My First Year as President

Karen Gross looks back at what she learned and offers suggestions to other would-be college chief executives.

July 13, 2007

Over the course of my first year in office as a college president, a number of people have asked me about my new job. Do I like it? Is it hard? Is it what I expected? Am I having fun? Would I do it again, knowing what I now know? Do I have advice for other new or prospective presidents? People are curious.

The questions are good. They are the very ones I have been asking myself again and again over the past year. And, it is time I answered them.

I have put my answers in the form of suggestions for new presidents – because I wish I had had the suggestions before I began and I am too early in my tenure as president to offer “advice.” My comments may also be useful to institutional stakeholders (of which I can easily count 12 categories). Both insiders and outsiders (at my institution and at others) will benefit, I hope, from reflecting on the actual experiences of a new institutional leader. The answers may help people appreciate the complexity -- both professional and personal -- of the shoals being navigated. And, although perhaps it goes without saying, writing the answers has provided me with perspective on the past year.

The Overview

So, the answers? Simply stated, I like my new job. I knew ahead of time that being an agent of change at a small, private, liberal arts college in New England would not be easy. Old slippers suddenly feel really comfortable when they are being taken away. Most new leaders -- whatever the size of their college or university -- understand that. I have liked discovering our institution’s enormous potential, and I like envisioning where we can head in the future and the steps we need to take to get there. I like telling our institutional story. I like creating a replicable model for affordable, quality, private undergraduate education. I like putting years of theory into practice. I like meeting and connecting with new people and organizations and, yes, I like -- really like – fund raising.

But, here are some things that I wish I had known or understood or assimilated before I started.

Don’t Rush

I was named president in mid-July 2006 and took office five weeks later – literally on the eve of First Year Orientation. The institution needed a leader, and we thought there was a real fit. In retrospect, despite the good match, it was far too quick a start. Slower would have been better -- both for me and for the institution.

Suggestion: Whenever possible, give new presidents between four and six months to leave their prior homes and settle into their new academic home. During this gap period, give him/her an opportunity to learn about the new campus -- through existing materials and on-campus meetings (both group and one-on-one). Set up “meet and greet” opportunities for the new leader with key members of the local community. Create social get-togethers for the new leader with trustees as a group; facilitate one-on-one trustee meetings as well. Trust, across all constituencies, is not automatic; it needs to be built, and it is best to have it from the beginning – to the extent possible. By not ramping up more slowly, I had to both run and learn about the institution at the same time.

So, the itch to begin fast -- while understandable -- makes for a vastly more difficult transition.

The Question-Decision Flurry

Perhaps the most striking feature of my new job was the sheer number and breadth of questions I am asked day in and day out. I tried to keep count a few times but stopped after the first couple hours -- there wasn’t time to count. It wasn’t just that I was asked questions. People expected answers – often immediately.

A lawyer president with whom I shared my observations said that on any day, a president has to decide (pick your number) 30 things. With 28 of these things, it doesn’t matter what one decides. What is important is that one decides something -- even if wrongly. For the two remaining things, a decision really does matter, and those are the items on which a leader should spend serious time and reach a reasoned decision.

The trick, of course, is to distinguish accurately the 28 from the two. I am still working on that.

Suggestion: New leaders need to recognize that some decisions will need to be made quickly (think firefighter on a hillside with brushfires), and that one will not always decide them correctly. Know ahead of time that that is going to happen – even when one surrounds oneself with thoughtful advisors. When an error occurs, fix it if necessary and possible or leave it alone, learn from it and move on. That’s another key: a new leader needs to keep moving. Dwelling, for example, on the decision not to attend a particular function (now past) at which many community members were gathered is not helpful; one’s time is better spent going to the next such event. Also, know one’s own decision-making style (no doubt, a partial product of one’s previous discipline) and share that approach openly within one’s community. That will ameliorate misunderstandings.

How one communicates a decision -- particularly a negative one -- is a whole other matter.

Thick Skin and the Wonderful Parts

As a lawyer and occasional expert witness, I thought I had developed thick skin. Litigation is, after all, about controversy and dispute resolution. People disagree and fight hard for their clients’ positions. But, litigation happens within the confines of a courtroom. The rules and behavior are circumscribed and when the trial or hearing is over, the parties -- even adversaries -- talk and even get together socially. Why? Because lawyers will see each other again in different cases, with different clients, with different alignments of interests. Client disputes are not personal to the lawyers, and the attacks are not, for the most part, ad hominem. Among lawyers, one is an adversary today and a friend tomorrow.

