Hit the Ground Running

By John D. Simon and Brad Eric Scheler    //    Volume 24,  Number 4   //    July/August 2016

The transition to and first year of a presidency are very much like a honeymoon. Still in the midst of that time on the three campuses of Lehigh University, we thought it might be beneficial to share our expectations and perspectives about our transition journey. Other presidents and boards might find our experience instructive. With the benefit of halo and glow, the new leader must learn about the institution, consider opportunities, assess priorities, and determine how to be most effective working within the framework of the institution’s culture. Board members are getting to know better the new leader and his (in this case) preferred style of working; are further articulating their aspirations for the institution; and are relaying, both explicitly and implicitly, the large and small of what they believe to be most critical to the success of the institution.

All stakeholders—undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, senior leadership, administration, staff, alumni, and more—are observing and listening with rapt attention. Every action and utterance of the new leader is scrutinized and analyzed for what it might mean for the direction of the institution. Every decision brings with it heightened awareness and import. It is a time of great excitement against a backdrop of hope.

Putting the Honeymoon to Best Advantage

John D. Simon: Colleagues and friends old and new advised me to embark straightaway on a “listening tour,” allowing an opportunity for different views to be heard and giving a wide range of people the chance to help shape a soonto- emerge agenda. After consultation with Brad as board chair, I made a conscious decision to forgo the customary whistle stop tour—or at least to rethink it. Listening to constituents, learning the culture, and assessing strengths and weaknesses are important, but I thought it better to first make substantial use of social media and technology to learn the “Lehigh stories” of students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Brad Eric Scheler: During the search process, uppermost in mind for the board was the need for our next president to be decisive; to be comfortable with the everevolving and fast pace of higher education; and to be possessed of the skill sets to consider, organize, and implement change in the immediate term. The challenges facing all institutions of higher education are daunting. Our list included providing access to students of all income levels; engaging in research that improves our nation and the world at a time when funding and public support for that research is tenuous; addressing pressing national and campus issues of diversity and inclusion; attracting the scholars and researchers who as our faculty will develop our future leaders; and employing technological advances that are fundamentally altering aspects of teaching and learning. We wanted a leader well-versed in these challenges who could quickly develop strategies to address them; view each challenge as an opportunity; and then, in concert with the board, work to implement both immediate and long-term change and innovation.

John: Given today’s competitive environment and the rapid pace of change, the honeymoon period no longer provides time to pause and take respite. The pressure and, indeed, the necessity to make decisions and take action do not abate during a leadership transition. Within an organization, momentum can slow or even stop while people wait for the new agenda to emerge. No one wants to spend time and energy on something that may be deemed less-than-important by the new president, or on something they believe may not be afforded the necessary support and resources. Precious time can be spent lobbying the leader for this or that project—and waiting for direction. I’ve experienced some of that, inevitably, but far less than expected.

Brad: The members of the board knew well that there is always a steep learning curve in a leadership transition. John and I agreed that the university would be best served if we worked to compress that as much as possible. John accepted our offer to become our 14th president late in the fall of 2014 with a July 1, 2015, start date. We embraced with vigor and viewed as a great benefit this lengthy preinauguration window. Before his first official day on the job last July, John had already spent a great deal of time with the board, members of senior leadership, and others. John had visited campus regularly—never fewer than a handful of days each month. Well before the official start of his honeymoon, John was ready to hit the ground running.

John: I mentioned social media as an effective orientation tool for me as a new leader. As part of a digital onboarding process, we asked members of the Lehigh community to “tell a story” about an experience they would like heard by the new president. We videotaped these stories, posted them on our website, and emailed them to various constituencies. The results were heartfelt, moving, and inspiring. The passion and commitment people have for the institution and our mission shone through, and I believe people felt and appreciated that they were being heard. It provided me with a sense of the character and culture of our university. It did not replace the many face-to-face meetings that also occurred, but it allowed a broad cross-section of people to have a voice in an interesting and extremely informative way. It also informed my conversations with alumni. I invested time and resources in a 10-city tour to engage with thousands of alumni and connected— and in some cases reconnected— with people whose lives have been shaped by their experience with Lehigh.

Brad: Lehigh alumni are deeply invested in “their” university. It was important to provide them an early opportunity to meet, hear from, and get to know John. The 10 events, along with associated individual and group meetings John undertook while on the road, taken together, reached only a fraction of our 80,000 alumni. Publications, videos on our website, email, other communications, and John’s wonderful use of social media were and are central to his outreach. John has been ubiquitous within the Lehigh community.

