Throughout my career I have served as an uncompensated executive coach for younger professionals who aspire to be a college or university chief executive officer, many of whom wish to serve at MSIs. Currently, three of my protégés are finalists in presidential searches at HBCUs. Without a doubt each of them possesses the requisite skills to provide exemplary leadership as a college president at any institution for which there exists a good fit. The lack of presidential and institutional fit is, in my view, one of the primary reasons for the high turnover within the ranks of HBCU CEOs. Fit entails congruence between the values of the appointee and key stakeholders; agreement on institutional priorities; mutual respect and trust between the appointee and the board of trustees; and the willingness of the board to let the president lead and the willingness of the president to observe the governance role of the board.
Recently, I've been contacted by search firm consultants and search committee members who want to ascertain my views about the qualifications of various candidates and whether I think they would be effective presidents. Ironically, there weren't any questions related to the issue of fit. Given the amount of time and money invested in presidential searches, and the cost of failure, I'm convinced that the time is ripe for executive search professionals to reexamine how they approach their work and to make adjustments as warranted.
In advising my protégés, I have sought to emphasize more than a dozen key points accompanied by a translation:
1. The needs of students must be at the center of everything you do. Translation: Without students, there is no need for you.
2. Vision without focus is a mere illusion. Translation: Results matter.
3. You must be able to live on less praise than you give. Translation: People love to be stroked.
4. The amount of advice that you receive from alumni is far greater than their financial contributions. Translation: Talk is cheap.
5. You cannot allow anyone to be responsible for your failure. Translation: Fire people who don't do their jobs.
6. The true measure of an excellent university is determined by the success of its graduates, not the recitation of its rhetoric. Translation: Graduates must be able to compete globally.
7. Everything is important but not everything is of equal importance. Translation: You must prioritize.
8. Cutting the budget across the board is a recipe for mediocrity. Translation: Excellence requires investing strategically.
9. Ultimately, you are accountable for the institution's success in all areas. Translation: The buck stops with you.
10. You must be willing to work harder than anyone on your staff. Translation: Lead by example.
11. You get what you expect. Translation: Whether low or high, people always meet expectations.
12. The greatest source of revenue available to your institution is that which it already has. Translation: Don't be afraid to reallocate funds.
13. Expect people to say "we've never done it that way before." Translation: I'm not going to change.
14. Going along to get along is an abdication of your responsibilities. Translation: Stand up for what you believe is right.
15. Access without success is hollow. Translation: Unless students graduate, your university has not done its job.
16. You need people on your board of trustees who add value rather than take up space. Translation: Many board members are more interested in being on the board than being on board.
17. Keep yourself some go-to-heck money. Translation: Be prepared to walk away rather than sacrifice your values.
18. You must live a balanced life. Translation: Stress kills.
19. Never confuse being president with who you are. Translation: You are more than what you do.
20. Do something that makes you happy. Translation: Work without joy is drudgery.
Here's wishing every aspiring HBCU CEO worlds of success as agents of change!