Friday, October 2, 2009

The Successful President: Personal Style

(College Planning and Management, October 2009 - by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell)

Presidential temperament is a bit like Marshall McLuhan’s existential fish out of water. It’s taken for granted unless it is suddenly absent. No other essential leadership quality is so elusive -- undefinable, but absolutely essential. It’s difficult to quantify, but you know it when you see it. A judicious Presidential temperament can overcome a lack of other important leadership skill sets; without it, nothing else matters.

College presidents are no longer your father’s CEO. Tenures are dropping in duration, while challenges mount. Although they came well qualified and highly recommended, too many new and promising first time campus CEOs are derailed in the early months of their presidencies because they did not understand the expectations and new rules of the office. Still others lack one or more basic skills critical to all successful presidencies. The costs of failure are enormous, both to the institution and to the individual.

What can we do to boost the odds of success? Let’s start with basic ground rules, which have changed enormously in the last 30 years. In the presidency of 1978, most presidents were educators who came from an academic background and viewed themselves as academic leaders, and they spent most of their time on campus managing internal affairs. The paradigm today represents a 180-degree shift. In 2008, most successful presidents come with a business background or a good sense of the business world, and they focus on activities related to external affairs and advancement. Effective presidents now spend upwards of 70 percent of their time off-campus, “friend”-raising and fund-raising. Today, presidents are the “face” of the university to diverse outside publics, including government officials, the media, corporations and foundations, the business community and the community at large.

We’ve seen stellar candidates on paper flounder in office and fail this litmus test despite solid experience, obvious qualifications and strong references. Sound judgment and a sense of appropriate action for a given situation—what used to be called “horse sense”—trumps all else in leaders. As President Harry Truman once said, “Common sense is very uncommon.”

Some pitfalls that we’ve seen sink many promising presidencies:
  • Perceptions matter. Smart and successful leaders recognize that when it comes to public, perception is reality. Think about how a given action or behavior might be viewed by those outside your inner circle. Two sound ethical “smell” tests: “How would it look on the front page of tomorrow’s paper?”, and “What would happen to the institution/ community/profession if all presidents emulated this action?”
  • Spend judiciously. Mishandling or perceived misuse of institutional funds has probably compromised the effectiveness of more CEOs than any other behavior. Be aware of appearances. Don’t fly first-class on short trips, even if you are using your own accumulated mileage. Don’t stay at the most expensive hotel in a given city. Be conservative in expenditures for presidential residences, furnishings and automobiles. Insist on fair, but not extravagant, compensation and perks for your region, type and size of institution. Don’t discuss personal travel, especially “out of the country” trips. Be discreet in maintaining appropriate distance with faculty and staff. Be a good steward of both personal and institutional funds. 
  • Be accountable. It’s easy to take the credit when times are good. It’s when things aren’t going well that the true test of presidential temperament occurs. Admit mistakes. Don’t hide behind your staff. Let it take credit for successes while you accept responsibility for failures. Stand behind your staff and volunteer leaders in good times, and they’ll stand behind you when times get tough.
  • Put the public good first. Question your own ambition. Are you doing it for the good of the others, or for your own self-aggrandizement?
Plato perhaps said it best: “The measure of a man (or woman) is what he does with power.” Presidential power, well-used, can be transformative. Abused, it can irreparably damage an institution for years to come.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College in West Virginia. He is now in his 19th year as a college president.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Fennell Associates, Higher Education Services. Both serve as consultants to college presidents and boards. They have jointly published four books and over 100 articles on assorted leadership topics.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Successful President: Positioning Your Institution for Leadership

(College Planning and Management, August 2009 - by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell)

Fred, Alice, Louis, Buddy, The Professor and NoNo live in an Antarctic penguin colony facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge to survival. As described in Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding under Any Conditions by leadership guru John Kotter of the Harvard Business School, with Holger Rathgeber, their insular world is threatened when one of the birds makes the shocking discovery that the flock’s habitat is inexorably slipping into the sea. Initially, no one believes him until the urgency of his message becomes clear.

Now, although none of our readers is a penguin, we all know CEOs and other senior administrators who resemble these endearing characters in Kotter’s recent fable of change, challenge, denial—until it’s almost too late—and ultimately, of strategic adaptation and survival.