John: I agree with Brad on that. Social media, and Instagram in particular, was very effective. Instagram, which has worked very well for me, has allowed me to connect with people in an interesting and accessible way. By posting photos of events, travel, and interactions with students, staff, faculty, alumni, and the neighboring community, we were able to capture the breadth and intensity of my working life with both seriousness and humor. It is also a vehicle by which I can let the Lehigh family know more about what I like to do as a person, giving them a sense of who I am and what I value.

Time for Action

Brad: Just as we used well the window between John’s acceptance and his official start date, the board viewed the one-year interim between presidencies as a valuable opportunity for the university to build on and accelerate the extraordinary momentum already underway. We did not want the interim presidency to be a rest or a lame duck period. We preserved and perpetuated the work of our senior leadership team and challenged all senior leadership members along with our interim president (and now-again trustee) Kevin Clayton to work with the board to focus and accelerate our efforts in anticipation of John’s arrival. Our senior leadership team focused on three cornerstone projects to be launched before, or ready to be launched by, John’s arrival. Our board and senior leadership team also embarked on searches for several senior leadership positions that were turning over.

John: For me, this required quickly building relationships with board members and developing a framework for working together on bold initiatives that demand vision and may entail risk. Board members tend to be very accustomed to dealing with highly complex dynamics in their professional lives, and leveraging their hard-won wisdom and expertise on behalf of the university is an incalculable asset. Brad and I were unequivocal in our view and determination to have our colleagues move boldly and with speed and determination. To accomplish our goals and to enlist the resources that our board brings with it, we engaged in regular one-on-one conversations with trustees and senior leadership and increased the number and frequency of meetings of the executive committee.

Brad: As John and his team worked to flesh out the details of the deployment of capital and resources, together we presented the case to the board for major investment in the institution. The time, effort, and energy required to provide a detailed, cogent, and compelling case for why such an investment was critical to the university’s future was enormous and essential. The open, candid, and robust exchange of views and perspectives in our boardroom was a cornerstone of our leadership transition and was of extraordinary benefit to the university as a whole and to all debate and discussion participants.

John: In October, as I delivered my remarks during my formal installation, I announced the approval by the board of a $250 million commitment in advance of and independent of our next capital campaign. This commitment enables the university to immediately plan and implement strategies related to our facilities and infrastructure, faculty recruitment, global presence, interdisciplinary initiatives, and student experience. This momentum will set the course for Lehigh for the next 10 years. As with any bold move, it is inevitable that some may harbor uncertainty and reservations. For my part, I both thank and commend our board for looking to the future and for having the resolve and confidence to embrace change.

Lessons Learned

1. Trust Trumps Everything

Brad: A norm is for trust and the bond between new president and board to cure and strengthen with time. Confident, indeed certain, that our selection of John was ideal, we determined to use that as a springboard to launch and invest. A hallmark of Lehigh has been the ability to change with the needs of society while maintaining our core values and vision. That John has embraced and championed these values and goals and has made them his own, made our commitment of resources and support of John not a leap of faith, but instead the culmination of utmost trust in our new leader.

John: There are a couple of elements I believe essential to building this trust. Time is one. A president and trustees, particularly the chair, need to invest the time it takes to get to know one another, to understand the way each thinks about problems, to develop a workable relationship, and to feel comfortable addressing uncomfortable topics. It may sound obvious, but it is a significant commitment. The second is what I would call a kind of vulnerability. This means a willingness on my part to admit I don’t have all the answers, to present the real picture as I see it, and to ask for and accept advice. From board members, in turn, I ask and hope for a fair hearing and a willingness to refrain from “governance by anecdote.” A single, highly dramatic, and compelling story can get people’s attention and be memorable, but it may not accurately reflect the true situation.

Brad: Central to the relationship between trustees and president is a keen understanding of and commitment to these different roles. A president and his senior leadership team run the day-to-day operations of the institution and manage its affairs. Board members serve as resources to and guides for the president and the president’s senior leadership team while fulfilling their duties to care for, preserve, and protect the institution. Working in tandem, while keeping these distinctions uppermost in mind, is essential to the relationship between president and board.

