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A Pre-Presidential Initiative

March 5, 2012

Most college presidents probably don’t remember the specific details of their transition into office. With the initial excitement, all the issues involved, the new faces, and all the new pressures and responsibilities that come with the job, there’s little time to take stock of what the transition is really like.

But Devorah Lieberman, who took office as the new president of the University of La Verne last year, has a good way of recalling everything that happened during the seven months between her final interview for the position in December, 2010, and when she took office on July 1. For those seven months Lieberman documented her thoughts and actions in a journal and asked her board chairman, Luis Faura, himself relatively new to the position, to do the same.

The result, parts of which Lieberman shared with Inside Higher Ed, provides an inside look at some of the personal and managerial challenges new presidents must confront before they formally take office, as well as how one particular president dealt with them. In Lieberman’s case three issues repeatedly came up: establishing a relationship with the board chairman, determining what role the outgoing president would play, and getting the senior staff on the same page. Individuals who have watched transitions closely said these issues are likely to be three that most incoming presidents will confront in some fashion, though each transition is different.

Lieberman and Faura also said the experience helped bring them closer personally and professionally, helped smooth her transition into office, and ultimately helped establish a good working relationship that both think will help them succeed in their roles.

“The board chairs and presidents who I have seen work together most effectively do not just have good communication, but have really begun to think together,” said Susan Resneck Pierce, a former president of the University of Puget Sound who now consults with governing boards and presidents, and who has written for Inside Higher Ed and published a book on the issues president face. “If they truly were sharing their thoughts with one another, that means that it’s likely leading to a new level of communication, candor, and mutual respect for one another that would then lead them to think about how they would best work together.”

A Homework Assignment

Much of Lieberman’s academic and administrative background focused on developing better teaching and learning environments. As a provost and vice president for academic affairs at Wagner College and a faculty member and administrator at Portland State University, she helped to create "high-impact learning environments." One of those approaches asked students to regularly reflect on their college experiences.

“When I became president here, I thought, why don’t we start doing something similar for the transition?” she said in an interview. She said she thought she would learn more through the transition process and become a better president if she regularly reflected on the decisions she was making and the changes taking place around her.

At the top of the journal, Lieberman laid out why she wanted to record her thoughts. “Purpose of these reflections: To help me understand and analyze the transition process, to educate me on the university and Board culture, and to position myself to be a successful institutional leader when I assume office in July, 2011,” she wrote.

She also said keeping the journal was a way to balance her job at Wagner with her new responsibilities as president-elect. While she took an average of two hours a day to work on transition issues related to La Verne, most of that was taken up by phone calls with campus officials. “I needed to have the space where I could separate what was going on at Wagner with the activity I was doing for La Verne,” she said in an interview. “The journal gave me reflection time and an opportunity to balance the two worlds."

Lieberman and Faura took different approaches to recording their thoughts. Lieberman said she spent about 30 to 45 minutes a week recording her thoughts in a computer document that served as journal. She said she would often write during flights between Wagner College’s New York campus and southern California, where La Verne is located. Her entries were often long and narrative, describing both what happened and how she felt about it.

Faura, who serves as president and chief executive of C&F Foods, said reflection in a journal was not part of his routine before working with Lieberman. Faura said he carried a small notebook with him when he was engaged in university business, and he would write a sentence or two when things struck him as interesting or he encountered something he wanted to reflect on later. When Faura first saw Lieberman’s journal, he was shocked at how much she had written, which at that point was about 50 pages.

Building a Relationship

Both Lieberman and Faura said a major reason behind writing the journals was to help them get to better understand each other’s goals, how they functioned in their jobs, and what each expected out of the other.

At the beginning of the journal, Lieberman notes her first impression of Faura after meeting him a dinner with the board when she was a candidate for the position. “He was extremely accessible, well-intentioned, sincere, and committed to the responsibilities of chairing the board and this part of the search,” she wrote. “Very good sense of humor and extremely easy. I look forward to working with him further.”

Throughout the journal, Lieberman documented her various interactions with Faura, including their first phone call, Lieberman’s first Board of Trustees meeting, and a two-day trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers and higher education groups (as well as Inside Higher Ed). She makes notes not only about Faura’s leadership style and how he runs board meetings, but also about how she respects his family life and general demeanor.

Later in the transition process, shortly before Lieberman took office, she shared what she had written so far. “I remember sitting down with him and saying, ‘I want you to read this,’ “ she said in an interview. “ ‘You’re my chair. I want you to give me feedback as a mentor.’ ”

The two both said that was a key moment in their relationship, and that the experience helped them get a better understanding of how each approached issues. “I could really highlight what she found touching or moving and the things that got her to start thinking,” Faura said in an interview. “In developing our relationship, I could concentrate on those types of things.”

The two noted that at an institute held by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities to teach board chairs and presidents about working together, they were already working as more of a team than pairs that had been together longer. “We walked in already well down the path,” Lieberman said.

“Without a doubt, the process created a uniqueness among us in terms of the board chair and president relationship,” Faura said.

The Other End

A second major issue Lieberman thought through over the course of her journal is the role the outgoing president, Stephen C. Morgan, should play once he stepped down. Morgan had served as president of the university for 26 years before Lieberman’s appointment.

