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.
So, how can you make sure your career isn’t a flop? The difference between a successful production and a woeful failure is a good producer. One of the most under-utilized resources for C-suite leaders in all industries is leadership coaches. If any sector should understand the importance of mentoring and training, it should be higher education. Our firm has offered leadership coaching for years and we have found that it is not only beneficial for the mentee, but meaningful for the mentor. Leadership coaching is their encore. This positive relationship spurs untold growth. There are two key reasons that a leadership coach can propel your career forward.
The nature of blind-spots is that we don’t realize what we don’t know. Even our trusted inner circle is often too close to the scene to have a proper perspective. A leadership coach is able to be impartial about situations, while having a vested interest in your success. This is the best of all worlds.
The external vantage point of a leadership coach offers another benefit as well. You need confidants outside your organization. It will not profit your staff if you vent about the unreasonableness shown by the chairman of the board. You need safe, neutral parties with whom you can decompress and process.
The Voice of Experience
The perspective that leadership coaches bring is broad. A leadership coach is not only looking at the big picture of your institution, they are looking at the bigger picture of higher education as a whole. They have hard-won insights that they’ve garnered over decades of experience across multiple organizations. If you wait 40 years to gain this wisdom for yourself, it will come just in time for your retirement party. Don’t shortchange yourself on the insights you could be putting into practice in your career now. Leadership coaches are able to bring awareness and acumen for the betterment of your career.
One final piece of advice I have for all new presidents: take a walk. Just as performances are more dynamic when performers are in touch with their audience, you must know your campus. Get out of your office and spend an hour each week on campus with students and front-line employees. Eat in the cafeteria. Stroll through the quad. Browse the book store. Understanding the everyday experience of students will not only give you fresh insight into how to lead, it will remind you why you became a president in the first place.
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