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Originally published: “Setting an Agenda: How Presidents Succeed or Fail in Promoting Change,” Inside Higher Ed, May 2, 2012

Inside Higher EdMost new college presidents today are confronted with what their institutions deem insufficient resources (although what seems insufficient at one college would be a treasure trove for others). As a result, most presidents are hired with a mandate from their boards to raise lots of money. Many are asked to be entrepreneurial in establishing revenue streams. Some are charged with increasing the size of the freshman class and the number of transfers, and with improving retention. Most are also tasked with developing strategic plans, communicating often and in a transparent manner, working well with all constituencies and moving the institution to the next level. Taken together, all of these items make for a challenging agenda.

Many campuses have something else in common: prior to embarking on a presidential search, their trustees, faculty and staff often articulate a need for institutional change. Sometimes this merely means that the college or university is seeking a president who is different from the incumbent. Sometimes, it means that the campus knows that if it does not change how it functions, its health and perhaps its existence will be threatened. The exceptions to this wish for change are campuses that have been led by presidents who have advanced the institution in terms of quality and finances and who have earned the trust and respect of those with whom they work.

In my work advising presidents and boards, I have become fascinated by watching some very talented presidents succeed in effecting change and some other presidents whom I would also have judged to be extremely talented fail, sometimes dismally. I also have asked some of my consulting colleagues as well as some former presidents to share with me what they have observed in this arena.

In the end, based on my own experience and what I’ve learned from others, I have concluded that those presidents who succeed share qualities that are in fact not surprising. They are excellent, even inspiring communicators. They tend to be consistently visible on their campuses, interacting with genuine interest with members of the faculty and staff, with students, with trustees and with alumni. They routinely express their appreciation of and respect for the work of the faculty and staff, the abilities of their students, the contributions of the trustees and the accomplishments of their alumni. They are decisive.

These successful presidents also tend to be confident enough in their own abilities and so committed to being effective that they authentically seek advice from others. Seeking advice can, I want to stress, be difficult for presidents for a variety of reasons. First, presidents often are limited by the requirements of confidentiality in terms of what they can share with others. Second, many presidents find that they are unable to brainstorm possible actions with campus colleagues because those with whom they work assume that these presidents have already made up their minds and are engaging only in a kind of ritual drama of pretend consultation.

Successful presidents are also in my experience reasonably self-aware. They know their own strengths and, as importantly, recognize areas where they need help. For example, visionary presidents often are not interested in the details of implementation. If they are effective, they surround themselves with people to whom they legitimately delegate the responsibility for carrying out their vision, knowing that their colleagues are in fact capable of doing so.

The presidents who have not been successful are less consistent in their behavior, but what they have in common is that they have not persuaded their colleagues that they value them. They tend not to be effective communicators. They tend to lead by pronouncement. Some of them have created cultures of control. All of them have fractured rather than created community. And it is interesting to me that they tend to call on one of the oldest clichés in the book: that people resist change. Indeed, the more a president fails to bring about change, the more she or he trumpets this cliché.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll offer tales of four presidents. Although these tales are not literal case studies, they are based on the real situations. (In interest of honoring confidentiality, I will disguise the identities of the presidents whose actions informed these stories and of their institutions.) I’ll turn first to two presidents who were appointed with great enthusiasm and have successfully effected change and then describe two other presidents who were appointed with an equal amount of enthusiasm but were spectacularly unsuccessful.

The two successful presidents during their first three months spent a great deal of time meeting and listening to people. They wandered in and out of faculty and staff offices, asking everyone with whom they met to tell them about their work and also to ask them what it is that they as president could do to support the work of the person with whom they were talking. One organized lots of breakfasts, lunches and dinners with small groups of faculty members, again to ask how he or she could help and also just to listen. Both often had coffee or meals in the student center, inviting students to join them and to talk about their experience. One occasionally wandered through the student center or library at night, chatting with students. Each met individually with as many trustees as they could. Finally, both set into motion some comprehensive and very inclusive planning processes with clear charges and reasonably short timetables. They each put members of the faculty in leadership roles in these planning processes.

