According to the membership database of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), there have been nearly 600 reported presidential transitions in the past three fiscal years. Transitions are defined as retirements, terminations, or sitting presidents applying for and assuming new CEO positions at colleges. In addition to transition at the CEO-level, colleges are experiencing transitions of vice presidents, deans, and senior faculty members. This crisis in leadership was predicted more than a decade ago. Those of us engaged in leadership development work watched and waited, and boom — it finally happened. None of us could have predicted the ramifications this loss of institutional knowledge and professional expertise would have on our institutions, especially those that are laser-focused on student success.
Due to the speed at which leadership changes are taking place at our colleges, many inbound CEOs are coming into their roles without the necessary skills and knowledge to “hit the ground leading.”
Traditionally, emerging leaders worked for a number of years, gradually ascending into higher-level positions, each marked by increased responsibility. This trajectory allowed them to acquire and refine necessary competencies. Today, in many cases, individuals are transitioning from chair to dean to vice president to president in as few as five years, which arguably is too fast to master the level of leadership needed for a successful presidency. In some cases, nontraditional candidates with business backgrounds are being tapped as college CEOs, but many of these individuals have not received the requisite professional development needed to prepare them for the organizational complexities of the community college. Business practices have validity, but are not the same as educational practices; K-12 is not the same as postsecondary. Each job has unique challenges and requires different levels of preparedness.
The guide, AACC Competencies for Community College Leaders, is a collection of critical competencies that all community college leaders must have to be successful. If institutional transformation is to take place, new leaders must be developed rapidly and curriculum for leadership programs must be accurately aligned to current and future needs.
In 2012, AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus hosted the first in what has become an annual dialogue with new college presidents during the AACC convention to discuss ways that the association might better support leaders in their roles. Across the board, these presidents said there were challenges and issues that they would have liked to know more about prior to having assumed their presidencies. Among them:
- How to work with the college’s chief financial officer
- How to move the college from ritual directions to strategic directions
- Media relations — crisis management
- Developing effective business and industry relations
- How to tie planning to budgets
- Understanding financial aid and the impact of cohort default rates
- Understanding what the institution’s general counsel does
- How to use social media
- It is important to understand how to effectively delegate responsibilities across the institution
- How to build a team
- How to analyze data
- How to finance facilities
The list reflects responses received in each of the program’s three years. Some of these comments were surprising; others were expected. One president said, “We don’t know what we don’t know, until we get into the job.” Each day brings its share of uncertainty. That’s why it’s important for associations, graduate programs and other professional organizations to provide leadership development programs and courses that offer real-life simulations of organizational situations — so that leaders can learn by doing in a safe and supportive educational environment.
Everyone doesn’t know everything. Acknowledging competency deficits allows those of us in the business of providing leadership development to customize programs and services and strengthen the skills of those in need.
To help new presidents achieve higher levels of confidence and competency, AACC recently added two new programs to its Leadership Suite (High Performance Team, or HPT, training and Executive Leadership Coaching).
HPT was established to support community college teams interested in improving professional performance. The program features a progression that focuses on the individual first, then the team, followed by the institution. Teams leave the training having made commitments to achieve certain professional or institutional goals. AACC and its coaches monitor and track their progress. HPT training is made possible through a generous grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education.
The Executive Leadership Coaching program conducts confidential conversations with participating senior leaders to determine their goals, including facing down organizational challenges. The information collected during these confidential interviews is used to help the leader choose a personal coach, who works alongside the college leadership team, providing guidance and advice to maneuver organizational complexities, from strategy to human resources to community relations to advancing the goals and mission of the college.
You can learn more about AACC’s Leadership Suite, including the recently launched HPT training and Executive Leadership Coaching programs, by visiting us online.