wish i knew

What I Wish I Knew to Ask … and Ask For … as a New College President

When I secured my first “real” college presidency (after one “interim” gig and a campus chancellor role in a multi-campus university), I was unprepared … not for the core competencies of being a president or for what I thought would be the physical and emotional rigors, but for recognizing what I didn’t know and desperately needed to know to be successful.

Absolute giddiness from having survived the search and selection process (“They love me, they actually love me!”) obstructed my almost-always-accurate intuition as I chomped at the bit and couldn’t wait to be in the “driver’s seat” and make miracles happen. Even if someone with enormous wisdom and experience had said, “Hold on, you’re facing some challenges you don’t even know exist,” hubris and youthful arrogance no doubt would have gotten in the way.

We all look back at some point, and without letting our inner critic get out of control, reflect a bit on things we might have done differently … and hopefully, with a different – and better – outcome. And, we might also have a bit of an altruistic streak and believe that what we learned – the hard way – might be of help, or at least interest, to others traveling the same path we trod.

So, with that, I offer the following “lessons learned” to new college presidents.

#1: Yesterday, you were a highly sought candidate. Today, you’re an employee.

If you’ve ever been through a presidential search process, either as a candidate or as a member of a search committee, this should resonate.

Once a candidate becomes one of the “final three (or four, or five),” it becomes as much of a wooing process on the part of the institution as it feels like a beauty pageant on the part of the candidate. How many colleges and their search committees are going to say “we have challenges” or, as one trustee refreshingly told me, “you’d have to be a little crazy to want to take this on … so, are you a little crazy?”

And so, inevitably, everything is painted in the best possible light. After all, you don’t want to scare a candidate away, right? Some candidates – once identified as “the one” – then go through a negotiation process with the search committee, the search firm, and/or the board to get to a point where everyone is ready to announce the selection. Very savvy candidates will, of course, do their due diligence. But then … there are some challenges you’re just not going to find on the audited financials, the 990s, the accreditation reports, etc. It’s a fact that, in higher education, there are a lot of closets in which to hide deep, dark and very nuanced secrets, or maybe another way of saying it is in higher education many institutions and their boards have no idea what their strategic vulnerabilities are. And so, it’s left to the new president to discover them and figure out how to deal with them, and that includes delivering what might be unwelcome news.

Which brings me to the joke and the punch line.

A man dies and goes to purgatory where he is courted by St. Peter and Satan. First, St. Peter shows him Heaven, where everyone peacefully reclines on clouds and plays a harp. Pretty boring. Then Satan shows him Hell, where parties are endless, wild abandon abounds, and there’s golf, buffets, beautiful (pick the gender of your choice), and nonstop Bacchanal activities. Pretty exciting. It’s an easy choice, says the dead man. “I’ll take Hell.” He shows up the next morning (apparently in purgatory they put you up for the night), and Satan hits the “down” button on the elevator. When the doors open, the man sees a spectacle of millions tortured with fire, pitchforks and up to their necks in excrement.

What the “hell” happened, he asked. Replied Satan, “Yesterday, you were a candidate. Today, you’re an employee.”

The moral: A presidential search is a complicated and delicate matter. Don’t depend on the search committee or the board to tell you any aspect of their baby is ugly, and to be fair, they may simply not know about potential vulnerabilities. It’s what you don’t know that gets you. So, get an objective assessment of what you’re taking on, as soon as you can, certainly within the first 100 days you’re in the seat. Call it whatever you like … a performance audit, a vitality/vulnerability assessment … but make it clear it’s part of the deal in coming aboard. If the board balks, take a walk.

#2: Goals? Simple: Perform a Miracle.

When I was appointed interim president of a public university, I asked my boss, the university system chancellor, “What are my marching orders?” He replied: “Go in, find what needs to be fixed, and fix it. You’ve got a year.” I had no leash, to speak of. I wasn’t accountable to a board … only the chancellor. The institution was in good financial condition. It just wasn’t realizing its full potential. As I look back on that part of my career, I recognize what a fabulous opportunity that presented. Goals? Pretty loose and undefined. The risks? Pretty minimal. The opportunity? Priceless.

Contrast that to my first “real” presidency. When I was offered the position, the struggling little college was starting its last quarter and projecting its first operational surplus in 7 years, and by a relatively healthy margin of around $250K on a $25M budget. Within 3 months, when I stepped into the presidency, that margin had swung to a $300K operating deficit … and the Board wanted to know what I was going to do about it. Never mind that, year after year, the board routinely approved bridge loans from a local bank to keep the college afloat between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the fall semester when tuition dollars started to flow once again.

When there is no fat, “cutting costs” is merely nibbling around the edges. When the institution is a very narrow-niche player with a single academic program accounting for most of its enrollments, there is no such thing as “program prioritization.” The institution didn’t have a cost problem, it had a revenue problem, and it needed to diversify its academic programs to shift away from a sole reliance on a single very expensive professional program for which market demand was declining. The problem: the majority of the board members were “practitioners” or “enthusiasts” in that declining profession. Shift away from what they loved? Not on your life.

And so each and every board meeting became a tortuous – and debasing – process of pointing fingers at development for not raising enough money to make up for operational deficits (ever try to convince a potential donor to give money to keep the lights on?!), or at continuing education for not enrolling enough non-traditional students based on an old and out-moded model of the college as a commuter campus (“there is no money to invest in building online capacity”), or at student support services, or any other operating unit … pointing fingers anywhere in denial of the undeniable: the institution needed to reinvent itself, “re-mission” and gird patiently for the climb out of now 8 years of operating deficits.