2. Communication Is Key

John: To make significant progress in the first few months of my presidency, strong and regular communication between the board and me was essential. For me, this is an investment of time and energy during a period when there is tremendous demand from multiple stakeholders. I’ve spent time meeting with board members individually. I have also initiated a periodic letter to them, and it is not a newsletter. My goal with this communication is to keep us focused on strategy, explain where we are on implementation, and provide insights into the impact of our actions. I want it to be a reflection of me and of my leadership team’s thinking, and it need not—and should not—be all good news. As we embark on significant institutional change, the communication of both the good and the bad is what will enable us to arrive at the best end point.

Brad: In our oversight role, it is essential and mandatory that the members of the board be fully informed and kept up to date. The board should never be blindsided. In addition to our work on and contributions to strategy and planning, board members must be confident that problems are being identified, addressed, and reported on as they arise. Our meetings are regular and frequent, but we serve as caretakers 365 days a year. We want and need full and complete information. Our board members bring to the university a variety of experiences and expertise, as well as commitment and resources to ensure the best and strongest of working partnerships. Communication is essential to achieve this.

John: I think that is an important point, and one that a president and the leadership can underestimate. The senior officers of the university often feel we have things under control, and it can be easy for us to discount and lose sight of the importance of the duties and responsibilities of the board to ensure the long-term health and well-being of the institution. With any new administration also comes a change in positions on the senior leadership team. We are no exception, and I worry about finding the right people to fulfill our aspirations. Likewise, board member are correct to expect that I will do all to ensure that an effective team is in place, one that understands institutional culture and is able to work effectively to achieve our goals and aspirations.

3. Focus on Governance

Brad: Institutions with rich histories have long-standing practices that serve them well. A leadership transition, however, can provide the opportunity to look with fresh eyes on our practices and assess whether they still serve their purpose. By way of example, working with John, we expanded the number and frequency of meetings of our 10-member executive committee from three to six times per year. In addition, as needed, we have made it a practice to invite other trustees to these meetings if their role on the board intersects with the topics being discussed. This is allowing for a deeper, richer discussion and more continuity, but it is also asking more of our board members. We work through and with John and his team but never see ourselves as part of day-to-day management. When John took the reins of leadership, we redoubled our efforts to adhere to the bright line between oversight and micromanagement. Done well and done consistently, this is the most elegant and important of balances.

John: I do focus with care and concern on the gray area between oversight and micromanagement. I am certain that by ensuring that our board is fully informed about the challenges and opportunities at the university, together we will secure best practices and best governance. Micromanaging is a byproduct of angst driven by lack of full and complete information. Governance issues are also broader than the relationship between the president and senior leadership and trustees. Faculty governance is influenced by board policies and practices, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. At Lehigh, all changes to the faculty’s rules and procedures must be approved by the board. This brings our faculty and trustees into conversation about the inner workings of the academic enterprise, and in doing so, one has to be careful to understand and respect the role of senior academic leadership in these discussions, as well.

4. Be a Model for the Organization

Brad: It is the norm for every action of a president and a board to be scrutinized, particularly during a leadership transition. The communications and signals that trustees send to the institution during this period are critically important to continuing momentum and to organizational effectiveness. We have sustained and furthered all via a well-planned and well-considered passing of the baton from our 13th president to our interim and then to John. Given the time it takes to identify a new president, we knew we would need an interim. We were fortunate that a trustee served in that role for one year, providing a natural bridge between the previous president and the new one. Continuity and organizational stability were key.

John: I have been the beneficiary of having been preceded by an interim president who had been and is now again a member of our board. At the end of his interim term, Kevin brought back to the boardroom enhanced insights into how the institution works, some of which he found surprising, some frustrating. Kevin learned firsthand that the need to spend time gaining support for initiatives, the expectation that the campus community be kept apprised of issues, and the consensus- driven approach to addressing problems were all slightly different from his business experience. However, his signaling of support and respect for the people and the work they were doing was not missed by our university community. Coupled with highly effective leadership by the provost, the senior leadership team, and key members of the faculty and staff, I came into a situation that was healthy and knew a strong foundation for action was already in place.

Ours has been a honeymoon that has combined the best of innovation and tradition. The openness to new ideas and new ways of thinking; the excitement and intellectual stimulation of joining a new institution and learning from smart, accomplished, and committed board members; the optimism and sense of possibility for the institution; the laser focus on listening and learning; the awareness of the importance of decision-making processes that engender trust and confidence—these are all elements we want to keep foremost in our minds as we take on the challenges and the joys of leadership.

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