Leaders Who Hit the Ground Stumbling
Five Tips for Avoiding Common Missteps for New Presidents
We do not speak as often about leaders who “hit the ground stumbling,” but these leaders may be much more common. A first-time president of a community college, by definition, has to learn by experience — often by stumbling. New leaders, however, can avoid the classic stumbles by heeding the advice of seasoned leaders who have been tempered in the fires of experience. Here is some practical advice from leaders who know about stumbling and running.
• Never tell your new colleagues that the college is the best kept secret in town. This observation is the height of arrogance by a new president who has not been in office long enough to know whether it is true or not. Often meant by the new president as a kind of praise, it is often viewed as pandering to seek approval. The great majority of faculty and staff who have worked at the college and lived in the community for twenty or thirty years are champions of the college and resent being told they have not done a good job as advocates of the college. The members of the governing board and the foundation board, with their special links to the community, might also take an exception to such a statement by the president.
If the college’s brand and marketing program need updating the new president should engage marketing staff and key leaders in conversations about goals, activities, and budgets. Market research should be conducted so that decisions can be based on evidence. And, if the brand and the program are at least adequate, attention should focus on other priorities. In any case, new presidents should avoid comments such as “the college is the best kept secret in town or the county.”
• Do not refer to great ideas and innovations from your previous college. As tempting as this is, faculty and staff at the new college want their new president to embrace their college. A new president must learn the culture of a new college as quickly and completely as possible to assure the residents he or she cares about their values, their work, and who they are as individuals and leaders. Too many references to a president’s former college discourages bonding, affiliation, connections, and community. In a second marriage, neither the bride nor groom wants to hear how wonderful the former spouse was.
I learned a good lesson about this dynamic during my first year as CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College. When I took the job in 1975 there were 12 League member colleges, and it was easy for me to visit all colleges in myfirst year. I thought it would be a great idea to make notes of the innovations at each college I visited and, like Johnny Appleseed, scatter these seeds of innovation at each college I visited. I learned very quickly that faculty and staff leaders enjoyed talking about their innovations but except for a few actually resented me sharing innovations from other colleges. This dynamic was confirmed at the end of the year when our staff did a study of the Innovation Exchange created by the League several years earlier. We discovered that not one person had ever asked for information on any of the 600 innovations the League had archived, so we discontinued it.
These early efforts by the League to share innovations were ineffective and discouraged me about the interest of faculty and staff in the success of other colleagues and other colleges. In recent years, that issue has been addressed by linking specific innovations to a variety of efforts to improve student success. And lists of High Impact Practices supported by research have been helpful in focusing faculty and staff interest on innovations that work. New presidents will have more success by sharing and championing these efforts and these lists endorsed by national organizations and research groups rather than risking resentment by referencing similar practices and innovations at their former college.
• Wait for a reasonable amount of time (maybe a year) before hiring anyone from your former college. The job of the president is a very tough challenge in any circumstance, and every president understands the importance of securing a highly competent and compatible team to help lead the college. It is always tempting to bring along key members of the team from the former college—a loyal assistant to the president or an experienced vice president. They are known quantities who have established good working relationships with the president; who would not want these seasoned veterans on board in a new challenge.
Before new presidents begin to make changes in the culture at the new college they need to thoroughly understand that culture. This is particularly important in the matter of staffing. Administrators and faculty on special assignments are highly visible in a college; any changes in these appointments will create waves of satisfaction and dissatisfaction; a critical error can be devastating for the president. Current staff should be kept in place and recognized for their work until the president can vet all key staff in terms of their value to the new effort. Faculty and staff (and the board) will expect changes and new approaches, but how these are communicated is a very delicate matter. Current staff should be given the opportunity to hold onto their positions or at least to apply for them; they have the advantage of a knowledge of practices, programs, and personnel, and their institutional memory can be an asset compared to new hires from outside the college.
Once a president has vetted current staff and decided on the kind of leadership team and organizational structure the college needs, the process for selecting new staff must be an absolutely transparent process. At this point the president can contact and encourage staff members from the former college to apply for positions, but these must be won on merit as judged by selection teams from the college. This is the textbook approach that many new presidents often ignore at their own peril.
• Do not suggest or plan your own inauguration. If the new position is your first presidency you may desire a formal inauguration; you may want an inauguration even if it is your third presidency. But be very careful. This issue can be a major stumbling block that can wreck your presidency from the very beginning.
A wise new president will remain absolutely neutral on this issue. If inaugurations are part of the traditions of the college then the plans can unfold in a timely fashion under the leadership of those who usually take on this role. If the college does not usually hold inaugurations leave the matter alone.
If the issue emerges as a question the president should recommend that the board appoint a committee with college wide representation to consider the pros and cons of holding an inauguration. The president should stay out of this discussion except to declare neutrality and should graciously accept the decision of the committee. This is a time for great modesty.
• Do not spend funds on activities that might create concerns among constituencies. New presidents are often eager to make a splash or to initiate activities that will call attention to their presence as the new leader. Some may feel that they deserve special treatment and recognition.
As noted above, making plans for an inauguration without checking with the culture can be a critical stumbling block. The same holds true when a new leader decides to upgrade the decorations of the office of the president. Purchasing new furniture, new window treatments, and new carpet can be quite an expense when many faculty have to share cubicles and when adjunct faculty do not even have offices. Chances are that the existing office of the president is adequate and can be brightened by the new president to reflect personal style without raising contentious issues. At some point in the future redecorating the office might be appropriate. In some colleges community leaders have become donors for such projects in which case college employees know the funds have not been taken from the college budget.
Presidents should be cautious about sponsoring dinners in the area’s best restaurants and should be very cautious about hosting cocktail parties. Most colleges have regulations about using the college budget — even the president’s discretionary fund—to pay for alcohol. A new president must follow established guidelines to the letter, and in situations where the guidelines are not clear should avoid at all cost charging alcohol to the college. If the policy is unclear presidents should personally pay for alcohol they consume or consumed by their guests.
One of the most visible stumbling blocks for presidents occurs in travel and related expenses. More than one president has lost a job over using college funds to pay for first-class travel, overseas travel, expensive dinners and expensive hotels, limousine service, spouse expenses, and even something as minor as laundry services on the road. Unless the board has approved special circumstances for the president, the guidelines created for college staff and faculty should be followed religiously. And even where the guidelines are followed, too much travel can become an issue because of the expense and the time away from campus. Travel and related expenses is a black hole just waiting to capture the president in its pull—proceed with great caution.
These five practical suggestions on issues that most new community college presidents will face, if followed, will prevent some classic stumbles. There will be plenty of unexpected stumbles to deal with in the challenges and transitions of assuming a new office without compounding the agenda by not being prepared for these five. If you clear these hurdles and others you cannot prepare for, in your next job you may be ready “to hit the ground running.”
Terry O’Banion is the president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College and Chair of the Graduate Faculty, National American University. He serves as Chair of NAU’s National Community College Advisory Board.
This article is a continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@ national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.