The challenges and opportunities facing higher education are only growing. Ambitious leaders are needed to pave the way to a new era of higher education. If you’ve been considering leadership in higher education, this is a decisive moment. What steps can you take if you’re ready to rise to the role of a college president?
The initial stage of preparation involves personal introspection. Our previous article listed three questions to ask yourself if you’re considering a higher education presidency. With your goal clear, you can move forward into concrete steps of collaboration. There are three ways you can set a trajectory of higher education leadership.
Discuss your decision. One of the first steps you need to take if you’ve decided that you’d like to pursue a college presidency is to talk with your family. Notice that I didn’t say “tell your family.” This must be a two-way conversation. It’s likely that you’ve broached the topic over the years, and you may assume that they are on board. However, a hypothetical future change is very different from an imminent upending of their routine and relationships. Ask specific questions and be open to hearing their perspective and feelings. Do they embrace the new role? Are they ready to move? Are they prepared for the culture of a different region if you need to relocate? What are their hesitations and fears? Talk first with your spouse and then with your children, if applicable. This shouldn’t be a one-time conversation to check a box, but an ongoing and developing dialogue.
Confer with confidants. Once your family is fully invested in your career aspirations, you need to assemble your team. Who are the mentors and trusted colleagues who will help you grow? Consider your network. Who can give you honest feedback and helpful direction? Take the bold step of talking with people that you know will be candid with you. Ask for their insight on where you can sharpen your skills. What aspects of your approach need to be strengthened to be ready for leadership at the highest levels? What additional experience do you need to obtain? Be clear that you are not looking for glib cheerleaders but straight-shooters. I have been assisting colleges with executive searches for decades. I am regularly approached by professionals considering career advancement who are looking for a sounding board. I am always happy to offer a listening ear and share suggestions from my vantage point.
Hone your skills. Based on the input of your colleagues and mentors, develop a strategic plan to grow in the competencies needed for a successful college president. Don’t just dream of a futur, work to make it a reality. You can’t do everything at once, so focus your energies on one area at a time. Deploy new strategies, reflect on your results, and integrate successful methods into your approach. How can you enhance your fundraising prowess? In what ways can you sharpen your communication practices? How might you bolster your people skills? This will do more than make you a stronger president in the long run; it builds momentum that gets you there. Undertaking training and spearheading new initiatives will naturally grow your network, which can open opportunities for advancement. It will also provide abundant examples to discuss in your interviews for presidential positions.
One final word of encouragement. Many individuals aspire to leadership because they are passionate about ways they can innovate and improve. That drive and confidence is essential. However, it’s also vital to approach the office of president with humility, recognizing the contributions of others. Phil Greenwald, President, Mid-America Christian University, says that one of the precepts that guides his work is “honor the saints on whose shoulders we stand.” This broader perspective energizes his work. Greenwald explains, “This principle guides me in remembering, celebrating, and lifting up the hard work of those who have gone before us and paved the way for our present reality and future success. These are the alumni, leaders, donors, and community supporters who have blessed our institution through their time, talent, and financial gifts. When we honor them, we stand on their shoulders and hope to continue the mission of the institution by seeing a bit further down the road.”
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