Within the first academic year, building on what they learned, each of these presidents articulated a vision, first to their boards and then to their campuses, and eventually the alumni, asking for feedback. In both instances, their vision was consistent with the values of their institution, acknowledged past accomplishments and was grounded in the academic purposes of the college. At the same time, each vision contemplated many significant changes in terms of programs offered. In one case, the vision involved significant changes in way the university was organized and in the vice presidential leadership in several key areas. In the other instance, the vision contemplated new ways of delivering education to students that would require a significant commitment from the faculty who ultimately would need to revise all courses.

These two presidents each, in very different ways, also did something extremely important: they raised the funds needed for key aspects of their vision. One of the presidents in a few months raised more than $13 million from key trustees and other major donors. The second by the middle of his second semester secured foundation support that over the next several years would bring in as many millions of dollars for that institution’s new plan.

Because most faculty and staff members on both campuses felt invested in their institution’s new direction, many volunteered to serve on task forces charged with carrying out the agreed-upon changes. On one campus, the faculty significantly revised its core curriculum before the end of the president’s first year. On the second campus, the faculty developed a number of new programs and began seriously to explore developing more online learning, particularly at the graduate level.

Even so, it wasn’t always, as they say, smooth sailing. At one of these colleges, some faculty members complained that the president had secured gifts for what she considered priorities without going through a faculty committee to approve those priorities. The president explained, to the satisfaction of only some of her critics, that the priorities were consistent with the approved strategic plan and that the donors were interesting in funding these priorities precisely because there was not an elaborate process involved. The second president was criticized simply for moving too quickly, although no one quarreled with the nature of those moves. But on the whole, these presidents enjoyed the support of their colleagues, their students, the alumni and of course their board.

These presidents also did something else that was important. Although each was careful never to criticize his or her predecessor publicly, they immediately attempted to rectify problems that they had inherited:

  • On one of these campuses, the previous president has allowed and even fostered an unnecessarily bureaucratic environment.  A fairly typical complaint: long-established processes required faculty, staff and students manually to fill out forms with multiple carbons and then go from office to office to secure the requisite handwritten signatures when such process could be done easily, efficiently and quickly online. Within months of her arrival, the new president constituted a group chaired by the head of Information Technology to re-engineer all such processes. The campus celebrated that she not only had heard the complaints but was doing something about them.
  • On the other campus, the previous president had been unwaveringly indecisive. Simple decisions had languished, sometimes for years, in his office or worse become lost in what people thought of as a black hole. One senior administrator memorably described this president as someone “who never met a decision that he could make.” The new president made it a point to make decisions promptly or, if he needed more information, to tell those waiting for a decision what he needed and why. Once possessing that information, he then made decisions expeditiously.
  • Both presidents had been preceded by presidents who had not been good fund-raisers. That both new presidents proved themselves in this important area gave their campus colleagues confidence. Both new presidents also clearly tied strategic planning to resources. This was especially important in giving one of these presidents credibility since his predecessor’s plan, written a decade earlier, had listed an array of ambitious goals but then pulled its punches by announcing that moving forward in all instances would require successful fund-raising. Because almost no funds had been raised, few of the stated goals had been achieved. The new president, in contrast, by securing resources, was quickly able to realize some of the institution’s goals.
  • On both campuses, the previous presidents had not been visible or “present” on the campus. Students complained that they would not recognize the president if he or she showed up at one of their events. On one of the campuses, staff members whose offices were on the same floor as that of the president (who had served more than a decade) were distressed that this president did not seem to know any of their names and did not speak to them while walking through the hallways. On the other campus, faculty, staff and students noted that the president was inaccessible even when they were walking across campus because he was always accompanied by an entourage. (The president on yet another campus carried this notion of an entourage to an extreme, going so far as to be always accompanied not only by a vice president or two but also by an armed guard.)

