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Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” I have learned many lessons in my first year as a college president, because I have been willing to admit when my prior views were mistaken or incomplete.

In July 2022, I assumed the presidency of Cottey College, a small women’s college in southwest Missouri. I entered the presidency with a nontraditional background, having worked the previous 25 years at five liberal arts colleges as the chief enrollment officer. At three of the five institutions, I oversaw marketing and communications in addition to admissions and financial aid. As the chief enrollment officer, I believed it was critical to oversee marketing and communications, given the synergy between these functions and the efforts of the enrollment operation. I felt strongly that my ability to regulate and monitor institutional messaging and branding was crucial to enrollment success.

However, the arrival of a new president to the institution where I was working in 2017 changed the reporting structure so that the executive director of marketing and communications reported directly to her, elevating the position to a vice president role. I was chagrined; this was out of alignment with my belief in the need to manage the integrated relationship between enrollment and communications. So strong was my opinion that this partnership under one divisional umbrella was best practice that, upon interviewing for my next job at another institution shortly after this change was made, I secured the president’s commitment that marketing and communications would report to me before making the decision to accept.

When I transitioned to the presidency at Cottey several years later, I discovered that, just prior to her retirement, my predecessor had reassigned the director of marketing to be a direct report to the president rather than to the vice president for enrollment management, as had previously been the case. Again, I was skeptical—why make this change? Could these entities function as well as necessary on their own without the symbiosis I believed was required for the most effective delivery of services?

In the months that followed, I realized how much I appreciated that the director of marketing reported to me. I found myself utilizing his skills frequently as a sounding board for speeches and articles. As I was new to the institution, I often called on him to brainstorm with me to ensure that my communication was on point and I was fully informed on any earlier interactions that might impact how my message was received. As I settled into my role as Cottey’s chief storyteller, I was able to engage with the director of marketing on the best way to craft and deliver our core messages to a variety of audiences and in an array of mediums—print, video, social media or in person.

A colleague recently said to me that it is easy to think you know how a college president should make decisions, but until you sit in that chair, you can’t fully comprehend why they make the choices they do. I never thought I would come to understand why my former president made the decision to have the vice president for communications report to her, but I have gained a new appreciation for the structure she favored.

So much of what the president does has its roots in communication. I send countless correspondence daily—email to the campus community, a letter to parents, an announcement to alumnae, a video message to current students or a briefing to trustees on a campus situation. I often speak to groups large and small—prospective families, the faculty, my senior leadership team in our weekly meeting, introducing a campus speaker, addressing a gathering of alumnae or attendees at a local Rotary meeting. Knowing the audience, gauging their responses, being prepared for questions and having the ability to pivot with little notice to address concerns are necessary competences to master. I have found that the chief communications officer can be a skillful partner as one polishes these talents in the early (and ongoing) months of a presidency.

So, what were my greatest lessons learned from this scenario?

  1. Approach the presidency with an open mind.
  2. Take time to evaluate your needs as a new president before locking yourself into long-term commitments (about personnel or other matters).
  3. Create a strong partnership with your chief communications officer. Make sure the individual feels empowered to challenge you to think outside the box, offer alternative viewpoints and edit liberally when reviewing your writing.
  4. Be a good reciprocal partner to your chief communications officer. Provide feedback (both positive and negative), outline priorities and set clear expectations regarding how they can best help you—and the institution—succeed.

The partnership between the president and chief communications officer is a powerful one. A new president needs all the support they can get, and the chief communications officer is an integral member of their leadership team and an important collaborator, working hand in hand with the president to position the institution for success.

Stefanie Niles is president of Cottey College, a women’s college in Southwest Missouri.