“I was not interested in being a college president. The first time I had been contacted about it, I said I don’t know if I’m smart enough to be a college president, but I’m smart enough not to want to be a college president,” said DePauw University President Mark McCoy in a recent telephone conversation.
McCoy’s situation is a little different the paths of many to the presidency. Many who take the traditional route through the academy to the president’s office had their sights set there early on. In some cases, they’ve arrived in the position they’d long sought only to realize they weren’t at all prepared for the job — or, in some cases, it wasn’t what they’d thought, and they don’t want the job they’ve inherited.
“Hearing realistically from other presidents about what it’s like to be a president, you’re either really interested or you walk away thinking ‘you know, I don’t really know,’ ” said Lynn Morton, president of Warren Wilson College.
Having a space to work that out and hear from other presidents about what to expect is perhaps the most important takeaway from participating in a program like the Council of Independent Colleges’ Executive Leadership Academy, in which Morton and McCoy took part recently. Since 2009, 109 of the 296 participants in the academy have been appointed presidents or chancellors, but Morton estimates perhaps 40% of a given cohort walk away feeling like make the college presidency isn’t for them.
For those who do go on to enter searches, or who are already in a search, the academies helped them to refine their questions and increase their knowledge of other operational areas they hadn’t been exposed to in their previous roles on campus. Whether looking to move into the presidency or seeking another senior leadership position on campus, the advice for moving through the ranks can be applied to search processes at all levels.
1. Learn everything you don’t know
“What was most helpful for me was here’s this personal educational plan, and I just went to different people that I knew and said ‘ok, you’re going to have to coach me up on this.’ I went to my own CFO and said ‘ok, give me a finance curriculum, and I’ll put myself through it,’” McCoy said. Though the curriculum his CFO at the time, Brad Kelsheimer, gave him was self-directed, McCoy said he wouldn’t have gone through it if he didn’t have to be accountable to the academy. And he’s thankful for what he calls “a year’s runway” into the position, because “in the whirlwind that I’m in right now, I never would have learned about it.”
“When you’re an internal candidate, there’s an expectation that there is no honeymoon, there is no runway, it’s just ‘why havent you fixed this yet,’” he said. “The most important thing is to really assess your weaknesses and really take that prep very seriously.”
“Once you become a president, you do not have time to do your homework. You’ve got to study this in advance,” McCoy said, though he acknowledged, “You’re never going to be completely prepared.”
2. Lean on the network of other presidents and mentors
“I am in a presidency because of the mentoring of one of the presidents I worked with who very deliberately developed both the confidence and the skill sets needed to move into that role,” said Susan Hasseler, president of Muskingum University.
McCoy agreed, saying he has been pleasantly surprised by how accessible presidents make themselves to other presidents, and how quickly they respond to calls for help.
“If you call a president about racial strife, you can get a phone call back in the middle of the night — because people just want to help each other out,” he said.
3. Finance, finance, finance
“Unless you are a CFO yourself, you really need a very strong, very collaborative, very strategic CFO,” Morton said. “And new presidents need to understand … that if you don’t have financial acumen and you don’t have a CFO you can trust, you really are going to be struggling.”
“People tell you all the time that having a strong team and being able to work together is important, but that honestly cannot be overstated,” she said. “You have to have a strong team, and you’ve got to be thinking like a team, and not like a representative of seven different areas.”
4. Remember why you do it
"I honestly believe that this is the best job in the world. I think most people don’t understand how hard a job it is. There’s a lot of polarization due to protests, all kinds of concerns that are really founded in the national landscape,” said Morton. “But it’s such an honor, it’s such a gift to be able to do work every day that transforms a campus and transform student lives.
“Too often I think we hear … in the popular press about the bad things that are happening on college campuses, but when you live it every day, there are little joys that are happening every day, and bigger joys that are happening in terms of transformative,” she said.
Morton admitted that “At various points the responsibilities can feel a little overwhelming. The viability of the entire institution is on your shoulders. … but I think that if you recognize the work that is going on and stay connected to campus, I think that’s where the joy is.”
Hasseler said beyond the toil of the national, state and local issues, the biggest part of the job is “the complexity of keeping your focus on the students and their well being.” And she said leaders “can really learn from each other on how to share that message” of “the transformative power of going to college.”