Who Will Step Into Your Shoes?
As senior leaders head for the door, formidable changes are hitting higher education. Experts advise focusing on successors who can adapt their strides to keep up with collaboration, complexity, and ambiguity.
By Patrick Sanaghan and Susan Jurow
Higher education clearly is not immune to the unprecedented confluence of global trends, events, and crises that have been grabbing the headlines. And, just as the challenges facing colleges and universities rise to new levels of intensity, our most skilled and valued leaders will be departing from our institutions. Although the economic downturn caused some people to delay their retirements, news reports, demographic studies, and anecdotal evidence from colleagues indicate that retirement plans are being resurrected. This means that many leaders, including faculty and senior administrators, will soon be leaving in large numbers.
As they exit, an array of new difficulties is emerging, from increased calls for accountability to cloud computing, from dramatic shifts in student demographics to well-financed competition from for-profit education providers, from major government funding shortfalls to game-changing technologies. In part because of technology and competition, as the pace of change quickens, so does its complexity.
The result: an urgent need for strategy and decisive action to identify and develop new campus leaders—leaders who can not only slip into their predecessors' shoes but take some new steps to guide our institutions through this difficult period and beyond. How well we do this will define the quality of our institutions for decades to come.
Observers of unfolding issues and preliminary responses have been surveying for some time the changes in a wide range of fields and types of organizations. For example, even before the worldwide recession, global leaders were already sensing sweeping changes that affected their decision making. In the white paper "What's Next?" (Center for Creative Leadership, 2007), survey authors questioned more than 1,000 global leaders about the challenges facing future decision makers. The survey's main findings indicated that (1) complex challenges that resist traditional solutions are driving the need for new approaches; (2) collaboration will be an essential leadership skill; and (3) effective change management will be an indispensable capability for leaders to sustain high performance over time.
Recognizing and acting on these three key notions, then, can strengthen our ability to prepare effectively for a positive future in higher education characterized by:
- Complicated challenges. Increasing complexities in our environment have changed the required leadership skill set.
- Evolving leadership. Effective leaders may not look like their predecessors, and we'll need a different yardstick to evaluate leadership potential.
- Customized professional development methods. Once we identify the next generation of leaders, we'll need to modify leadership development processes and practices to prepare these leaders for the higher education environment that lies ahead.
The following insights can help the chief business officer and other senior leaders locate, groom, and guide successors and set them on the right path.
Discerning Tactical Differences
In a provocative book, Leaders Make the Future (Berrett-Koehloer, 2009), Bob Johansen uses the acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) to characterize the emerging future. VUCA is actually a military term, coined in the late 1990s to describe a way of viewing the world, that has since been used in a variety of contexts. Johansen applies it to overall leadership, stressing that for a leader to thrive in an environment reflecting VUCA, a dramatically different leadership skill set will be required. Our colleges and universities certainly fall under Johansen's rubric, sharing the need for the dramatically altered leadership capabilities he predicts are necessary for the future.
One important way to build such an effective leadership framework in this new environment is to recognize and understand the difference between technical and adaptive problems.
Technical fixes. While technical problems are neither trivial nor simple, their solutions generally lie within an organization's current problem-solving skill set. That is, a technical challenge can be met and effectively resolved by applying current knowledge, past experience, expertise, and resources.
An example is the problem of a decline in student enrollment. An institution might decide to invest heavily to develop and launch a comprehensive marketing campaign, including a complete redesign of the campus Web site and a doubling of recruitment staff size. These are all sensible responses to a technical challenge. The tasks are readily definable, the resources for executing them are known, and the institution's actions are likely to produce a positive change in the current situation.
Adaptive dilemmas. In contrast, one of the major adaptive problems facing higher education leaders is highlighted in a recent report, "Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Costs, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges Are Run," (The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and the Public Agenda, 2010).
The report references the two organizations' earlier joint survey in 2008, "The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk About Costs, Access, and Quality," for which more than two dozen college presidents commented. In the view of many of the survey respondents, the three main factors in higher education—cost, quality, and access—exist in "an unbreakable reciprocal relationship. The three factors create the dilemma of the iron triangle in that any change in one will inevitably impact the others."
