A “Grow Your Own” Strategy to Develop Administrative Leadership

By Leo M. Lambert    //    Volume 23,  Number 2   //    March/April 2015

The stories are legion. Institutional progress is slowed or halted when a presidential or provost appointment does not succeed or a dean turns out to be a cultural mismatch with a school or college within the university, negatively impacting faculty morale, accreditation, fundraising, and much more. The consequences of success or failure of these appointments for the institution are serious and can be expensive and public. Further, they can erode confidence in the institution’s governance and in the board’s decision-making abilities, upping the ante for all concerned.

Hiring effective administrative talent in higher education is essential work for presidents and other members of the senior leadership team. The normal course of action is to conduct a national search for these positions, sometimes with the assistance of a search firm. But 10 years ago, it occurred to me that many young, tenured faculty members at my institution at the associate professor level showed great promise for institutional leadership. Having long believed that we in higher education could do a better job of intentionally cultivating academic and administrative leadership, I created the Faculty Administrative Fellows program at Elon University.

The concept is simple: Fellows join my senior staff for a two-year, 12-month appointment to participate in all aspects of seniorlevel administrative deliberations and decision making and take on a demanding project of institutional significance. On top of these responsibilities, fellows teach a reduced load and continue their scholarly pursuits. We strongly encourage fellows to come into the program with a plan to maintain progress towards promotion to full professor; all who have subsequently applied for promotion have been successful. The implementation of the program has had minimal budget impact, with the gains far outweighing the costs. Fellows participate in the day-to-day work of the senior leadership team, from the routine (how can the first-year student move-in experience be improved for next year?) to managing crises (such as responding to an incident of racial bias on campus) to long-range strategic planning for the university. They have significant interactions with university trustees, attending meetings and retreats and working on ad hoc committees and projects; develop deep relationships with vice presidents and other senior staff from across the university; and take on the visible role of a senior staff member.

Testing Their Skills

The institutional projects that fellows take on test their organizational and leadership skills, as well as their ability to lead important works with a high degree of independence and deliver results. They must conceive of a set of conceptual, strategic goals, and yet understand that the small details of implementation will speak volumes about the quality of their initiative.

Past fellows’ projects have included working with the executive vice president and the vice-chair of the board of trustees in leading an all-university strategic planning process; assisting with the establishment of a new school of law; building a college access and success program (the Elon Academy) from the ground up; and taking on the difficult and complex work of coordinating, integrating, and strengthening the institution’s many efforts related to global engagement and inclusion. Another fellow took a more scholarly approach, studying which aspects of the undergraduate experience were most transformative for students, leading to the publication of a book.

Each project took advantage of the fellows’ natural skill sets and passions but required that they develop additional skills and experiences, as well. As just one lighthearted example, Deborah Long, founding director of the Elon Academy and now interim dean of the school of education, reported she had such an aversion to fundraising that she would routinely buy all of her daughter’s Girl Scout cookies. Today, she has raised millions of operating and endowment dollars for a cause—college access—about which she is passionate.

The fellows share some common characteristics. They all have possessed excellent “soft skills” (effective communication, good listening, and a willingness to join a senior staff that is teamoriented). Many had been leaders on the faculty’s Academic Council and demonstrated interest in universitywide matters and governance, holding the trust and respect of their faculty and staff colleagues. All have possessed the confidence to ask difficult questions, to argue against assumptions held to be true by institutional leadership, and to adapt their own viewpoints over time as they have gained more knowledge and institution-wide experience and perspective.

What Are the Benefits?

I believe the presence of faculty administrative fellows on an administrative team encourages senior team members to be more reflective, to pause in the midst of decision making, and to reexamine some fundamentals in the process of providing context and background to a relatively new colleague. These pauses may slow us down a bit, but in a constructive, thoughtful way. Fellows draw out vice presidents’ mentoring capacities with questions about endowments, board bylaws, or potential faculty concerns, and such conversations have influenced our work, in and out of meetings.

Fellows also bring a unique point of view to the table. They understand university culture, having lived in it for years, but their vantage point complements mine and helps me understand my institution better. Fellows are active in the classroom, well connected to students and faculty and staff colleagues, and introduce novel insights into every conversation. They have brought diversity to my team: Five of the seven fellows so far are women and two are African American, and there has sometimes (but not always) been a generation of age difference between fellows and the older members of my team. Senior leadership teams are refreshed by the dynamics of new ideas and challenges to established ways of thinking and doing.

Of course, faculty administrative fellows bring additional capacity to the table and have helped launch important new projects and initiatives quickly and well. Collectively, they have added administrative depth to the university while preparing for senior leadership work.

The Elon Board of Trustees asks regularly about succession planning and administrative backup should a vice-presidentor I unexpectedly leave or become incapacitated. Two former fellows have been successful candidates in internal searches for associate provost positions, both bringing important university-wide experience to their newly earned roles in academic affairs administration. Either could step into an interim provost role, and the university would be in extremely capable hands. Two other former fellows have taken on interim leadership roles on campus, proving themselves enormously competent in the breach as we consider how to best advance a successful search process.

I would not want readers to conclude that I am in any way suggesting that administrative talent should only be cultivated from within the institution. At Elon, in tandem with the contributions of the faculty administrative fellows, we have selected critical senior leaders from talented external hires who have provided valued and distinct experiences, talents, and expertise. But especially when a stable, experienced administrative team is in place, colleges and universities have the rewarding opportunity to cultivate administrative leadership among existing campus faculty members who already possess deep cultural knowledge of the institution and its many constituents, as well as an understanding of its most closely held values, ambitions, and strategic goals.

In addition to sending an important message about advancement opportunities within the institution, leaders developed from within can energize and renew a presidential cabinet and convey to the broader campus that fresh vision and viewpoints, as well as shared governance, are welcomed at senior decision-making levels.

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