11/12/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Pay Attention to Details

In running any organization, one has to pay attention to details. Of course, the question is who should be the one to do so.

The president? No, at least not directly. A president does not have the time, whether s/he thinks so or not. Equally important, by personally paying attention to details, a president will, more often than not, be micromanaging. In the process, s/he will be driving away good staff. Besides, by doing so, a president will often forget to focus on the whole chessboard.

Clearly, presidents who do what they have been hired to do cannot pay attention to every detail. Unless someone else does so, however, disaster lurks.

For me, the point is best stated in forestry terms. Like a forest warden who oversees and preserves an entire forest, a president oversees and preserves the overall institution. If the forest is to flourish, the warden must ensure the branches of trees are occasionally pruned and the roots of those trees are constantly watered. However, the warden does not do the pruning and watering personally. A college or university president should not be pruning and watering, either. Otherwise, to use another forestry reference, the president will fail to see the forest through the trees.

A president needs to be surrounded by people who know everything about every part of the college; however, s/he does not need to know all the details personally. Yet every president needs to have on staff someone who can brief her or him about why a previous position was taken. Without knowledge of the past, prior mistakes will be repeated again and again and again.

Admittedly, I sometimes immersed myself in more details than I should have. I had full confidence in those with whom I worked (if I did not, I made the requisite changes). However, because I was genuinely interested in every aspect of the institution, I knew more personally than I needed to know.

Still, I expected those with area responsibility to make sure everything worked as it should, and I did not interfere in their sphere of responsibility. Well, to be honest, I suspect some of them might take issue with that conclusion. Nevertheless, the point is, if an institution is to function smoothly, details are important -- but a president should not be the one to focus on them, if the college or university is to thrive.