04/18/2014 09:46 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Know Your Constituents

Any leader needs to know her/his constituents. And a leader needs to like and respect them.

I loved being around the people with whom I worked. From faculty to students to administrative staff to facilities or food service or security personnel, I genuinely enjoyed them. Whenever I had the chance, therefore, I spent time with them, especially students. Although other constituents have a longer vested interest in the college, students are a president's key customers.

Much as I enjoyed the experience of spending time with students, I found it was a great learning experience -- in most cases for me, but in some cases, I hope, for them. And if events on campus were good for these purposes, time spent with students off campus was even better because it allowed us to get to know each other well.

I particularly enjoyed freshmen outings. During the week before freshmen orientation, we offered students, as many colleges now do, the opportunity to bike, canoe, or hike for several days. Many took advantage of the chance to get to know fellow students before the college experience began in earnest. So did I.

On those trips, I would constantly ask students while we were sitting around a campfire, if the college they were about to start was their first choice. Of course, as a lawyer, I knew one should never ask a question to which one did not know the answer. I nevertheless asked the question because I needed to know the answer.

While my process was hardly scientific and my sample size was small, I learned that the overwhelming majority of students to whom I posed the question had not really wanted to attend the college they were about to enter. At least that was what I found in my early years at each college. By the end of my tenure, the percentage of those who had selected the college as a first choice -- again by my highly subjective means of measuring -- had reached nearly 90 percent, a percentage I obviously preferred.

I needed that information -- both the good and the bad. I was glad to get it, and to get it in such a pleasurable way. College presidents, like any leader, need to have as much information as possible, so find the way that works best for you to gather it.