Pierce said determining the proper role for an outgoing president who is not leaving for another institution is a complex situation that many incoming presidents face. She has heard and seen cases of former presidents who are reluctant to cede control of the institution and presidents who still check in with senior staff members on daily operations.

Early in the transition, Lieberman recognized that there was much she could learn from Morgan and that she thought he could serve as a valuable resource without interfering with her work. “Steve has committed 26 years to this institution and, I am confident, sincerely wants to relinquish leadership,” she wrote in late January. “He, instead, wants to ‘help’ in any way that he can. My thinking is to ask him to be a part of my ‘personal cabinet’ for the next year.”

Pierce recommends getting board chairmen involved in the discussion about what role an outgoing president should play and what his involvement should be limited to, since the two are likely to have an established relationship. “You don’t want a rift between the former president and the current president,” she said.

That is what Lieberman did. When she and Faura were in Washington the two talked about what role Morgan would play after she assumed office. “The outcome we both agreed on was that Steve would serve as a consultant to me for the next year,” she wrote in March. “In this role he would introduce me to organizations where he is deeply respected, introduce me to the donors with whom he has established the greatest relationships, and meet with me ‘off campus’ to discuss issues or problems that I am facing.”

Making the Team Hers

The final major issue that came up repeatedly in Lieberman’s journal was getting her executive cabinet – a provost, vice president for advancement, vice president for enrollment, executive vice president, and associate vice president for budget – to communicate better.

Pierce and Judith McLaughlin, chair of Harvard University’s Seminar for New Presidents, said the issue is one that most presidents confront to different degrees. “It is a universal question that comes up often, which is how you make someone else’s senior management team your own,” McLaughlin said. For some, it might come up during the transition; for others it comes up once they take office. Some presidents have numerous open positions to fill when they arrive on campus, while others inherit a full cabinet.

Most of Lieberman’s cabinet had worked under Morgan for several years, but a new provost, Greg Dewey, had come into office about a year before Lieberman’s tenure would begin.

In her first entries, Lieberman noted communication issues among the cabinet. “We will have to develop more collaboration among this team,” Lieberman wrote in mid-December, 2010, after speaking with the president’s executive cabinet for the first time. “They have a mutual respect for each other, but it is not very deep.… I am expecting this group to work together, with me, as a team with a common vision. I am hoping this is achieved within the first week.”

A month later, Lieberman wrote, “It seemed to me that when approaching the board the [president’s executive council] was not speaking with one voice. One of my top priorities will be building the [executive council] into a team and coordinating their communications with trustees.  I anticipate that here will be ‘power jockeying.’ As the president, I will expect to facilitate agreements and outcomes for the [council], but when there is disagreement, I will make the decision and then work with the Board of Trustees on this.”

The issue came up again in February when the executive council heard a presentation from a consultant. “I saw the individuals advocating only for their own areas (monetarily),” Lieberman wrote. “There must be greater ‘team’ thinking and less ‘divisional and advocacy’ thinking. I am not sure how this will come about, but it is necessary. It is apparent that Steve [Morgan] is aware of this as well. When I am alone next with Luis, I will share this with him also.”

As Lieberman got closer to taking office, she started thinking through how to actually confront the communication issues among cabinet members. “Because I have tended to be ambiguous about my expectations and not holding reportages accountable in the past, I need to work on that at the outset this time,” she wrote in early April. “I’m not sure when to do that in this situation. Because the Senior Staff's roles and responsibilities are currently ambiguous, and there has been a flux in responsibilities this past year, this is a time without clear lines of authority and responsibility. I know that I need to establish this early, but not sure exactly how to go about doing that.”

At the end of April she brought the senior staff to Wagner to give them a chance to meet their counterparts, in particular to see how unified the message and administration of Wagner was.

A month into her presidency, she noted that she was asking the senior staff to focus on team commitment and behavior during her first year in office and said they would be evaluated on that, in addition to whatever goals they outline, a year later.

While the journal did not show evidence that she had completely resolved the issue, Lieberman said in an interview that, seven months into her presidency, the cabinet was working together well. “Without equivocation, this process of meeting, reflecting, and writing helped me with my senior staff,” she said. She even said she recommended that the senior staff start to journal and share thoughts among themselves, to help them work better as a team.

Reopening the Journal

Lieberman’s last journal entry is from August, a month into her presidency. She noted that she was working to set up good communication systems, develop a strategic plan for the university, and implement a new curriculum. “Considering the transition in leadership, the difference between Steve’s and my management styles, and the imperative that the senior staff build collaborative and complementary relationships, I think I am doing very well,” she wrote.

She stopped journaling for several months after that entry. But in an interview, Lieberman noted that she began journaling again in December after her husband had a stroke. She said doing so helped her balance what was going on in her personal life with the responsibilities she still faced in running the university. “It gave me a space where I could say here’s what’s happening to me emotionally,” Lieberman said.

She also noted that Luis was the first person to visit her husband after he came home from the hospital. “No one else could have come into the home after that stroke, but because of the relationship Luis and I had established it made sense,” she said. “That would not have happened if we had not done this.”

 

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