Although our “icebergs” may be in more temperate climates, our leaders face the same challenge of urgency as did Kotter’s fabled emperor penguins. While we may indeed be “kings” of our dominions, these realms are rapidly shrinking. Moreover, as Fred, Alice, et al, come to realize, the amount of required change will only intensify over time. Thus, deferring needed change now will dramatically lower the odds of success later.

Synergistic partnerships with other organizations are one way to expand the reach and visibility of your institution, attracting new donors, new students and volunteer leaders and other enriching opportunities. However, we urge leaders to practice what we call the art of “rational impatience,” that is, to seize the opportunity before the “iceberg” melts. Too often, we study new possibilities ad infinitum while our institutions continue to lose market share.

That’s not to say, however, that we should grasp at any request for partnerships or community service. We need to be smart, savvy and clear about exactly what our institutions and presidencies can gain from new opportunities. Here are some questions – “informed scrutiny” -- that we recommend asking before forging new relationships:

  • How, precisely, will it enhance my university’s credibility with key “elites” that matter to our stakeholders?  Does your institution need to cultivate the arts, business or scientific/technical communities in your region? If you are a church-related institution, would it be beneficial to foster stronger ties with your sponsoring denomination? Targeted partnerships with credible organizations in your area of need can help take your institution to another level
  • How, specifically, will it move my institution ahead?  Do you need to cultivate more regional opinion leaders? More major gifts prospects? Do you need to attract more qualified students and faculty? Do you need a presence in another market area? Carefully chosen, informed public-public and private-public relationships with organizations complementing your mission can help you to achieve your objectives while maximizing institutional resources.
  • If it involves a Board membership, will it introduce me to opinion leaders who can advance my college or university? We often hear new presidents say they feel “overwhelmed” by myriad requests for service on local and regional boards of directors; yet, our experience shows that when well-chosen, such off-campus memberships almost invariably benefit the CEOs’ campus. In addition to opening doors into circles in which your college or university needs to be visible, such membership often attracts qualified and talented new leadership for your own board of trustees.
Philanthropy and service are entering a new dawn—from the past as charity, to a future as a social investment. We are convinced that people avidly seek and are attracted to leaders and organizations with whom they can share win-win solutions to the pressing needs of our time. How can you best invest your time, talent and treasure? As you think about strategically positioning your presidency and your institution for regional leadership and beyond, consider ways in which your new alliances will add value, especially for alumni. How can you capitalize on potential partnerships to increase the worth of their diplomas? As a CEO, if you can do that in a measurable way, you can ensure a thriving future for your institution and a successful tenure as a leader.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College in West Virginia. He is now in his 19th year as a college president.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Fennell Associates Higher Education Services. They both serve as consultants to college presidents and boards. They have jointly published four books and over 100 articles on assorted leadership topics.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Successful President: Getting Your College Known

(College Planning and Management, June 2009 - by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell)

“With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” When he uttered these words, President Lincoln, besieged from all sides, was in the midst of the Civil War, yet he realized that mobilizing public opinion in support of the conflict was critical to the Union’s success. Effective marketing is no less vital to a college CEO.

“Doing well by doing good” has become a philanthropic mantra, but if institutions don’t market their own successes, who will? Don’t rely on others to tell your story. In a previous article, we emphasized the importance of knowing your institution, honing a focused self-identity and bringing all key stakeholders, especially faculty, staff and administrators, on board. Internal audiences are your best marketers if they know and understand your mission and objectives.

We’ve heard many times remarkable stories of internal constituents leading to major gifts and national recognition for a college or university. There’s the modest grounds worker at a private college who after his passing made the national news by leaving the bulk of his $1.6 million estate to his employer of 30 years. Then, there’s the 85 year old man, who upon endowing a chair in religion at a poor Appalachian college spoke of his unannounced visit to the campus one quiet Sunday morning and being emotionally moved by an unassuming staffer working in his office. Marketing by key stakeholders led to national media exposure in both cases.