Criticism of and comments about a president are different. They are personal and almost everyone has something to say about a president -- both in front of her (or him) or behind her (his) back. People like to talk about the new leader and outsiders, particularly in a small town, frequently ask questions like: How is she doing? What’s she like? Do you like her? How does she compare with X? Former employees have plenty to say, too.

Suggestion: Remember what my board chair kept saying to me, each time we spoke: “This is not a popularity contest; and are you having fun yet?” Initially, I did not internalize what he was saying. Now I do. People will always talk and rumors will always persist (although stomping out the most inaccurate ones in clever and even humorous ways may be worth it). Consider my surprise when I heard a rumor that I had fired a local (and wonderful) vendor of services on the very day that vendor was in my office agreeing to a nice renewal package.

The omnipresence of rumors does not mean one has to like the situation. Neither does it mean one should completely ignore all rumors and criticism; one should look at them to see if there is a grain of truth buried in there from which one can learn about oneself, the job, the rumor-spreader.

One inevitability: A new leader, particularly one seeking to effectuate change, will be criticized; that is just part of the job. A leader has a choice: Live with the criticism and find and enjoy the parts of the job that give one true pleasure --- or give up leadership. For real.

Dressing Up

I did not get it in the beginning. People were frequently not responding to me; they were responding to a role -- the “role of the president.” By virtue of my title (and sometimes my academic regalia), I was eliciting a response. People had an image of a college president and how a president acts, looks and thinks, and whether or not I fit that image, there I was.

I remember asking if I had to wear my academic regalia for a certain event. (In private, I called it my costume.) People were stunned. Of course I had to wear it. It was expected. It was tradition. People wanted to see it. The key word was “it” – people wanted the president in her attire, not the person in the president’s clothes. In short, the costume mattered; it mattered a great deal.

Suggestion: Recognize that people are often not seeing you; they are seeing your role. For these people, the role (and regalia) are important; they are symbols of education and leadership, and a leader needs to respect that interest in and appreciation for academic tradition -- whether one personally believes in it or not. And, there is only one person (in addition to your family and pets) who can distinguish between the robe you are wearing and the person in it: you.

I also now realize that there is room within that role to develop one’s own style; there is a way to put one’s own stamp on the role. But, that is not instantaneous. That personalization develops over time, as one moves forward in a presidency. Personalization comes in many ways -- through formal presentations, informal mingling at events and casual conversations in hallways. Over time, a president’s voice really can animate the role.

Ask For Help

I now realize that people (at least most people) are not born to be college presidents. The problems that college presidents encounter daily can only be appreciated and understood through experience. I remember at a professional development seminar for new presidents, a speaker indicated that he thought he was the perfect person for the job. So did everyone else at his institution. He had been mentored by the previous president. He had worked in every part of the institution. He was ready to lead. He had prepared for the job for years. And, once installed as the leader, he made a serious fund raising blunder. Who knew there was such a difference between being a president and preparing to become a president?

Suggestion: Ask for advice from a wide range of people and take the time to ask even when one is pressed. Asking for help is a sign of remarkable strength, not weakness. It produces better results and it allows new leaders to grow. It also gives a new leader a place within the larger community of people dealing with the same issues. Yes, it is isolated at the top but there are other people at the top of other educational institutions (and corporations), too – and they are willing to be there for you. At a minimum, you can share the isolation.

Everyone from whom I asked for help was gracious and generous with his or her time. The presidents who helped me usually prefaced their suggestions with two sentences that sounded something like this: “I know what you are experiencing,” and “I am not sure this will work for you, but try or consider this….” These sentences accomplished two things. They made me realize that the situation presented was not so simple, and that there is rarely one right answer to a dilemma. Each solution needs to be informed by the local institution and its particular culture.

Do It Again?

I would do it again. It is not enough for places to survive; they need to thrive, and I like being part of that building process. I like seeing the tangible and significant progress we have made within my own institution with its limited resources. I enjoy working with people who care about students, about future generations, about improving the world in which we live. I appreciate, more than ever, the power of education and the capacity of institutions and communities to change. I remain an optimist.

I would like to think I am better at my job now than when I started. Are there things that, if I could do them again, I would do differently? Absolutely. But, I would not trade the experiences -- good and bad. That is how we learn. That is how we develop, as people and as responsible leaders.

I am curious about the year to come. It will, no doubt, have its own new set of issues and questions. It will challenge me in ways I have likely not been challenged before. I wonder if the new academic year will be easier or harder or simply different. I wonder if the suggestions presented here will withstand the test of time.

So, knowing what I now know, would I be willing to do it again? Yes, but I would certainly be wiser. And, I can assure new presidents out there of one thing: If you call me for advice, I will stop what I am doing and help. Been there. Done that.


Karen Gross just completed her first year as president of Southern Vermont College.


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