of colleges and universities -- most notably the Ivies, but also a number of others -- have announced they don't believe it will be safe to return to campus this fall. They plan to move to a blended or hybrid online pedagogy. Caught in the middle of all these uncertainties are the students and parents, along with the entire higher education community.

Understandably, the desire to get back to normal is particularly pronounced among first-year students. Not only did they miss out on their senior year high school experience, but it now also looks increasingly likely they will be denied the experience and excitement of going away to college and being on their own. Studies report that most first-year students would much prefer being on campus than online, yet the very experiences they seek -- social, athletic and the like -- do not allow for the social distancing that is imperative for fighting the virus.

For college and university presidents, this is a time of great uncertainty -- and likewise a time when their leadership talents and skills are going to be tested most intensely. For one segment of presidents -- those who have accepted new leadership positions starting just this summer -- the challenges and tests of their leadership abilities will be immediately measured against how they maneuver through the pandemic crisis over the next several weeks.

Based on our experience and observations, we've identified five key skills that will be vital for new presidents as they arrive on their campuses. Every new president will have to develop and hone these skills as they take on the leadership of an unfamiliar institution that may well be wracked by turmoil and crisis.

#1: Listening and learning -- quickly. Typically, new presidents have the luxury of using their first year on the job as a time to listen and learn about the distinct culture and context of their new institution. But during this pandemic, the traditional "listening tour" will have to be put on hold. As a new president you will need to become a very quick study. The campus is going to be hungry for leadership and information about the strategies to be employed in response to the crisis.

At the same time, it can be dangerous for you to get too far ahead of important constituencies. Now more than ever, you will need to identify key people on the campus who can advise you on the priorities, concerns and desires of various stakeholder groups. You should consult certain administrators, faculty members and staff members right away, and hear important student voices, as well. You'll need a fair dose of intuition and the insight to cull the wheat from the chaff when it comes to whom to listen to and trust. A few key trustees can be invaluable in suggesting where to look for honest insights.

#2: Communicating. With all the uncertainty of the pandemic, the need for institutional constituencies to feel informed and included will be palpable. Many administrators and faculty members feel they don't know enough about how the campus is going to operate when and if the students return to the campus. While solid plans may already be in place, a small circle of administrators is holding the information too close to the vest at many institutions.

A new president will be well served to quickly break the logjam of information and initiate regular and clear communications to key constituencies both on and off the campus regarding plans and updates related to the crisis. You should be wary of people who caution that "we cannot announce anything until we are certain of what we are doing." Understanding that change is the only constant right now, it's better to announce that "masks will be required to be worn everywhere on campus" today and amend that to "only when outside your dorm room" tomorrow, rather than leave everyone wondering what the policies are. Instead of worrying about having to change a policy in the light of new information, remind everyone that the situation and an understanding of it is in a constant state of flux, which the administration is monitoring and assessing systematically and in real time.

#3: Expressing empathy. During these uncertain times, you will gain a lot of credibility and loyalty if you demonstrate simple empathy for the people on your campus -- especially essential workers -- who have been trying to manage through this pandemic since mid-March. Everyone is stressed, tired and anxious. Take early opportunities to express empathy and thanks to all key groups and to build a sense of esprit de corps and camaraderie among faculty and staff members. A culture of "We are all in this together and we will get through it together" sends a reassuring message that senior administrators are working with the community for the good of all.

#4: Making tough decisions. Your campus probably won't survive this pandemic without significant financial challenges and structural changes. While there is a lot of pain to go around already, to save the institution, you may need to make personnel and programmatic cuts. If programs or positions must be eliminated and painful decisions made, it will be best to do so as soon as possible, with one important caveat: make sure you have a transparent and impartial system for making those decisions. The institution may already have program review, but if it does not, make clear that any changes will be data-driven and impartial.

Making programmatic or personnel changes has until now been a very difficult proposition in higher education -- even though it's been clear for a while that the financial model for many colleges and universities is unsustainable. But the pandemic has forced institutions to accept change at an unprecedented rate and scope. Making tough decisions, that perhaps pre-pandemic would have been highly controversial or even impossible without toxic blowback, may now be more easily accepted. More than ever, institutions must ensure that their financial model is sustainable and that their planning and programming are pragmatic and nimble. In making tough decisions, it's key to remember and practice skill #3 -- empathy -- by explicitly acknowledging the pain and demonstrating authentic concern and respect for people in the community.

#5: Seeking outside expertise. Especially when you are coming on board during a crisis like COVID-19, you should feel comfortable in seeking expert help and advice. Don't think that because you are the president you have to have all the answers to demonstrate you are a "strong leader" or that all the wisdom needed can only be found on your campus. Every institution is facing the same challenges; yours doesn't have to invent its own wheel. Much can be learned from other presidents who are willing to share insights and plans. Collaboration and communication can be empowering -- and are now more possible than ever, given that all institutions face the same existential challenges.

You may also need to reach out for professional assistance to straighten out a financial aid catastrophe or a tangled legal question, or to identify specialists in learning modalities and program review. With their outside perspective and real-world experience, trustees can be particularly helpful. Of course, always remember the importance of "trust, but verify." But, above all, avoid isolating yourself when resources and individuals who can provide much needed expertise and assistance are at hand.

The days ahead will be critical not only for students, faculty and staff, but for the actual future of the institution. The challenges will take all the skill and talents a new president can muster. Remember that your colleagues want you to be a success -- that's good for everyone. Balance a trust in your own instincts with a willingness to test those instincts thorough consultation with others.

For a new president, leading during a pandemic will be both a challenge and an opportunity. More than ever before, well-informed, impartial, data-driven and humane leadership is essential in responding to the crisis. And that leadership will have a profound impact on the future of the institution.

Bio

Katherine Haley is the former president of Whitter and Gettysburg College and is the founder of Haley Associates, a higher education executive search firm. Tom Horgan is the president emeritus of the New Hampshire College & University Council and a principle at Haley Associates.

 

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