From Smart to Wise:
College Presidents Share Life Lessons

Laurence N. Smith
Leadership, Innovation and Change Expert

In our last blog post, we noted that there is a retirement wave coming among college and university presidents.  As many as fifty percent of presidents may retire in the next five years. They will be replaced by younger professionals who no doubt are bright and capable.  In fact, this next generation of leaders may be better prepared to meet the innovation and change challenges ahead.  While they will be smart with experience as provosts, vice presidents or deans, they will often lack the wisdom that only can only be gained through experience in the president’s chair. This post offers some insights that might help.

We have been fortunate to work with some great college and university presidents over the years. Recently, we asked some of them to share the advice they would give to new leaders about how to approach the leader’s role.  What follows is a sampling of what these presidents believe has helped them be successful.  We invite you to choose and apply the ideas that resonate most with you.  As the song goes, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

This advice generally falls into three broad categories:

  • Who You Are as A Leader
  • What You Do as A Leader
  • How You Manage Your Limits

Who You Are as A Leader
It is sometimes said, “Who you are speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.” Your effectiveness as a leader depends on what others see in your conduct.  Here are some presidential suggestions for being seen as a leader that people want to follow:

  1. Get used to the idea that everything you say or do and how you say and do it and where it is said and done is noticed, documented and shared. Assume that people will treat your preferences as commands. Whether it is true or not, acting under that admonition is the best advice.
  2. Don’t share your opinions about other people with other people. If you don’t have something positive to say about someone, keep it to yourself.
  3. Be an outstanding listener. Telling others what you know is less important than learning what they know.
  4. At receptions, keep your focus on the person you are talking with while you are talking with them. Searching the room with your eyes makes the person you are talking to feel that she or he is not important.
  5. Build relationships and networks with all constituents: staff, volunteers, board members, strategic partners, donors, everyone. Keeping your finger on the pulse of the organization is harder when you are the leader. It is even harder to get people to tell you the truth.
  6. There is no such thing as a secret if it is known by more than one person. Know when to keep your own counsel. On the other hand, share information that people need to do their job.
  7. Rumors related to moral, ethical or illegal activities tend to grow out of poorly kept confidences and secrets. They need to be rigorously investigated and acted on. Covering-up a bad situation is a serious professional and legal leadership liability.
  8. Kind words and kind acts are your best reputation builders and generators of support.
  9. Remember that people want their leaders to be confident even when they are not. If you don’t believe, no one else will.
  10. You own none of the successes but all of the failures. And, that’s okay.

What You Do as A Leader
Leadership is a skill and a craft.  It takes practice and persistence. Your main job is to make sure that the people of your organization are prepared for the future. This means that they have a vision and a plan for achieving it. Here are tips from presidents for how to create that readiness:

  1. Articulate your vision for the future of the organization during your early months as the leader. Build support for the vision by letting others share ownership.
  2. Focus more on leading, less on managing, and little on administering (Organizational Objectives rather than Personal Preferences). Leading is about the future. Managing is about the present. Both are important but, delegate everything that can be delegated.
  3. Think globally! The future needs a global outlook. Don’t get trapped by short term gains; focus on long-term results. An outstanding short-term result is an indicator, not a trend.
  4. Expect and encourage excellence; reward and celebrate it when it occurs. But, also encourage intelligent risk taking even when it doesn’t work out.
  5. Don’t let others delegate work back to you that they should be doing themselves. In other words: put the heat where the heat goes and require accountability.
  6. Create a learning organization, not only for students but for everyone including faculty and staff. Invest in their growth with professional development opportunities. Establish incentives for sharing their knowledge with each other as coaches and mentors. As a learning organization, recognize the need to help analyze the changing institutional environment and make sure that innovation and change efforts are clearly focused on the critical issues affecting the institution.
  7. Recognize that people support what they help to create. Involve others from throughout the institution in as many ways as you can. Avoid having a small panel of people who serve on all the committees, task forces or work groups that tend to become a permanent class of insiders.
  8. Look for ways to create institutional agility. Be willing to reorganize silo structures into boundary spanning solution structures to foster institutional adaptation that takes advantage of emerging opportunities.
  9. Make sure that all team members embrace the concept that they are to focus on what is best for the overall institution and not just protect the areas from which they come. In return, the organization needs to be supportive of teams and provide assistance for their proper functioning. Beware of sending mixed signals about priorities.
  10. Cancel unnecessary meetings and shorten the necessary ones. Make sure anyone meeting with you has an agenda and clear outcomes. Meetings should be for discussion and decisions, not just information sharing that could be done with a memo.

How You Manage Your Limits
Being the president is a high stress, high demand role that can take its toll if you let it.  The presidents we talked to emphasized how important it is to take care of yourself. Here are some tips on how to stay rested and sane:

  1. Recognize that your job is what you do, it is not who you are. Who you are defines how well you do your job. Your job has limits. Power has limits. Time has limits. You have limits.
  2. Some things are sprints, some are marathons. Learn to tell the difference.
  3. Set aside a block of time each week just to read, think or write. Reserve the time on your calendar. Close your door and don’t permit distractions.
  4. Don’t schedule appointments on the hour. Use the first 10 or 15 minutes to return phone calls, make notes, or check with staff. Schedule meetings and appointments in 15-minute blocks for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. This will encourage people to make good use of your time.
  5. You’re not supposed to be the smartest person in the room. But your job is to make sure that the smartest collection of people is in the room.
  6. Remember that your family is still important and needs your attention and involvement. This is true for old friends as well. They should not be overshadowed by the enormity of your leadership role. They need to be integrated into it as well as have time with you away from it.
  7. Making a mistake is not the problem, not knowing how to land on your feet is.
  8. Make time for exercise even if it’s just a half hour walk over lunch.
  9. Take vacations.

A Simple Next Step: 
If you are reading this, it doesn’t matter if you’re a college president or not.  You can benefit from being aware of the choices you make and deciding to do some things differently.  Here is our recommendation: Read through all of these bits of advice and choose three that you think are worth practicing.  Then do something intentional to apply those three principles for a month.  Keep a journal. With any luck those ideas will make a difference and in a month, they will become habits.  Then pick three more the next month and follow the same process. In a year, you can dramatically transform your impact as a leader.

What Do You Think?
Your comments and feedback are important to us.  Please leave a comment below or write to us.  Tell us which of these ideas struck a chord with you.  Tell us which other principles that have helped you in your career.  Write or call Managing Partner Al Blixt at 734-657-5772.