Advice

Reflections of a First-Year President

Once you get into the job, you identify strengths and weaknesses you never realized you had

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September 21, 2015

When I began my academic career as an assistant professor, I thought presidents were scary individuals who should be avoided at all costs. As a department chair, I saw them as more concerned with glitz than with the needs of the faculty — though still scary and best avoided. As a dean, I sometimes viewed presidents as players intent on pushing some new project while more urgent issues often went unattended. But I didn’t find them to be nearly as scary, and I occasionally enjoyed speaking with them.

And now I am a president myself. This past July, I completed my first year on the job at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. As I reflect on the year, I can best describe it as "a voyage of discovery." It was solitary at times and not without obstacles, but the rewards were great.

Because there is no standard road map for the position, I am sharing my approach and lessons learned from the first year here, in the hope that these observations may help other potential presidents out there.

Know your institution. You learn a lot about a campus during the interview process and the period leading up to your first day on the job, but you cannot really know the character of a place until you are immersed in it.

Every college is different, and you must resist the urge to stereotype an institution based on its classification: "I am coming into a liberal-arts college, I know what that means," or "I have worked in research universities my entire life, I understand these institutions." To truly understand why a campus is where it is now, you also have to know its history and formative elements. They help you figure out how certain attitudes and even dysfunctions arose over time.

We held a faculty and staff retreat in August 2014, just after I started the job. By that point, I had spoken with many people at the college, but the retreat was my first opportunity to speak before a large gathering. I was inspired by Simon Sinek’s TED talk on "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," and I wanted to use the platform of the retreat to explore Sinek’s approach with the faculty and staff. I asked those in attendance to answer Sinek’s three core questions: (1) What do we do? (2) How do we do it?, and (3) Why do we do it (i.e., what is our purpose)?

The answers were varied, sometimes contradictory, but always illuminating. As one staff member put it, the conversation helped shine a light on some of the "elephants in the room" (though that was not necessarily my intention). I found it to be an extremely insightful exercise that helped accelerate my knowledge of the college, in some cases confirming what I had come to believe, and in other instances highlighting areas that I knew I would need to further investigate.

Know your staff. The conversations I had with staff members before my first day in office were invaluable in helping me begin to understand the people and culture of the campus.

I knew, however, that I had only scratched the surface in those initial meetings. Once I was officially on board, I began the process of assessing the executive team members and the departments they oversaw. The sooner you can identify the strengths and weaknesses of each person and department, the better you will be able to prioritize those people and areas in need of your immediate attention.

The next important thing I sought to identify is what I refer to as the "semi-autonomous regions." Those are units that basically operate on their own — sometimes very well — but that are not playing with the team.

I used to think that such rogue departments only appeared under weak presidents and filled a power vacuum. While that may be true in some situations, I’ve found that the same phenomenon can occur under strong, micromanaging leaders. When staff members want independence from such an overbearing leader, they may react by withholding information. You then end up with a strong central leadership characterized by rogue vice presidents who encourage a system that lacks transparency.

Try to identify who among your staff members are the team players and who have independent agendas. That assessment admittedly takes time, and may not be accomplished in a year.

Know your trustees. I don’t mean just know them personally; I mean know how they function as a group and know the culture and practices of board meetings and decision-making.

Many presidents, like me, begin on July 1, with the first board meeting not occurring until the fall. While the interview process and the steps leading up to your start date will give you some sense of the board, you typically begin the job with little understanding of how your collective boss operates, which can be disconcerting.

I decided to hold a board retreat the first month after I arrived. Even though the trustees had no recent history of retreats, they welcomed the idea. This venue allowed me to articulate my aspirations for the college in a relaxed and extended session. During the first year, I made a concerted effort to meet with every board member at least once or twice, in relaxed settings and usually over a meal.

Know yourself. One of the things that I learned quickly during my first year as president was that my previous jobs did not prepare me for this role. Once you get into the job, you identify strengths and weaknesses you never realized you had.

After years of teaching, submitting grant proposals, and writing research papers, I felt pretty confident about my communications skills in the areas of writing and public speaking. But the diversity of communications encountered in the first year can be a challenge. For instance, I really enjoy town-hall meetings. Their informality and spontaneous nature appeal to me. We had several such meetings during the year, and I felt I thrived in that atmosphere. On the other hand, I really struggled when I had to use a teleprompter to deliver a short taped interview.

I never found presidential newsletters to be a particularly appealing writing genre, but I decided to start one for the purpose of communicating key goings-on at the college. Over time, I began to transition that platform from a collection of news items into a monthly forum for exploring different ideas. The response has been positive, and it’s something I intend to continue into the future.

Those experiences helped reinforce for me that the most effective approaches to communications and events are the ones that suit your style and personality. And those approaches may or may not be the same as the ones used by other presidents.

That is particularly important to bear in mind when it comes to the inauguration. When I started meeting with my future staff in the months before my first day in office, I expressed my desire for a fall inauguration instead of a spring ceremony, as is perhaps more customary. That gave a short horizon to plan the event and the accompanying symposium, but it also created a certain energy and excitement. Like not wanting to put off a wedding too far into the future, the advantage I saw of an early inauguration is that its planning would not consume my first year, allowing me to more quickly focus on those matters critical to leading the institution.

On a side note, I did have the opportunity to observe the spring inauguration of a presidential peer who started the same time as me. She had the advantage of another half-year on the job, and I thought her commencement address was better than mine.

So would I change anything? No, because our approach was the one I felt best suited me, and more important, was in the best interests of the college.

Now that I have been president for a year, my views on the position have changed again. If someone were to ask me today what I think of college presidents, I would say we are hard working, well-intentioned people who, like anyone, are not immune to missteps.

And we are not in the least bit scary.

T. Gregory Dewey is president of the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.