Becoming a college president is the culmination of years of training, experience, and focused work. Upon moving into the presidential suite, it becomes immediately clear that the work is just beginning.
I have been involved in executive searches for decades. Fundamental to my approach is the belief that installing a president is one small moment in a greater drama. If you want success for an individual career and the institution as a whole, it’s essential to understand the culture of an institution and the needs of the moment before seeking candidates.
You have to read the script before you can cast the parts. The application and interview phase is a pivotal stage, but it is only one aspect in an ongoing process. Once the parts have been cast, rehearsals can commence. A president’s first year in office is one of listening and learning. You learn your lines. You get to know the other players. After you’ve fine-tuned your performance, you’re finally ready for opening night. With skill and chemistry, your production will only get better with time. In the same way, a college presidency often takes years to hit its stride.
One fundamental error I often see along the way from leaders in higher education: they try to go solo. You are not performing alone. You may play a leading role, but you are part of a cast that must work together, each person playing their part and supporting the greater storyline. In addition to the actors that the audience sees illumined by the footlights, there is an entire crew working behind the scenes to make the production function smoothly. Nor do actors perform to an empty house. You have key stakeholders and a broader community that gives a context to your work. Healthy universities do not host one-man—or woman—shows.
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