Unlike solutions to technical problems, there are no easy answers for this type of challenge. Most of the presidents noted that if one wants to improve the quality of higher education, one must either put more money in the system or be prepared to see higher education become less accessible to students. Conversely, cutting costs in higher education must eventually lead to cuts in quality or access.
Clearly, many institutions will not be able to continue to raise tuition to cover increasing and ongoing expenses. The marketplace won't allow it. Leaders in these institutions will need to dramatically rethink, reconsider, and redesign the ways in which they can deliver educational services. This goes far beyond shared services, group purchasing, more online courses, and 5-percent-across-the-board cuts. Most of these solutions already have been implemented, some with mixed results. Hence, the conundrum remains—how do you reduce costs while maintaining or improving educational quality?
From Confusion to Competency
As adaptive challenges become more common, no clear choices enable leaders and organizations to respond to the emerging situation. Existing expertise, knowledge, and experience often do not apply. Instead, the new generation of problem solvers will find solutions through experimentation, risk-taking, creativity, new discoveries, and continuous learning.
When we fail to recognize an adaptive challenge for what it is, we often apply the wrong tools—the ones that have worked for solving technical challenges—with little success. We spend more money, apply more resources, allocate more people, and fail to achieve our intended outcomes.
When we fail to recognize an adaptive challenge for what it is, we often apply the wrong tools—the ones that have worked for solving technical challenges—with little success.
In an intriguing article titled "Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don't Know What to Do" (Phi Delta Kappan, 2005), Barry C. Jentz and Jerome T. Murphy discuss a complex phenomenon they call the "lost leader syndrome." It occurs when a leader faces developments that don't make any sense. Unable to discern a clear path forward, the leader becomes confused, disoriented, even lost, they say.
Murphy experienced this firsthand during his tenure as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He recounts being blindsided by unexpected and daunting challenges. He lost his sense of direction and focus. He felt like a phony and recalls saying to himself, "For God's sake, isn't a Harvard dean supposed to have the answers?" Murphy worked with Jentz, an external consultant, and learned that confusion is not a weakness, but an inevitable condition of contemporary leadership.
Other realities add to the difficulties of today's decision making:
It takes courage to take on an adaptive challenge. It requires the emotional capacity and resilience to tolerate uncertainty, frustration, and pain. It requires developing resourcefulness throughout an organization, building the capacity of others, and using the collective intelligence of employees as a strategic asset.
Leaders also must understand-and be willing to admit—that they do not always have the solution. Stakeholders will measure leadership quality by the leader's ability to formulate and ask the questions that will engage people, stimulate creativity and innovation, and help staff to confront their deeply held beliefs and assumptions. Adaptive challenges don't demand more from us; they demand different.
Cultural and experiential factors train us to be wary of admitting mistakes or—heaven forbid—acknowledging that we might not know what we are doing. Murphy and Jentz found that when faced with overwhelming complexity, leaders often go into denial, hide from the problem, or seize upon a quick fix instead of acknowledging that they are confused. Leaders who engage in this kind of behavior convey a strong message that it is unacceptable to display any kind of uncertainty. As a result, team members hide their own confusion—afraid to reveal their weakness, to be judged as inadequate, or to disappoint their boss.
It requires openness and honesty to develop skills for a different kind of decision making. Murphy and Jentz propose a process they call "reflective inquiry and action" that can enable leaders to transform confusion from a liability to a resource. As leaders follow this disciplined approach, they can create new ideas, model effective learning behaviors, and take action. In so doing, they discover that leadership is not pretending to have all the answers; it is having the courage to openly search—with others—to discover solutions. (See sidebar, "Shaping Leaders to Fit Into the Future" for an example of this kind of transparency at DePaul University, Chicago.)
