The pandemic is posing unprecedented challenges for leaders in higher education. Administrators at all levels -- presidents, vice presidents, directors, provosts, deans and department chairs -- face an era of chronic uncertainty that will last for months and possibly even years. Their work environment has been significantly altered, requiring decision making that is much faster yet also more collaborative. With existential threats more likely, leaders at all administrative levels must guide their unit to be flexible and responsive to unanticipated opportunities and barriers.
In these abnormal times, assessing leaders is still important. What is an effective approach to leadership assessment? I offer two scenarios, supposing that you are a dean conducting a review of your department chairs.
In one scenario, you begin the review this way: “For this annual review, I have read your lengthy report on what you have achieved this year and how you have and have not been able to meet the goals we set forth last year. Today I will go over my judgments of your achievements, provide you with some recommendations and inform you of any changes in your compensation for next year. I will send you a written copy after this meeting. So let us begin, and I do want you to respond to my assessment as we proceed.”
Here is a second scenario involving the dean and a department chair: “As you know, this review is not a typical annual review. We will focus on your development as a leader. I have received a list of issues you selected to address, along with some I wish to discuss today. I hope that, together, we can discuss and make some possible adaptations so you can most effectively lead your department in the next few months. My goal today is to learn more about your challenges, engage in some joint problem solving and decide on some concrete future steps to address both of our concerns. I also want us to review your progress in the next few months. In this session, we will not discuss your future compensation.”
I propose that the second scenario can be an especially productive approach to leadership assessment, one that I have come to call Sitting Beside Assessment -- a term that I admit is a bit ironic in these days of physical distancing.
Consider the derivation of the word "assess": assidere, the Latin word meaning to “sit beside.” Sitting beside brings to mind such verbs as "engage," "involve," "interact," "share," "trust." It conjures up images of working together, discussing, reflecting, helping, building and collaborating. It implies dialogue and discourse and understanding the other person’s perspective before giving value judgments.
Which type of assessment do you think is more valuable and productive? Which would you rather receive from your supervisor?
Sitting Beside Principles
A Sitting Beside Assessment is built on two principles of practice:
Mutual trust. In this type of assessment, both the evaluator and the leader must be committed to being honest and receptive to feedback with a sense of urgency and humility. Both partners -- whether, say, a board chair and a president or a dean and a department chair -- should assess accurately what is as well as what can be.
Informed judgments are evidence-based, of course, but a Sitting Beside session goes beyond a presentation of evidence. It is a personal interactive exchange of perspectives, ideas, concerns and judgments. It fosters reflection, learning, joint problem solving and continuous adaptation. It also should not ignore the human challenges many leaders now face. (I was quarantined for a month with COVID-19 and personally experienced some of them firsthand.)
Challenge as well as support. The idea of integrating challenge and support has been a major working principle for over a half century in higher education. Both are both needed to foster growth and improvement in a leader. Finding the balance of challenge and support is of course an individual matter. Too much or too little of either inhibits learning and development: an imbalance of support can lead to complacency, while an imbalance of challenge can lead to paralyzing anxiety.
I have followed these principles for the past four decades when assessing people in higher education to intentionally promote the integration of assessment and professional development. Now, in this tumultuous time, I’ve found it to be a much more valuable way to evaluate leaders than the traditional, top-down, “standing over” approach.
Sitting Beside Criteria and Characteristics
Other than to determine a person’s future status, including compensation, the primary purpose of assessing higher education leaders remains the same: so that they and their institutional units will be more effective. But we need to rethink the what and how of assessing people. What criteria and expectations, and which assessment processes, are most useful? Sitting Beside Assessment can answer those questions, as it is developmental in purpose, collaborative in form and futuristic in focus. This type of assessment:
Highlights developing leaders. All leaders, as human beings, change, grow and develop holistically -- socially, intellectually, physically, spiritually and politically. Given the increasing demands on any leader in higher education today, the lines between personal and professional growth often blur. I suggest three broad categories to consider in a Sitting Beside Assessment. The first category speaks to the qualities of the leader, which often include dimensions of character. Those qualities include resilience, empathy and the trust others have in a leader when that person faces uncharted territory.
