THE BLOG
03/24/2014 06:30 pm ET Updated May 24, 2014

The First 100 Days of a CEO in Higher Education?

We often hear about the first "100 Days," the time when a presidency is defined by what is "charted out" during the first three months. The challenges that have been identified, the goals that are set, the partnerships that need to be forged, etc. Things may not move that quickly in higher education, but I would agree there is something about the early years that make them the "make or break" years. Every CEO's circumstance is different, of course, but I offer these reflections on the first two years based on my experiences at Marymount California University and the University of Wisconsin Colleges. I found that there were six questions to be considered during extremely delicate leadership period.

What is expected?

Meeting and listening to all the major stakeholder groups within the first year enables one to appreciate the story of the institution. This includes hearing various insights regarding the institution's mission and legacy, but it also includes viewpoints on the college's recent past and near future from students, faculty, board members, alumni, community leaders, foundations, donors, elected officials and parents. Patterns emerge about the institution's story, in terms of where it's been and where it can go. There will be an almost unlimited number of hopes and fears to consider, but patterns of shared values and aspirations will also emerge, setting the stage for an overarching institutional story.

What is needed?

What also comes from this canvassing is a sense of what might be needed to advance the institution. My experience has been that most people will focus on what the need is for certain programs, services, resources, relationships, and leadership. This qualitative input is rich in ideas and ambition, but there will be a need to have the institution's executive team "weigh in." Ideally, this will come directly from the college's ongoing assessment and continual improvement programs. If not, there may be a need for external consultation. Such consultation can very effective in helping experienced campus leaders take a fresh look at sustained systemic challenges. Further, consultation with the informal leadership of the college, especially faculty, is needed. Their feedback helps inform quantitative analysis, and is especially helpful in building bridges for future dialogue. In the end, the Board needs to know that the best minds and resources have been brought to the review before any major advancement or change is presented.

What Can Be?

One of first things I did at UW and Marymount was to invite all employees to write to me on two questions: "What are top three issues facing the institution? What are the first three things you would do if you were me?" I received these documents before I began my work. In retrospect, this was the best thing I could have done. First, it allows people to feel they can be heard, no matter where they are in the organization. Second, there is an amazing education that comes from such an exercise. Third, I could begin sharing the patterns of the responses early on with the Board and my executive team.

There can certainly be a tendency for folks to focus on institutional deficits, historical setbacks, systemic dysfunction, and seemingly competing priorities. This is natural. The president needs to affirm the expression of these sentiments and paint a future of thoughtful and deliberative consideration of change. People want to know "what can be," and that takes time. At some point early in the first year, the formal components of the governance program need to be engaged in inquiry. Finally, Board guidance is needed on what, if any, urgent matters are threatening the college's financial or market position. I have found that community members appreciate "straight talk" regarding timely matters.

What are our capacities?

There is no other way to determine these without significant analysis. Based on all the internal and external input I had at Marymount, I determined we needed to initiate the development of these capacities: tying assessment to budget and planning, community relations, educational technology, sustainability (on almost all levels, including human resources), process mapping, sustaining our Catholic missions and identity, internationalism, and new program development. Once the development of these was evident to the community, we then turned to higher-order items (ex: strategic planning). Many doors open when faculty and staff see much-needed capacities being developed. This is when their creativity kicks in. You simply cannot talk "pie in the sky" when people are not confident about core capacities. I will admit that Marymount is still developing some of these capacities, but we have a track record of growing enrollment and revenue from new programs and services that could not have been imagined without the identification and resourcing of capacity building across the university.

This work instills confidence with all stakeholders and, perhaps more importantly, it emphasizes the need for the institution to be a learning organization. It is then that the college can serve credibly as a role model for students who are entering an increasingly chaotic world where the acquisition of data is increasingly less a concern. The larger challenge for students may be developing the capacity to review significant amounts of information that can be disorienting if one is not equipped to discern themes and patterns in the findings.

Based on lessons learned from both UW and Marymount, I would encourage new presidents to take extra care in the early months to understand and appreciate the informal and formal decision-making culture throughout all elements of the college's governance program. Misunderstandings about this can create significant challenges. Further, if the governance programs have been underutilized, greater care may be needed to develop these before changes and innovations can be reasonable considered.

What new resources are required?

Given Marymount's transformation from a single-campus two-year college to a multisite undergraduate/graduate university, I have turned to our Board a number of times in my tenure for approval of major internal reallocation, investment from cash reserves, and borrowing to advance innovation and growth. We have also increased fundraising results and public/private partnerships to fund institutional advancement and innovation. In essence, we took a growth strategy in what could have been the most difficult period in American higher education's history. The burden was on the executive team to portray opportunity, risk, reward, and relevance to mission with every new proposal. I will also share that it required me to reduce institutional expenses when we were thrown "curve balls." This is never easy, but it has been necessary. In turn, community appreciated that very little is gained without some shared sacrifice.

What is the institutional story?

None of the above can happen if stakeholders do not trust that you understand the story of the institution. I advise our graduate leadership students that leadership is storytelling. You need a developed worldview, excellent communication skills, and an ability to portray future change as if it could have happened in the past. Your stakeholder groups need to trust you, they need to be inspired by you, and they need to see the future in a manner that resonates with what they consider to be institution's mission and core values. Ideally, you develop a shared institutional vision that slowly integrates itself into the academic, financial, operational and mission components of the organization.

Once your story is affirmed by the Board, the college is then in a compelling position with all stakeholder groups. New program development, fundraising, facility development, community relations, planning/budgeting, and workforce sustainability can all flow from a vision that is both inspiring and realistic enough to frame most institutional conversations. Ambitions have been defined, institutional gaps have been identified for resourcing, leadership has been set in place, and off you go!

Summary

In order to meet the needs of all stakeholders, it is impossible to have these six inquiries run end-to-end in a clinical, theoretical fashion. People are too excited about pursuing their passions to wait for an overly long process to play itself out. As a result, these will most likely be overlapping and/or parallel inquiries. I have found that constant and clear communication about emerging and synergistic findings is the key, as community members need to know how it all "hangs together." The confidence that all this inquiry contributes to a vision in a somewhat iterative fashion is most important.