Commentary

On the Path to a Successful Presidency, Multitasking Is a Detour

June 04, 2017

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

College presidents today face an increasingly complex array of challenges and require a much wider range of skills than ever before. Moreover, traditional paths to the presidency are unlikely to produce sufficient numbers of appropriately skilled leaders. These are the central conclusions of two recent important, if flawed, reports from authoritative sources.

The first, issued by the Center for Higher Education Excellence at Deloitte in conjunction with the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is based on an extensive survey of presidents at four-year institutions. The second, issued by the Aspen Institute, is the work of a distinguished task force of 35 chief executives representing community colleges, four-year colleges, and regional public and national research universities.

Both reports address two central concerns: how we will ensure that systems for preparing future presidents will produce sufficient numbers of appropriately skilled candidates, and what skills will be required for success in this position as demands on the presidency change. From my perspective as a scholar of the academic presidency and the president of Northeastern University for 10 years, the reports make valuable contributions with respect to the first concern and are seriously misguided with regard to the second.

To begin with the positive, the Aspen Report is especially strong in focusing on the need for an improved system of cultivating and preparing the next generation of presidents, as higher education anticipates a wave of retirements. For example, boards of trustees need more support in carrying out their responsibility to select future presidents. And we must cultivate and tap far more diverse pools of executive talent to have a realistic hope of developing the number and range of leaders that we will need.

The Deloitte report adds insights about the declining role of the provost’s position as a steppingstone to the presidency, calling into question the most time-tested pathway to the top post. These observations and recommendations call for serious follow-up work by major institutional associations, including the American Council on Education.

Both reports also identify the key elements of an increasingly turbulent and hazardous environment that presidents must navigate, including technological changes, political uncertainties, financial pressures, demographic shifts, and cultural tensions. There is no question that the number of demands on presidents have been growing. In addition, the reports are on target in noting that, notwithstanding the expanding array of challenges, the most important role of presidents is likely to remain what it has always been: articulating a vision of what their institutions aspire to become over the next five to 10 years, defining a strategy for achieving those goals, and communicating the vision and strategy to key stakeholders.

Unfortunately, both reports understate the reality that strategic leadership is as much about implementation as initial formulation. It requires not only the ability to describe what the institution is doing and why, but to manage the complex process of moving a campus community toward its goals over an extended period of time.

This means establishing priorities for different parts of the organization on a continuing basis, providing divisions and departments with the resources they need to accomplish their part of the work, making sure that key subordinates are not distracted unduly by matters of secondary importance, and monitoring progress toward defined goals and instituting course corrections as needed — all in parallel with continuously reminding key constituencies why the work is important in ways that inspire sustained commitment and support.

The reports’ failure to fully acknowledge the requirements of strategic leadership results in their adoption of an unfortunate premise, a kind of subtraction through addition: that the right answer to the growing complexities of academia is for presidents to develop a wider and wider array of skills and spread their attention ever more thinly.

The Deloitte report identifies six areas of competence and, while assigning priorities among them, argues that the president must be a consummate multitasker who can provide leadership across a list of responsibilities, including strategic development, fund raising, financial management, and academic guidance. The Aspen report asks even more of presidents. It provides a checklist of "enduring skills" and "new skills" adding up to 18 competencies that, in the task force’s view, are now essential for an effective presidency.

Oddly, in their extensive lists of qualities and capacities needed by presidents, neither report mentions the skills of organizational design and team building. This is a serious omission. The ideal response to growing environmental complexity is not to expect chief executives to master an ever-widening set of skills and functional specialties.

Instead, we must enhance their capacity to build organizations capable of meeting these challenges, to select individuals with the needed talent and background, to mold key subordinates into effective teams, and to coordinate their work. These skills are gifts that keep on giving because effective organizational arrangements allow presidents to focus on the thing they are uniquely positioned to do: provide their communities with strategic leadership in all its dimensions.

The reports’ inattention to organizational design preserves a longstanding academic blind spot. This is not a mistake that corporate leaders would make. Fifty-five years ago, in his seminal work on the development of the modern American corporation, the business historian Alfred Chandler concluded that successful enterprises were characterized by sound strategies linked to organizations specifically designed to carry them out.

While academia has produced limited examples of structural innovation — for example, interdisciplinary centers to conduct problem-oriented research — we have generally maintained a pretty standard set of well-established structures and assumed that new strategies can be superimposed upon them. In my own study of eight universities and dozens of presidents over a 50-year period, I found very few examples of presidents who thought that defining a new strategy called for new organizational arrangements.

The challenges facing the academic presidency are indeed growing more complex — but we need to think of this phenomenon as pertaining to institutions, not specifically to presidents. What will equip presidents to succeed in this universe is a combination of the traditional skills of strategic leadership combined with a long-neglected focus on organizational development. Multitasking is not the answer; in fact, it leads presidents and those who appoint them in entirely the wrong direction.

Richard M. Freeland is president emeritus of Northeastern University and a higher- education consultant.