An Oft-Overlooked Task

Comparatively little attention has been paid to one of the most vital efforts of a new president: creating and sustaining a high-performing senior leadership team, Laurie Fenlason writes.

June 23, 2022
 
 
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If hiring trends hold true, this summer and fall will see hundreds of new college and university presidents stepping into leadership roles on campuses across the country. While much has been written about optimizing the initial days and weeks in such a campus leadership role, comparatively little attention has been paid to one of the most vital tasks of a new president: creating and sustaining a high-performing senior leadership team.

The importance of this early work cannot be overstated. Whether you refer to it as your cabinet, senior staff, senior administrators or another term, this is the group that you, as president, will spend the most time with over the course of your administration. Individually and collectively, these colleagues are critical to advancing strategic goals and navigating crises. And while some turnover on a senior team is normal and expected, it’s worth investing time early in seeing how this team can best be positioned to succeed. After all, repeated churn in senior roles can be an enormous drain on a new leader’s most important resources: time, money, momentum and trust.

As someone fortunate to have held a senior staff seat in multiple college presidencies, I offer the following suggestions to first-time presidents in advance of their early meetings with their leadership team.

Know yourself—and then share what you know. It’s impossible for you to understand your new team right away; you can, however, know yourself. Take time to reflect on both the small stuff—how you like to receive communications, what kinds of agendas you prefer for meetings—as well as weightier matters, such as your own orientation to conflict. Do you view conflict at the leadership table as a productive means to sound decisions? Or as an impediment to hearing all voices?

In the spirit of self-knowledge, share those reflections with your team. Consider completing a “user manual” exercise, in which you respond to prompts such as “what I value,” “what people misunderstand about me” and “how I try to earn your trust.” You could invite team members to do the same for you. Resolving questions of values and operating styles early on—before they escalate into larger issues—can help you and your new colleagues get on to the real work of leadership.

Be curious. One of the privileges of newness is being able to ask big, generative questions. Why do we run this ceremony this way? What is the history of this tradition? Which constituency does this function serve—and not serve? Use this privilege of good questioning to the fullest, not only because its window will close when you and your institution are more closely fused, but also because your senior colleagues might feel they can’t afford to do so: in front of their new boss, they’re expected to already know. By normalizing the vulnerability of not knowing, you create an ethic on your team of continuous questioning and learning.

Think out loud. This is good management advice in any context but especially in a presidency, where stakes are high, emergencies frequent and deliberation time scarce. In your first year, you will be traveling (or zooming) a great deal, establishing relationships with alums, donors, governing boards and legislators. Verbalizing your thought processes in front of your team, whether in calm times or crises, will give them a sense of how to advance deliberations in your stead, especially in situations when the optimal path isn’t obvious. Using phrases like “I’m of two minds about X but am leaning toward Y approach because …” or “Ordinarily I would say A, but in this case, I want to make sure we consider B …” can go a long way toward making your problem-solving approach transparent and replicable.

Understand your team members’ paths to leadership. Whether you ultimately retain or replace members of your cabinet, remember that they were called to leadership under a range of circumstances and expectations. Each is on a different developmental trajectory—from a specialist in their functional area to a strategic contributor across the institution. Moreover, some will have experienced presidential transitions, while others have not; the latter group might have a less robust frame for navigating top-level change. In every case, it’s worth remembering that these are the people who have led the institution through a range of challenges—including more than two years of pandemic operations—with all the intensity that those extraordinary circumstances demanded. Keep these differences in mind in your early meetings with each member and in weighing performance against benchmarks, both past and current.

Academic presidencies are, on average, becoming shorter in duration, with an average lasting less than seven years. Still, they have much more in common with a marathon than a sprint. To achieve consequential impact over your tenure, you need to be able to rely on others. Launched and sustained in a thoughtful way, a senior team is a force multiplier, making your presidency significantly larger—and more professionally and personally sustaining—than the sum of its parts.

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Bio

Laurie Fenlason is founder and principal of L. Fenlason Consulting, which advises higher education leaders and senior teams on strategy, visibility and high-stakes communications. She previously served as vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives at Smith College and in news and public affairs roles at the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

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