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Not that long ago, an interim president’s primary responsibility was just to keep the ship steady for the permanent president. Times were less complex back then, and the pace of change was slower. But now, as we all know, the world has changed drastically. We live in an enduring white water that requires constant adjustments to navigate. That means that an interim president must be ready to lead immediately, from day one, in order to manage the myriad challenges confronting their campus.

I’ve discovered in my decades of advising about and writing on presidential transitions that, to become such an instantly effective leader, the most important first thing an interim president must do is to deeply—and quickly— understand the culture of their new campus. But how can they best do that?

In a recent book I co-authored with several current and past presidents, Onboarding the “Transitional” Presidency, we shared some onboarding strategies that interim presidents and even new presidents should consider implementing. One of the most powerful and effective ones to help a transitioning leader get the culture of their new campus is the notion of establishing a network of cultural travelers.

Cultural travelers are the trusted sages on campus, the various individuals who are able to travel among and between its different constituencies—faculty, staff, administrators, students—and have authentic and productive relationships with each group. Such travelers often act as translators and bridge builders among those various campus groups. They often encourage and enable cross-boundary and collaborative work to take place.

Every campus has such cultural travelers. They are people who are seen as leaders within the group. These highly respected individuals are often described as “representing what’s best about this place. They have tremendous credibility, influence and insight, and they deeply understand the lived values of their institution. They know what matters to people and why it matters, and they show respect for the diverse stakeholders with whom they interact.

Often, these leaders, these travelers, are quiet and unassuming people who may not show up on the org chart. But almost everyone knows who they are. These are not gadflies and gossipers flitting about. They are trusted colleagues, which gives them access to almost everyone on campus. They serve the common good and actually live the stated values of the institution. They know the story of the place and strive mightily to preserve what’s distinctive and special about it.

Some highly regarded and credible faculty, staff and administrators who’ve recently retired should be considered part of the cultural travelers’ network, as well. They can provide some of the historical perspective that’s often missing in campus engagement and climate surveys, and they tend to be very honest in their comments and insights. The fact that they’ve spent a considerable portion of their careers at the institution can also help an interim quickly understand what’s special and distinctive about the place.

A caution here: this is not the time to identify the politicians or squeaky wheels or complainers who tend to get a great deal of attention on many campuses. If identifying and introducing oneself to the cultural travelers is done correctly, it is a gift to the interim’s comprehension of their new life, because it is invaluable in understanding the campus that they know little to nothing about.

An interim president needs to get to know such cultural travelers quickly. Thus, the senior team members whom the interim inherits, perhaps working with the human resources department when and where appropriate, should identify such people before the interim comes onto the campus—keeping the list of travelers to a maximum of 10 to 12 members. That senior team should then schedule a series of confidential meetings with those identified travelers before the interim’s arrival, as one of the first things on the interim’s agenda should be to talk with them.

Ideally, these initial face-to-face meetings should be in person, but they can be conducted via Zoom if that’s not possible. I suggest that the interim president send a list of thoughtful questions to each traveler before meeting them, such as:

  • Tell me a brief story that represents the very best of your institution.
  • How do you earn trust on this campus?
  • What are some of the nonnegotiables on this campus, those things that need to be preserved at all costs?
  • What are the unwritten rules to which I need to pay attention?
  • What’s something that needs to change on the campus? Why?
  • What motivates/inspires you to work at this institution, as opposed to some other place?
  • What do I need to know about how decisions are made on the campus?
  • What’s the relationship between the faculty and the administrators?
  • How are employees recognized, rewarded and appreciated?
  • What are three words that describe the culture of your campus? Explain each one.

The key here is to create a set of pertinent and probing questions that will enable the interim president to get to really know the campus culture. And the interim must listen very carefully to the answers they receive, because such conversations will provide information they will never find in a briefing book.

A Case Study

While the interim president may often want to meet with each traveler individually, they can also meet with all of them together. For example, my consulting firm recently designed and facilitated a two-hour meeting with an interim president and 11 identified cultural travelers who shared with the new leader the issues and ideas that mattered most to them.

We asked each traveler to bring to the meeting an artifact of some kind—a hand-drawn picture, photo, drawing, object, poem, song or the like—that best represented the culture of their institution. For instance, someone displayed a photo of students and faculty members feeding the homeless at a local shelter—something they did throughout the year, not just on one day. Another person presented a drawing of hearts and hands in a circle, representing the sense of community people had on campus. Still another produced a list of faculty publications during the previous year, which spoke to the sense of the academic rigor that was a point of pride for the institution.

Last, a history faculty member shared what the insignia of the university, which was in Latin, meant in English. The translation spoke about the three institutional values that had been a beacon of light and a touchstone for the institution for more than 100 years. The professor described how the values were lived on the campus, providing examples of each one.

All the stories that the travelers shared were vivid and memorable. Everyone spoke of something that was important to them personally, which rather quickly taught the incoming leader a great deal. The participants later reported that they had been really curious about how others were going to convey what was important to the institution, and they each learned something, as well.

In sum, understanding the context that informs the institutional narrative and culture, as well as the complexity and history of the campus, is an essential part of the onboarding process. For our book Presidential Transitions: It’s Not Just the Position, It’s the Transition, my coauthors and I interviewed 50-plus presidents and identified the top reasons why new presidents fail. And the biggest derailer was a mismatch between the new leader and the campus culture and its values.

When such a mismatch happens, the derailment train begins to move quickly, and the president may take their college or university off its proper course. But if the incoming leader can immediately begin to learn about some of the complexities of the culture they are inheriting through activities like engaging with cultural travelers, they will be far more likely to move their institutions forward in just the right direction.

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