6 Qualities to Look for in a College President

By Robin Mamlet and Sheila Murphy

As search consultants, we have a front-row seat to the selection process of college presidents. In an environment of increasing institutional competition, disruption, regulation, and political uncertainty, we are often asked what skills are most crucial these days to presidential success.

The topic is particularly relevant in light of the latest American College President Study from the American Council on Education. The study provides some indication that the profile of the higher-education presidency continues to shift for the better — the percentages of women and people of color holding the office edged up since 2011, for instance — but there is a general consensus that we need to keep challenging the “stagnant portrait” of the role.

Demographics suggest that there will be more openings than ever in the coming years — which presents institutions and their boards with unprecedented opportunities to diversify the office. While we will be losing a strong generation of leaders, the potential exists for the door to open wider for those who may not have been fully considered in the past.

Here are some essential skills that search committees and governing boards should be looking for in the days ahead:

Soft skills that aren’t so soft. The candidate with highly developed interpersonal skills — or an intuitive ability to connect with the committee — used to be suspect. Too slick, too smooth, too friendly, or, worst of all (and generally reserved for female candidates), too bubbly and nice. But this is the era of the “high EQ” as a valuable executive competency. Emotional intelligence that enables leadership with empathy, respect, and cross-cultural competence is a must-have skill for aspiring higher-education leaders. Presidents who communicate easily, enjoy informal banter with students and colleagues, and are thoughtful in their engagement with populations new to higher education are creating a climate of good will, transparency, and accessibility. A newly empowered generation of students, faculty, parents, and alumni expect leaders to be attentive to their needs and desires in establishing institutional priorities. This is particularly true around matters of inclusion and campus climate.

An appetite for data and analytics. The era of the higher-education “thinker” has given way to the leader with a sophisticated grasp of data and analytics. For many years it was common for institutional leaders to begin programs in areas and disciplines that resonated with the individual leader. But today the ability to undertake sophisticated market research and tap into data about market share, discount rate, demographic forecasts, employment demand, and population shifts provides institutional leaders with access to unprecedented levels of information.

Presidents are significantly disadvantaged if they routinely operate without an in-depth understanding of the data that inform most decisions.

The ability to speed up and then pivot. Colleges have been carefully designed to not allow anything to move too quickly or without debate and ultimately consensus. It takes a meeting that typically occurs once a month to make a decision. Sometimes it requires placing an item on the agenda a month before that for an item to be considered. And, if the decision isn’t made by May, it is unlikely to be made until September. It takes six years to decide if an employee is staying, and then “staying” generally means forever. Higher education’s reputation for being averse to change is well-earned.

Contrast this with the pace of the modern world: global access, 24-hour news cycles, same-day delivery, Snapchat images that are gone in seconds, people attached to multiple electronic devices around the clock. Adroit leaders patiently explain that some issues can be too time-sensitive to conform to the traditional governance structures and that the institution can’t wait for everyone before it acts; savvy leaders skillfully point out the opportunity costs of delayed decisions and expect from the community the right to lead as they see fit.

Recognition that they don’t have to go it alone. Increasingly, presidents seek partnerships and co-ventures with other institutions to leverage resources, reduce duplication, and minimize vulnerability. Trust, collaboration and compromise are crucial in focusing on the greater good. Candidates must tread carefully into specific ideas and suggestions for particular institutions they are just getting to know. “Let’s partner with Institution X down the road” is not a winning strategy.

Rather, candidates should demonstrate the capacity for a vision and entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to think in new ways about the traditional activities and image of the institution. Astute committees and boards want candidates who are thoughtful, smart, creative and confident leaders who can push through the unnecessary competition and duplication that can erode the economic base of an otherwise viable institution.

Strength in the core skills of the position. Candidates should have a well-developed narrative that explains their competency in three top areas cited in the ACE report: budget and financial management, fund-raising, and managing senior staff. Most people in senior management roles can probably make a strong case for competence and experience in managing staff as well as a budget of some significance, but the absence of experience in fund-raising can be a perceived gap in the portfolio of senior leaders. Still, a candidate who is a quick study, eager to learn, highly coachable, and wants to be more involved in fund-raising can overcome that lack of direct experience.

Expertise in change management. Most boards these days are aware that higher education will never be the same again; institutions that do not find new ways of operating will either flounder or fail. As one trustee told us recently: “I think higher education has become anesthetized to some of the key issues. For example, look at student debt, which has risen far out of proportion to compensation. Colleges can see that this is a problem, but they seem absolutely powerless to address the issue in a meaningful way.” Board members are looking for presidents who combine an understanding of how to make change happen in the academy with a vision for how else the academy might structure itself to be financially sustainable for the long haul. They realize that doing so will require powers of great inventiveness as well as stamina, along with a good measure of fortitude and resilience.

For presidential candidates, there is no guaranteed formula for success in advancing through the quirky, unpredictable, and sometimes undecipherable committee process in the higher-education search. But self-awareness and an understanding of the changing environment for learning and leading are essential first steps along the way to what we hope — for an increasingly broad and varied set of presidents — will be a deeply satisfying professional opportunity to lead, to serve, and to transform.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to reprint has been granted.