Here are some recommendations:
  • Be strategic. Three marketing objectives well-executed are better than a dozen implemented hap-hazardly. Ask yourself, “What is the biggest single need in your marketplace? Then, “What can your college do better than anyone else? “ Marry the two and you have a recipe for success. 
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In marketing, repetition and consistency of message trumps all. In his 2006 Messages that Stick, author Chip Heath emphasizes that compelling messages withstanding the test of time are succinct, unexpected, concise and surprising. It’s not always doing something new that counts; it’s execution and consistency.
  • The medium is the message. How often and in what format do your key constituencies prefer to receive information? While it’s usually better to over- rather than under-communicate, both carry substantial risks. 
  • Add value. What activity or program, if enhanced by 20 percent, would increase results exponentially? 
  • Know your institution; know your market; know your competition. It’s surprising to consultants that when we ask long-time employees to give a “business-card” summary of their principal product or service, they can’t do it. If you cannot deliver a crisp, compelling, 30-second “elevator message” to key audiences, don’t think further about branding strategies until you can do so. 
  • Do it first. The marketing adage, “It’s more important to be the first to do it than to do it best,” is anathema to the college ethos, with its participative committee structure. We are often loath to roll out a new course, major or service until it’s been talked to death. By then, the window of opportunity has often closed. This doesn’t mean that we should introduce shoddy or substandard “products” into our marketplaces. It does imply that where opportunity lies, we should strike while the iron is hot, making necessary modifications and adaptations along the way.
  • Capitalize on institutional strengths. Successful organizations and leaders build on their areas of strength while minimizing their weaknesses. What is your strongest brand? It’s often more effective to add value to it rather than trying to introduce a new one. 
  • Look for synergistic opportunities. The new era of philanthropy is all about organizations proactively seeking creative ways to deliver needed goods and services. By partnering with other like-minded organizations, not only does the whole become greater than the sum of its parts, but your institution will enhance its donor and membership base.
Above all, keep it simple. Marketing need not be complicated. Basically, it exists to find an unmet need and to fulfill it. It’s just that simple. Find an unfilled niche and fill it, and you will succeed.

“He who molds the public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions,” President Lincoln pronounced. Our 16th President knew the priceless value of positive marketing in effecting policy change. It helped him to preserve the Union; it will help you to build your institution.

# # #

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College in West Virginia. He is now in his 19th year as a college president.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Fennell Associates Higher Education Services. Both serve as consultants to college presidents and boards.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Successful President: Leadership and Vision

(College Planning and Management, April 2009 - by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell)

It’s the vision thing. Besides love, perhaps more has been written about leadership and vision than about any other topic. In 1910, American architect and city planner Daniel Hudson Burnham, speaking to the Town Planning Conference in London, advised, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” Burnham was a wise man and correctly envisioned that his sons and grandsons would go on to “do things that would stagger us.”
These words ought to be posted above every college CEOs desk. Although Burnham’s widely disseminated remarks referred to physical structures, they apply to all realms of leadership. “Small plans,” like nondescript buildings, fail to inspire, and are often razed prematurely.

In earlier articles, we’ve talked about the importance of presidents’ first steps in their tenure. Seek advice. Listen. Make cautious decisions. Strive for consensus.

We’ve suggested that identifying, retaining and hiring talented senior staff who complement the strengths of a new president is a critical piece of his or her success in office, a process known collectively as ''teambuilding." One crucial, yet often-overlooked aspect of a new presidency is the role of senior staff who will work collegially with the new CEO to execute and communicate the institutional vision. It is critical that the president carefully select and nurture talented individuals who, generally, should possess expertise superior to that of the CEO in their respective areas. If the president does a good job of appointing senior staff, they will serve as the prime agents in communicating a vision and implementing institutional goals.

We’ve also strongly recommended that the Board should authorize a comprehensive Institutional Review. There is one national, highly acclaimed firm that has been praised for its work, as well as some smaller firms. One such firm is James L. Fisher, LTD., of Venice, Fla. A team widely experienced in higher education and not having any present association with the college should review its general condition and provide a completely objective assessment that should include: (a) Candidly identifying and addressing issues affecting the campus and helping establish a tentative agenda for the immediate future; (b) Helping the Board and the new president assess and illuminate overall conditions; (c) Providing the Board with a more accurate impression of the college and approving more specific and realistic expectations; and (d) Using a public report on the results as a vehicle for enhancing the awareness and visibility of the college in the community, region, state and beyond.