The future will be saturated with adaptive problems, which will challenge leaders to bring new vision, altered perspective, and a range of new capabilities to the task. The core qualities of character, competence, compassion, and integrity will remain. But, in a rapidly changing world, we will need leaders who can:
- Develop a systemic view of the institution and recognize how decisions and actions affect plans and people throughout the campus.
- Tolerate ambiguity when faced with complex institutional challenges, not rush to make decisions.
- Become "cultural travelers" with the ability to move through the different environments—faculty, staff, administrator, student—building effective relational capital along the way.
- Solicit multiple perspectives, across external and internal campus boundaries.
- Engage stakeholders throughout the institution in meaningful ways to help solve difficult campus issues.
- Apply collaborative principles like transparency, participation, and inclusion to campus decisions.
- Implement and support experimental approaches and solutions, while willing to learn from intelligent risk taking—and to fail and try again.
In sum, leaders of the future will need to be consummate team players who embrace innovation, inspire participation, and embody a businesslike approach to problem solving.
Looking for a New Style
If we accept the idea that our institutions need a broader range of leadership qualities, then we also must consider the need for new ways to identify and evaluate future leaders. This does not suggest that our current leaders are lacking in competence. Rather, it acknowledges the fact that the leaders of the future will need to look and act differently.
If we accept the idea that our institutions need a broader range of leadership qualities, then we also must consider the need for new ways to identify and evaluate future leaders.
The means and methods used in the past served their purpose well. Even though they are based on assumptions about leadership that are being reconsidered, the established processes will exert strong pressure to replicate what is already in place. To change direction, we must recognize two issues that work against the identification, selection, and development of a new breed of leaders: "comfortable clone" syndrome and "stylistic invisibles."
Selecting leaders like "us." The comfortable clone syndrome is the tendency to hire and develop potential and emerging leaders who are similar to ourselves. The likeness may be in background, gender, race, or leadership style. Because they are people like us, we are comfortable with them. In a changing world, this cloning effect will impede change, with adverse impact on the quality and capabilities of future leaders.
Overlooking potential talent. Because they don't display the leadership styles of take-charge, decisive, assertive people, we often overlook the "stylistic invisibles" for their greater potential for leadership, even if we work closely with them every day.
Whereas cloning is a danger, these unnoticed individuals represent a significant opportunity. Linda A. Hill, faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative at the Harvard Business School, uses the term "stylistic invisibles" to describe individuals who don't fit our conventional image of what a leader should look like. While they do not generally seek recognition or praise, they are there producing results, acting with integrity, and treating people with care and humanity every day.
In his book, Leading Quietly (Harvard Business Press, 2002), Joseph Badaracco describes such individuals as possessing the virtues of restraint, modesty, and tenacity—valuable, although often unrecognized and underappreciated, leadership qualities.
One way to neutralize the tendencies to clone—or ignore—certain leaders in our hiring, promoting, and mentoring practices is to design or adopt processes that are more inclusive. More hearts and minds at the table bring a broader perspective on who can best lead an organization. Organizational consensus on what constitutes leadership and key leadership competencies can help to focus attention on selecting and developing candidates with the necessary skills, not just the ones with whom we feel most comfortable.
Three key adaptive leadership competencies that may not be in our current portfolio of leadership assessment and development programs include taking risks and innovating; valuing and leveraging diversity; and effectively embracing, communicating, and driving organizational change processes.
The latter could be called "boundary spanning," which is the capability of establishing direction, alignment, and commitment across divides (geographic, cultural, demographic, virtual) in service of a clear vision and goal. Interestingly, findings reported in the white paper "Boundary Spanning Leadership" (Center for Creative Leadership, 2009) based on a survey of 128 senior executives, indicated that 86 percent of the participating senior leaders believed it was "extremely important" for them to work effectively across boundaries in their current leadership roles. Yet only 7 percent of the same executives say they are "very effective" at doing so.
Nevertheless, more people with these competencies will be needed in colleges and universities to help manage the expanding complexities. It will require an expansion of our institutional view of what leaders look like, avoiding the tendency to identify "high potentials" as those who are predictably charming, verbal, and "just look like leaders." Some of the people we will need the most may be the quiet ones, even the shy ones, who bring people together, try new and potentially difficult things, and work toward results with skill and integrity.