Some of the unsuccessful presidents also came into situations similar to those that the successful presidents encountered. Their responses to their environment, however, were very different from their successful counterparts. For example, each of these unsuccessful presidents was vocal in their criticism of their predecessor, and although the predecessor had not in either instance been well loved, many on each campus were put off by the criticism.

Neither president established a rapport with the faculty and staff. In one instance, the president instead made it clear to his vice presidents that they were not to have any interactions with the trustees unless he had approved those interactions in advance. He excluded the faculty, staff and students from board meetings and social events, persuading the trustees that they had more important things to do than talk with those on campus. He further persuaded the board that the faculty was made up of “insurgents” who needed to be managed and even restrained.

The result: several talented faculty members and administrators immediately began looking for other jobs. Others made the decision to “keep their heads down,” with the result that people came to work, did the essentials of their jobs and went home again. A campus that once had benefited from the commitment and creativity of those who worked there emptied out at 5 p.m.

The board heard the grumbling but believed the president when he argued that people were simply resisting the need to change. The faculty went so far as to vote “no confidence” in the president. The board saw that vote as a challenge to its authority and gave the president a large raise and a new long-term contract, both of which the board announced to the campus. Morale on campus plummeted.

The second president, like her successful counterparts, spent a great deal of time, wandering the campus and having small group conversations over meals at the president’s house. Unfortunately, her focus was on students and trustees exclusively and not on the faculty and staff. The students and trustees in turn admired and even adored her. For their part, however, the faculty and staff became highly critical. They did credit her with balancing the institution’s budget for the first time in a decade without having to take draconian measures or laying anyone off and for raising the money to complete a construction project to benefit students that had been on the books for decades. But because she did not acknowledge the work of the faculty and staff and did not consult with them about her vision for the future (which — like everything else she had done — was centered on students but seemed indifferent to the academic programs and the faculty), the very people the college needed to make her vision a reality were not invested in that vision. Or to put it another way, in this case it was not what she was doing that was the problem. It was what she was not doing: engaging the faculty and the staff in joining her in thinking about the college’s future. For her part, the president was baffled and even angry that the campus was not celebrating her accomplishments. Instead of trying to engage her colleagues, she withdrew even more from them.

Although a number of lessons are implicit in the stories above, let me suggest a few things that I think that a president who is charged with bringing about change can and should do:

  • Presidents need to be clear from the outset of their discussions about who will be responsible for what in terms of decision-making. For example, if making a particular decision is clearly a presidential prerogative, the president should consult appropriately before making a decision but should also make it clear to the campus from the outset that the decision will be his or hers to make. On the other hand, if a decision will be in the purview of others, whether the board or the faculty, the president should also from the outset be clear about that.
  • Perhaps most critically, both new and experienced presidents need to recognize that to be successful change agents, they need to make it clear how the changes they are initiating will benefit their institution and especially their students. In so doing, even as they may not win universal support for their ideas, they will have at least achieved understanding. Their colleagues are also apt to appreciate their candor.
  • Presidents simultaneously need to engage their colleagues in brainstorming about matters of importance to the college and university and then need to invite and take into account their honest reactions to the president’s ideas as well as to take seriously any proposed alternative actions.
  • Presidents inevitably will benefit from finding someone from outside the institution whom they trust and who will keep their confidence — whether a friend who is a sitting or former president who will serve as a mentor or a consultant, someone who will raise questions about proposed actions, give honest advice and/or simply offer a confidential space in which the president can explore ideas. This confidante, however, should become familiar with the campus and if possible get to know a bit its key players so that they are not advising president without a good understanding of institutional context.
  • Presidents need to understand and acknowledge the good work that goes on in their institutions (and indeed, no matter the institution, there will be a good deal of good work taking place).
  • Presidents need to establish priorities and then find the resources to achieve the most important of these priorities. In other words, they need to do more than talk about the future; they need to make good things happen.

In the end, those who say that people resist change may well be right — unless change agents and their ideas energize those around them.