But perhaps the most important leadership quality that a new CEO must display is an overarching vision for the institution. We submit that this is the time to “think big.” It’s axiomatic in strategic planning that objectives be realistic enough to be achievable, but ambitious enough to inspire.
Our recommendations for strategic vision include the following:
  • Throw away the “box.” It is becoming a limiting factor. Creative thinking should not merely be “out of the box; rather, let’s do away with “the box” entirely. Take a second look. Opportunities, it’s been said, are often things you haven’t noticed the first time around.
  • Avoid a “laundry list.” “To do” lists will fail to inspire, let alone motivate, staff. As CEO, your job is to set the course, not to steer the ship. Look at the big picture, not the fine print.
  • Start with the end in mind. What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want your college to look 5, 10, 15 years from now? What will your institution feel like? Look like? What will others say about it? On beginning presidencies, we’ve sometimes told stakeholders that in a decade or so, we hope to be at “a much better institution” – our own college after strategic plans are successfully implemented.
“Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.” Although Burnham died in 1912, two years after his famous paper was read, his wisdom rings true almost a century later.
# # #
Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College in West Virginia. He is now in his 19th year as a college president.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Fennell Associates, Higher Education Services. Both serve as consultants to college presidents and boards.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Successful President: Presidential Public Relations

(College Planning and Management, February 2009 - by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell)

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had it right: all politics is local. It follows, then, that successful public relations start at home, right on campus.

That axiom is perhaps obvious in theory, but with most college CEOs spending more than two-thirds of their time on the road, it is extremely difficult to execute. Presidents are increasingly tugged in many different directions by external stakeholders, and if anything, the challenge is becoming greater as all institutions compete for a larger slice of a shrinking pie. When we are away, it is far too easy for faculty and staff to view an absent president as an unproductive leader and when on campus, for CEOs to hole up in their offices, compounding the perception.

In our last article, “The Successful President: A Seamless Transition,” (December 2008), we emphasized the need for presidents, especially new CEOs, to learn and benefit from institutional history, to foster visible relationships with former and current campus leaders and to cultivate internal audiences. The latter may seem impossible when a new president is continually in transit, but it is absolutely vital that campus CEOs learn to be visible, responsive and proactive when on campus, making every second count.

Dr. James L. Fisher, president-emeritus of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (C.A.S.E.) and noted scholar on the board and college presidency, states, “From the presidential platform, the college or university president has the ability to mold public opinion, influence key internal and external constituents, and place the institution as a key to the improvement of society.”

We offer three specific recommendations:
  • Manage internal issues before they become external issues.
  • Manage your time.
  • Manage your identity.
Internal stakeholders are your front line; ignore them at your peril. Properly valued, educated and motivated, they can be your best friends in a crisis, an “early-warning” system as useful as a smoke detector in putting out small blazes while still manageable. Disregard them, and no amount of external goodwill matters.

The value of an engaged on-campus community cannot be overstated. As some CEOs have learned to their lasting regret, small, internal issues have a way of ballooning into huge, external crises when not effectively managed. The fall-out can ruin a promising presidency.

Be seen. Be visible on campus. In their eagerness to promote their colleges, new presidents may miss critical opportunities for visibility on their own campus. “We never see him,” (or her) is a frequent refrain among staff below the Cabinet level at such institutions. At the other end of the spectrum is the new president who is quickly exhausted running hither and yon to every sporting event, every departmental get-together, each student organizational meeting. To reach a happy medium, a former mentor and college president coined the term, “tasteful fly-bys,” referring to his habit of attending as many on-campus events as humanly possible, but not staying for the entire activity. By being neither the first to arrive, nor the last to leave, you will be noticed and visible without burn-out.

Be focused and thoughtful in managing your own identity. In their haste to make their mark off-campus, too many presidents attempt to brand their institution externally before establishing their own personal “brand” internally. For better or worse, presidents are the institution off campus. Donors, media and other opinion-leaders gain their chief impression of the institution from its president. It’s vital, therefore, that you know who you are and how you want to be perceived on campus before becoming overly visible to external stakeholders. Internal and external identities should be complementary and consistent if your leadership is to be perceived as authentic.

Biographers of both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State-designee Hillary Rodham Clinton, note their focus on strategic identity management when first elected to the U.S. Senate. Each spent considerable time deliberately determining how they wanted to present themselves to Senate colleagues, i.e., “as a show horse?” or “as a workhorse” early in their first terms. New presidents would do well to emulate them in this respect.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College in West Virginia. He is now in his 19th year as a college president.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Fennell Associates Higher Education Services. Both serve as consultants to college presidents and boards.