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If you are a new college president, how can you be best prepared to take on the many challenges that you will inevitably face? Two former presidents have written books that resonated with me and helped guide me: Nannerl O. Keohane’s Thinking About Leadership and Susan Resneck Pierce’s On Being Presidential. Over the years, I have also curated advice from other higher education leaders who have been kind enough to share their hard-earned lessons, and I’ve learned more than a few lessons through my own experience.
Here are my top five recommendations for steps leaders should take when starting the new position.
No. 1: Set the tone. When I was appointed acting dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I met with many leaders on the campus to ask for advice. David Ellwood, who was serving as the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School at the time, shared something that I still carry with me every day. He advised me to keep smiling, regardless of the context, because leaders set the tone for their institutions. And I have, in fact, come to believe that setting the tone is one of the leader’s most important tasks.
You will confront many challenges in your new role. Some may arise from forces outside your institution—for example, a pandemic or a global financial crisis that leads to negative endowment returns. Some may arise from forces within your institution—such as incendiary views that a member of your community expresses. People will look to you for answers when they feel stressed by such challenges because they want to be reassured by their leader. During those times, you will be serving as a holding environment, a term coined by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. That is, you will help other people modulate their stress by showing them the way forward.
Let those in your campus community know that together you can manage any challenge presented to your college. Acknowledge that there may be pain points and the institution may need to change. Then let them know that you will lead the way forward by working with existing governance groups on the campus. During challenging times, you may find yourself reflecting on the fact that these are the moments when the institution needs you most. Take strength from the faith entrusted to you.
No. 2: Trust yourself. As a college president, you will have a multitude of responsibilities and will need and want to rely on your senior leadership team for guidance—especially in the beginning when you are learning about the culture and practices of your institution. That said, sometimes you may disagree with the advice of someone on your senior team. Most presidents, especially new ones, will tell you that they made some of their biggest mistakes when they did not trust their instincts.
Alas, a mistake can sometimes lead to negative national press coverage about you and your college. After one such occasion, I was meeting with Gloria Steinem, an alumna, and she asked me what had happened. I explained that I took someone’s advice against my better judgment. Without skipping a beat, she said, “If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, but you think it’s a pig—it’s a pig.”
I learned an important lesson that day: I would rather make my own mistakes than someone else’s. In other words, when I have a strong point of view, I would rather trust my judgment and live with the consequences. That does not mean that you should not trust members of your team. After all, they have domain-specific knowledge, which you may lack. But that said, you must exercise your judgment after weighing all of the factors involved in a given decision. As one president said to me, our job is quality control.
At the same time, a leader should encourage healthy debate about any issue under consideration. if your team privileges consensus, remind them about the importance of loyal dissent. Sometimes, after a healthy group discussion, I am still not sure what the best way forward is, and I say so. Often, there is no harm in letting a discussion settle. Someone on my team likes to say, “Let’s sit and hold,” which is good advice. it can be tempting to let the demands on your time force you to make a quick decision, but that can lead to a costly mistake. You will make mistakes because you are human; you will make more mistakes if you rush to judgment.
No. 3: Manage your time. When college presidents get together at meetings, we inevitably complain about our schedules, using words like “punishing” and “unrelenting.” For me, the most stressful part of the job is the schedule, which is why I will discuss time management at length here.
Throughout the year, you will want to meet with your senior team as a group and in one-on-one meetings to discuss pressing issues as well as plan for the future. A second set of meetings will involve governance groups, chief among them the Board of Trustees, a partnership that will be crucial to your success. As important are on-campus governance groups, especially the student government association, staff council and faculty council. Shared governance is the hallmark of the best colleges and universities because, through it, everyone has a stake in the institution.
Next come the committees on which the president is expected to serve, of which on some campuses, including mine, there are many. Presidents must also attend numerous academic and social events, which bring joy to the work: student research exhibitions, performances and sporting events; colloquia, concerts, poetry readings, museum exhibitions; college traditions like convocation and commencement; and so much more. You will also be traveling quite a lot for development and alumni events as well as for professional meetings. And trust me, when you return, a great deal of work will be waiting for you.
Managing your calendar will be a full-time job for at least one person. Make sure you have a strong executive assistant and chief of staff to work closely with the person who manages your calendar. Help everyone on your team learn that their job is not to grant every request; rather, it is to prioritize requests so that you can meet all of your responsibilities, including time to think. Every spring, start working on an annual calendar for the next academic year. Add all the required events first, such as trustee and faculty meetings. Then think about travel obligations. Next, schedule a number of catch-up days when your team cannot schedule anything without your permission; I am writing this during one of mine.
Tasks also must be scheduled. Help your team understand that they need to put time on the calendar for you to read tenure and promotion files, to prepare for the board meeting, to write remarks for the faculty meeting, to sign letters, and to answer emails. Otherwise, you will be doing unscheduled—albeit important—work long into the evening. The best schedule will be undone by a crisis on your campus, which should be expected. In fact, it can even be planned for, at least to some extent; my team puts emergency time on my schedule each week. Still, the schedule will get out of control, and when it does, ask your team to cancel or postpone some meetings.
