A summary of remarks made at the 2017 – 2018 Executive Leadership Academy
Washington, D.C., July 22, 2017
First, bring your authentic self – not the person or the persona you think they need or want.
- Do a personal assessment of your strengths. If necessary, reality check your list with your significant other, spouse, or trusted confidante. Outline the needs of the campus. Put both lists in writing, and then do a side-by-side comparison. (By the way, are the needs of the campus and Board’s needs the same? This is something to look and listen for throughout the process.)
- Do a 30,000-foot scan of the campus and Board environment: Do they need a maintenance leader? A tweaker who gets them to the next level? A turn-around expert who pulls them from the ditch? Likely it is something in between. How will your overall style, experience and expertise align with where they are and where they expect to be next?
- Write down the campus’ most easily tapped strengths and their most vulnerable weaknesses, and then ask yourself: “are these the things I can see myself addressing?” If they are mostly in need of financial improvements, do you bring those skills and experiences to the table? What if they need a “cultural repair or mending”…would that be something you could lead? If they want/need an incremental change agent and you are a disruptive innovator to the nth degree, how will that work?
Second, bring your inquisitive self – not your complacent or non-confrontational – self.
- If there is a potential issue you want to better understand, ask the same set of pertinent questions to various stakeholders (during and after the interview) and listen for consistencies and/or discrepancies. Ask if there are other folks with whom you might talk to better understand the issue.
- For example, if there are financial challenges at hand, ask to speak to the Chairperson of the Board’s Finance Committee. If there are or have been personnel problems, see if you can talk with the Director of HR or the cabinet member to whom that person reports. If there are pending lawsuits, ask to speak with the legal counsel or a designee.
- Be persistent but sensitive to the timing issues at play. Often, disclosures are more clear and numerous the further you get in the process. You may need to wait until you are the final candidate to see detailed financial information, legal disclosures, and the like, but do not accept a position until you are able to review key documents.
Third, bring your whole, integrated – not compartmentalized – self.
- If your skills, experiences, and professional interests align with the place and the post but the geographic area is completely unappealing, things will likely be tough. If the campus, Board culture, or political environment is completely at odds with what you prefer, again, the road will be hard.
- Conversely, if the campus is located in the part of the country (or world) where you most hoped to live or where friends and family are, that is great. But, it is not nearly enough to make your life and your work meaningful or joyful. The campus itself – mission, programmatic offerings, category of institution, values, vision, and purpose – should be a match as well.
- The alignment of personal values with institutional values is particularly essential in a post like this one.
- Some misalignments are not easily “readjusted.”
- If a Christian campus wants a faithful leader who actively worships God the Father and Jesus his son, and you are naturalist who pays homage to the land, sea, and air, the mismatch is real. Still, there is nothing you can or should do to adjust it. Do not stew; move on.
Fourth, bring your open, flexible and generous – not your rigid, all-knowing, or self-centered – self.
- Enter and remain a learner, granted an informed one. Don’t be a know-it-all who is constantly reminding folks how you/your previous institution did this, that, and everything.
- Even if you encountered a similar challenge or issue at a previous institution, how you address it at your new campus depends on your position (you are president now!), the specific context at play, and a host of other things. A one-size response does not fit all.
- Give your new colleagues the benefit of the doubt (until they prove you wrong), and ask them to do the same for you.
- The quicker you believe and model the fact that neither the world, nor this tiny piece of it that you sometimes refer to as “your campus,” revolves only around you, the happier and healthier everyone will be.
Fifth, bring your resilient – not your thin-skinned – self.
- Listen carefully to the naysayers and the critics so you can learn, but not shrink from them. In fact, include one or two of them in your inner circle. If you thrive only when surrounded by fans who reaffirm you, your successes will be greatly limited in this role.
- You may hear certain things that are true but that you are not willing to change (e.g., your direct communication style, your propensity to check it over with cabinet).
- When you are legitimately called on something, own it quickly. Apologize in a genuine way and work hard not to repeat it. Conversely, if you are unfairly accused of something (that is easily rectified), you may consider a very short meeting or phone call that lets the person know s/he missed the boat on this one. If you go this route, be brief and as professional as possible.