Making Leadership Development a Priority
Considering the circumstances outlined in this article, we believe that the creation of a new leadership culture and philosophy in colleges and universities is the best place to begin. These are our recommendations:
1. Make leadership a strategic priority. A bold approach to institutionalizing leadership development would be to make it an explicit goal in the campus strategic plan. By stating that the development of people is an institutional priority, the president and board communicate to everyone that internal stakeholders are the strategic resource for the institution. Publicly stating this can motivate—if not compel—senior leadership to design policies, processes, and opportunities to develop people throughout the institution.
2. Use embedded work. One of the best development vehicles available is the real work people do every day. Giving a young leader a meaningful task, with some risk attached to it, provides an opportunity for growth and learning. With an effective supervisor who will discuss strategies, act as a sounding board for ideas, and share doubts and aspirations, personal development is a natural outgrowth.
Creating such supportive conditions calls for extra effort on the part of the supervisor, but isn't it every campus leader's job to build the capacity of his or her employees? Encourage highly effective supervision through reward, recognition, and performance review processes.
3. Reward deep mentoring. Taking a future leader under your wing is one of the most powerful and effective leadership development processes available. The president and cabinet can model the way by mentoring potential leaders several layers down in the organization.
Like embedded work, mentoring must be supported in the performance review process by recognizing and rewarding those leaders who groom and grow others. Unless reward and recognition are built into the mentoring process, it may not become an institutional priority or practice. Many leaders are already overwhelmed with day-to-day responsibilities. Finding time to mentor and motivate someone can be a major effort, and institutional support is essential. This sends a clear message throughout the campus that developing others is an institutional value.
4. Rethink how leadership development programs are designed and delivered on campus. Many campuses have created their own leadership development programs and have made great progress in building the capacity of emerging leaders. Advice from people who have crafted these kinds of programs includes minimizing the use of lectures and complex case studies, while maximizing the use of experiential learning activities; making sure young people (25–30 years old) are involved in thinking through and designing the leadership curriculum; and establishing cross-boundary and cross-discipline groups within your campus culture to provide multiple perspectives, which are needed and positive. (See sidebar, "Purposeful Professional Development," for examples of evolving leadership programs at Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia.)
5. Talk with experienced and effective leaders. There is much to be said for learning from the direct experience of others. Bring in leaders who have faced real adversity, made difficult decisions, dealt with crises, and even failed in an endeavor. Ask them to talk openly and honestly about their experiences, flaws included. Rather than long lectures, encourage the presenters to format discussions as intimate conversations in which young leaders feel comfortable asking tough questions. (See sidebar, "Get Them Talking to You.")
These kinds of questions can create the honest and real discussions that are needed by young leaders. The process will also provide them with both strategic and humane information—the kind of information you cannot get by simply reading about leadership.
The good news is that there are thousands of highly talented and principled individuals in our academic and administrative ranks who have the capacity and interest to become leaders of our institutions. How we identify, develop, and support them will be one of the greatest challenges and opportunities facing higher education over the next decade.
The chief business officer is at the administrative heart of the institution, and it is essential that he or she play an active role in building leaders throughout the institution. This cannot be done in isolation or in piecemeal fashion. Begin now to engage your president and the cabinet in a rigorous discussion about building leadership capacity throughout the campus. This is a senior leadership responsibility, and the cabinet must champion the effort in highly visible, even dramatic, ways.
"Here at DePaul University," says James R. Doyle, vice president of student affairs, "we work together to develop our emerging leaders carefully and value those individuals who can effectively deal with complexity, ambiguity, and people. Our leaders must be able to engage others and produce results. Those leaders who can work across institutional boundaries are worth their weight in gold."
If senior leaders communicate by word and deed that developing people is an institutional imperative, our campuses will be well led as they move toward an uncertain, but potentially exciting, future.