A president I know once told me that during his first year, he was invited to five events every night, and he knew he had to disappoint four groups. One day, it occurred to him that maybe he should disappoint all five. By that he meant, of course, that he had to save some time for himself and his family. Assess what kind of time you will need to make life worth living. Early in my presidency, I decided that I would not start the workday until 9 a.m. Each day, I get up early so that I have time to exercise and eat a leisurely breakfast before walking to my office. This time grounds me before the grind begins.
No. 4: Build your team. As president, you will lead a team of senior people who will have the responsibility of managing day-to-day operations as well as implementing change in their respective areas. A colleague at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Monica Higgins, once shared with me that the job of a leader is to create the conditions that enable people to do their best work, and that view resonates deeply with me.
So what are those conditions? You should let your team know that you value collaboration. The best ideas typically emerge from teamwork for two reasons: 1) teams develop more ideas than individuals and 2) diversity of thought leads to better outcomes. Also, for most people, collaboration is rewarding work. You should also let your team know that you want them to have agency to lead in their respective areas. The late Anita Roddick, a leading entrepreneur, wrote about the importance of guiding people to the “source of their own power,” which is a good way to discuss agency. Relatedly, let your team know that none of us has all the answers. One of my teammates has told me that she appreciates when I say, “I’m not sure how to think about this,” because it models for everyone the importance of not reaching a conclusion too soon. Finally, share credit with your team. Often, you may be presenting the work of your team to others—for example, the Board of Trustees—and it is appropriate to acknowledge the support you’ve received.
Teams can be consumed by the day-to-day operations of their work. One of your jobs as president is to provide time for strategic thinking. For example, you might schedule retreat sessions several times during the year. I have found that a summer off-site retreat is a good way to provide my team members with the mind space to think about the future of the college. Sometimes, I use a facilitator for part or all of the meeting so that I can step back from my leadership role and be a full participant. Being off-site also gives people an opportunity to have informal social time together over walks and dinners, which can strengthen relationships among them.
You and your team should also use some of your retreat time to discuss project management. Bernie Roseke provides a useful guide to get you and your team started. Projects do not just happen without careful planning.
No. 5: Cultivate equanimity. Recently, a new president confided in me that she found it difficult to know that not all members of her campus community liked her. I remembered feeling similarly during my first few years as a dean. Leaders new to their roles learn that very few actions will be universally admired. For instance, some people will feel that a letter to the community went too far, while others will feel it did not go far enough.
A friend of mine who is a clinical psychologist once commented that a college president is a public transference figure, meaning people will transfer unresolved, unconscious conflicts in their lives to you. For example, some people have difficulty with authority figures, so they will question many of the statements and decisions you make. Further, no matter how hard you try to be transparent and to communicate the rationale for your decisions, there will be an information gap from time to time, and as Aristotle famously noted, nature abhors a vacuum. For this reason, people will make inferences about what you are doing and why. Some people have a predisposition to think the best, while others tend toward negative attributions.
You truly can’t do much about this. Jerome T. Murphy, who served as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education before me, gave me this advice when I took on the role: “Ten percent of the people will love you because you are the dean, and 10 percent will hate you because you are the dean. Worry about the other 80 percent.” I interpret this to mean that leaders cannot worry too much about not being liked. That said, we need to care about the naysayers and the critics, because leaders serve all members of a community. When I am my best self, I can recognize that criticism is caring about the college. Try to view criticism in this light.
Sometimes you will feel mistreated or misunderstood—a trusted colleague may betray you, students may say you do not care about them, an alumna may post something ugly on social media. Rise above personal attacks. Sharon Salzberg writes about the eight pillars of happiness in the workplace: balance, concentration, resilience, communication, integrity, meaning, open awareness and compassion. Try to have compassion for others when they misbehave. Offer an olive branch, and try to get to a better place with everyone in your campus community.
That does not mean that you can’t let people know when they have crossed a boundary about how you will allow others to treat you. But even then, do your best to keep the lines of communication open. When I am able to act calmly and even-temperedly, I have found opportunities for personal growth. For me, that has been one of the gifts of higher education leadership.
One Final Story
A college president plays many roles. Sometimes you may feel like a diplomat as you work to build consensus among stakeholders with varying views. Other times you may feel like a salesperson as you fundraise for key priorities. And still other times, you may feel like an actor in an improvisational theater as you realize you are working without a script.
On the best days, however, you grant wishes. That point became clear to me one summer when I received a letter from a young girl in elementary school who asked me to invite social justice activist Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate her elementary school in Louisiana, to speak at Smith. The child explained in her letter that her school lacked the funding to pay for Bridges’s travel and honorarium, but she thought I might be able to help.
And she was right. It was a memorable day when our largest lecture hall was filled not only with our own students but also with local grade school students coming to hear Bridges. When days are hard and I am tired, I remind myself of the privilege of bringing dreams to life, both mine and those of others.