My goals, established by the board? Perform a miracle. As the board finance committee chair infamously told me: “It’s not my job to give you suggestions or help. It’s my job to make sure you’re doing your job.” Or, as the development committee chair, who believed we could merely “fund raise” our way out of the intensive care unit, told me: “You have an office, you have a rolodex, and you have a telephone. What’s your problem?”

Which brings us to the second punch line: Sometimes the relationship with your board can feel like endless meetings in which they routinely administer multiple enemas to a dead horse, hoping that with enough enemas the horse will come back to life.

The moral: When I accepted the assignment, I immediately called the search consultant and asked: “Okay, I’ve signed up. Now tell me straight, what’s really my biggest challenge?” She said two words: “Board development.” And oh how right she was. This was a board that didn’t know the difference between operational intrusion and effective governance; had no performance accountability for itself (“What? We’re the board. We’re in charge here.”), and was so narrow in its thinking that it greeted any new idea as though it was an invading pest that needed to be eradicated. And I thought that, with my Ph.D. under the mentorship of the nation’s leading expert on trustee effectiveness, I could personally “develop” this board. Wrong. There are some things we can do for ourselves because we have the expertise and because we don’t think we can afford the expense of doing otherwise, but it’s consummately unwise for us to do so. This is when you need to spend the money on outside expertise to come in because, they, not you, are the ones who are going to leave with the knife in their back … and that’s why they get paid what they do to perform the service of delivering unwelcome news.

#3: It’s More Than Lonely at the Top. It’s Downright Isolating, Unless …

Even under the best of circumstances, the performance expectations of a new president – by the board, alumni, students, your faculty and staff, the community – are pretty high. When the institution has been struggling for years and the search for a new president is geared towards finding someone with solutions, the performance expectations – spoken and unspoken – can be unbearable at times. Early energy and enthusiasm for the challenges have a way of dissipating into a day-to-day equivalent of trench warfare and, if you’re not careful and aware that of all times now is when you need to exercise self-care, the toll of attrition can start to eat into your total wellbeing. In extreme cases, physical and emotional fatigue quickly turn into chronic low-level burnout, and the consequences are about more than not living up to the college’s expectations … others in your immediate circle start to suffer too. Friends don’t see much of you any more, and spouses and children gradually succumb to the collateral damage associated with a partner and parent who isn’t showing up in a number of important ways.

Who do you turn to when, in the best of times you need a sounding board or, in the worst of times you need to address a host of needs? If you’re lucky, you may have a friend or friends, you may even be able to have some kinds of deep conversations with your board chair, but even this can be a slippery slope, especially if the view in the board’s mind is “we thought we hired you to solve all of our problems, and you’re saying you need help?” Once we’ve achieved a presidency, hubris and heaven forbid we find ourselves admitting to anyone we’re occasionally/regularly/frequently/always (pick one) struggling on some or all fronts of complete, constructive and healthy self-care. The consequences of “outing” ourselves – that we are not, and no other mortal is either, the knight on the white horse riding in to miraculously save the day – are far too dangerous and terrifying to contemplate.

Fortunately, for me, I found what seemed to be a career- and perhaps life-saving solution. I joined a group of other CEOs whose sole purpose was to convene for one full day each month and, together, “work on the business of our business,” away from the prying eyes of anyone associated with our business, and we dedicated ourselves to helping each other, in a private, confidential and safe container. Anything and everything was on the table, from strictly business challenges to personal and emotional health (because we all bought into the philosophy that they’re inextricably linked and most certainly affect performance in all aspects of your life). We held each other accountable for doing what we said we were going to do. One CEO worked through the intricacies of launching a new startup; another the complex process of selling a business he’d spent most of his adult life creating; another dealt with key operational hires while coming to terms with chronic obesity, diabetes and the potential of stroke; yet another struggling to maintain a high level of performance while balancing a home life with a chronically ill wife and child with developmental issues. We all helped each other, free of the risk associated with traditional routes. Through this group, I met and secured the services of an executive coach who spent a half-day each month with me identifying the “gaps” in my professional and personal development, my emotional intelligence, and creating with me specific activities to enhance that development. I, personally, certainly benefitted from all of this, but so did the college.

The punch line? They say a friend will help you get rid of your enemy, and a real friend will help you get rid of the body. But I found this old saw to be painfully true: if you want a friend, get a dog.

The moral: You need more than a “friend,” and you need more than a mentor, especially if this is your first presidency. You need an executive coach, and there’s a huge difference. A friend or mentor may be able to empathize with you, perhaps even have some referent criteria (translation: shared painful experience) and how they handled it that might prove helpful. But these are situational “fixes.” An executive coach, on the other hand, brings a multi-faceted approach to helping you: they’re part diagnostician, assessing your strengths and weaknesses, and identifying important gaps that need to be filled; they’re part psychotherapist, listening carefully to your pain but also focusing on how “old wounds” you’ve been carrying around for perhaps a lifetime are getting in the way of your success; and, they’re part shaman, enforcing your direct participation in “care-frontational” accountability for your professional, physical, emotional, and maybe even spiritual well-being. An enlightened board will understand why this is important and won’t blink if you ask for this in your initial contract, or your renewal. If they don’t understand, be prepared to make the investment out of pocket. You won’t regret it. And the return on that investment might just be what it takes to keep you functioning, not just as a successful president but also as a functioning and fully alive human being.

Robert (Skip) Myers is former interim president of University of Maryland University College, former chancellor of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide, former president of Daniel Webster College, former interim president of the New England Culinary Institute, and former interim Vice President for Policy, Planning and Administration at Gonzaga University.  He currently works as a consultant in helping develop strategy for institutional turnaround and writes from Spokane, Washington.

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Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

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