The second category concerns the leader’s leadership skills and competencies -- what a leader does. Those encompass financial management; relations with colleagues, faculty and staff; culture building; communication; and strategic planning. Topics to cover during the assessment should include, for example: Does the leader consider the emotional welfare of colleagues, staff and students? How effective is the leader in addressing the heightened disorientation of colleagues and students during the pandemic? Is the leader engaged in self-reflection, having authentic dialogue with colleagues and stakeholders, taking reasonable risks, and learning from mistakes?
The third category is the leader’s role in advancing the unit, department or institution. Is the current progress of the administrative unit aligned with the goals of the institution in areas like financial health, fundraising and student achievement and success? Traditional assessments of leaders often include such indicators or qualities, but the type of evaluation I’m describing differs in that the leader should focus on their contribution to progress in terms that extend beyond the common indicators of success. A Sitting Beside Assessment should encourage reflection, learning, joint problem solving and continuous adaptation. Leaders should ask themselves questions such as: "What is and is not working? What should I change and what should I keep as a leader right now and in the immediate future?"
Fosters and promotes collaboration. Today, an institution will succeed by responding to both the immediate and long-term environmental realities as well as the internal and external expectations of its major constituencies -- including board members, students, parents, employers, alumni and donors, community members, and public officials. This is a time for a spirit of collective thinking, a fresh appraisal of old assumptions and an honest admission that no one person has all the answers moving forward.
Given the current level of uncertainty about the future, leaders are expected to be resilient and adaptive, creating an organizational culture that encourages and supports others to adopt a similar mind-set and behavior. And as stress has become more salient in college leaders’ professional and personal lives, they can also benefit from establishing honest and supportive working partnerships with each other.
Is futuristic in its focus. The institutional mission, identity, culture, wealth, aspirations, goals, successes, setbacks and opportunities for the future must remain an integral part of any assessment. For their institutions to remain sustainable and competitive, leaders must adapt to the changing and uncertain external demands. In doing so, leaders must continuously tackle these questions: “What is essential now and in the future?” and “Who are we, and what do we wish to become?”
While most leaders desire change, they often resist the loss and grief inherent in change. A Sitting Beside Assessment can help all partners in accepting and dealing with this strong human condition. The future well-being and contributions of higher education to our society depend on our recognition that we are not going back to normal. We must accept loss. That doesn’t mean, however, ignoring the fundamental core mission of the institution, identity and values or automatically casting them aside in favor of new ones. Stability is as important as agility; both are necessary moving forward.
While a Sitting Beside Assessment focuses on the development of the leader, its ultimate goal is to enhance the administrative unit and institution’s well-being by helping the leader to develop and grow. During the tenure of any leader, the supervisor may ultimately have to decide that a change in leadership is required. This type of assessment still remains a humane strategy to communicate unwelcome news, reconcile differences and help the leader to accept the finality of the institution’s decision.
Conducting Sitting Beside Sessions
The partners, the person being assessed and the supervisor, can schedule one or two sessions annually. The person being assessed should prepare a list of three or four issues or questions that reflect current challenges in leading and can serve as the agenda for a session. The supervisor may wish to add an agenda item. Some examples include: “What is working and not working?” “What is most challenging right now, and what kind of support would be helpful in the future?” and simply “How are you doing?” The leader being assessed may provide some brief written commentary -- a page or two -- about the agenda items.
You can conduct a Sitting Beside Assessment session remotely. Allow sufficient time for listening, discussion and joint problem solving -- I recommend about an hour. Both partners may provide a written summary for follow-up discussions. (A more complete set of recommendations and a cafeteria of questions and issues to be used as an agenda are included in “Sitting Beside: A Guide for Leaders.”)
To conclude, college administrators are now facing unprecedented and often existential threats. The primary purpose of a Sitting Beside Assessment is to foster leadership development, given the human challenges leaders now face. It creates a space for listening and focused conversations of engagement. It incorporates emerging criteria of leadership excellence and effectiveness, and it highlights the importance of reflection, learning, joint problem solving and continuous adaptation. In short, a Sitting Beside Assessment provides a useful mind-set and strategy for fostering the development of leaders in this era of heightened uncertainty.