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Want to Be a Better Leader? Learn to Manage Change

By AACC Staff

To succeed in a fast-paced environment, community college presidents must stay nimble and become good listeners.

One of the most difficult challenges for community college leaders is finding ways to adjust to changes that occur off campus — the budget, the economy, shifting employment and job-training needs. The list goes on.

How to succeed in a climate of seamlessly endless change was just one of the topics discussed last week by current and aspiring community college leaders at the American Association of Community Colleges John E. Roueche Future Leaders Institute (FLI) in Washington, D.C.

In advance of FLI, Community College Daily reporter Ellie Ashford talked with community college presidents as part of an occasional series about the challenges of leadership. What follows is an excerpt from that series.

“Every president I’ve ever talked to is facing a rapidly changing environment in higher education,” says Stephen Schoonmaker, president of the College of the Ouachitas (COTO) in Arkansas.

“The needs of our communities, our employers, our businesses and industries are more fluid, and the pace is quite fast,” Schoonmaker says. ”The beauty of community colleges is that we’re nimble. But it still takes time.”

The beauty of community colleges is that we’re nimble. But it still takes time.

Community college presidents can best respond to the changing climate by being good listeners, learning what skill sets business and industry needs, and bringing those skill sets into the classroom, he says.

“Change is happening whether we want it or not,” adds Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in Wyoming. He says much of it stems from the pressure to increase completion rates and all the related issues, such as how to allocate limited resources and how to measure a college’s performance.

“How we navigate that changing climate is incredibly complex,” he says.

Taking chances

Schaffer, who spoke to participants at last week’s FLI about the challenges of managing change, recalls his time at the institute as an invaluable step in learning to be an effective CEO and having the opportunity to get to know other community college leaders.

Change management is especially challenging in the context of the diffuse decision-making style that’s taken hold in higher education, he says. When everyone has a say in governance issues, “you tend to land on the status quo whether you want to or not.” To move beyond the status quo, “a president needs to make difficult decisions that not everyone will support,” Schaffer says.

“You have to be willing to go through some difficult times to achieve improvements. That’s where calculated risk comes in,” he says. “What are the things you’re willing to lose your job over? Those are the things to work on.”

Research showed that a mandatory freshman success class would be a worthwhile investment, so that’s being implemented at LCCC despite some concerns from faculty. Adding a three-credit course means the college will have to cut credits elsewhere, but he believes it will pay off in higher success rates.

LCCC is also adopting recommendations from Complete College America that call for more coherent, structured instructional programs with fewer electives with the goal of ensuring more students stay on track to graduation.

“Making that decision may lose us some immediate political capital with the faculty,” Schaffer says, “but you have to hope they will see the benefit later when more students persist.”

A long-term commitment

Managing change is especially challenging in higher education.

“Higher education is a complex animal for a variety of reasons. Community colleges have long been focused on access,” Schaffer says. “We’ve left it up to students to figure out what we wanted them to learn. Changing that mindset is like turning around an aircraft carrier.”

Another challenge comes from an increase in federal requirements. “We’re not producing widgets. We’re talking about trying to change human behavior,” he says. “Actually being able to measure how effective you are in changing human behavior is incredibly complex.”

We’re not producing widgets. We’re talking about trying to change human behavior.

Responding to these issues can’t happen overnight — or in three or four years. That’s why Schaffer urges his colleagues to “buck the trend of the revolving-door presidency.”

Presidents need to stay in one place long enough to accomplish real change, he says. “We know what needs to be done. We have the research. Leaders need to think about how much they’re willing to push to get it done.”

Despite the challenges of being a community college president in today’s environment, he says, “There are very few occupations in today’s world that bring a greater value to society. Community colleges are a good place to be.”

For more leadership advice, read the full article.

AACC Staff

contributed to this report.

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