Building a Senior Staff: The Burden of Support

As I prepared to take over my duties as president, I sought the advice of a distinguished senior colleague who had experience outside academia and who was used to managing staff as a successful sitting president.  I inquired about how best to proceed as I prepared to assume the leadership of an institution. His recommendation intrigued me.  My colleague suggested that I seek the resignation letters of each member of the senior staff and place them in a desk drawer until I could make an informed decision about whether they fit into the new team that I would take forward.  When asked if he had done so, the president smiled wearily and said simply, “No, but I wish I had.”

This story illustrates the difficult dilemma faced by presidents as CEO’s when moving into a relationship with inherited staff.  How do you build your team within a culture that the existing senior administrative staff has embraced and protected, and significantly, that may well have defined the senior team more than the team has defined the culture?  What happens in those first months when you are the outsider on your own team?

Admittedly, some – hopefully most – presidents inherit mature staffs whose members understand why you were chosen.  They must recognize the extraordinary expectations that have been placed upon the president, especially by the board of trustees.  And, most staffs are invested in your success.  Yet many on the staff fear change and appreciate that your presence among them signals it for better or worse.  For a few of them, the mantra is always “but we’ve never done it that way.”  The best on the senior staff can be persuaded, however, if you offer a compelling vision and a clear chain of command that is based on a mutual level of respect.  One vice president once told me that senior staff should be empowered with little interference from the president.  In doing so, the vice president confused the principle with the practice. His actions have ramifications for the institution in a system of high transparency and shared governance.   Who other than the president will be there to support the vice president when controversies arise, often behind closed sessions?  What check is in place to protect the vice president from his own mistakes? In the end, the actions by the vice president will have profound ramifications for the president who must defend them publicly and privately.

The dilemma of how best to build a senior staff must focus first on the relationship between the president and the board of trustees.  Like institutional culture, boards have widely different levels of maturity, experience, and understanding. The recent debacles at the University of Virginia and Penn State University make this point painfully clear. In a system of shared governance, there must be clear lines of authority.   Each group must respect lines that they do not cross.  The worst situation is for trustees, many of whom went to school with alumni on the staff, have long standing personal relationships with them, or feel empowered as one-person emissaries to “check out” campus climate, to abuse the privilege of being a board member.  There are structured approaches through which information can and should be gathered by the board through its own leadership team as part of a presidential evaluation. This process must be fair and without agenda.  Yet the danger for an empowered staff member to use board connections, student newspapers, faculty friendships and staff gossip to undermine a president’s action is more common than imagined.  One key responsibility of a board chair is to impose discipline on the board to avoid presidents who otherwise die by a thousand cuts.

It’s probably best, therefore, to begin a presidency with an understanding between the president and the board of trustees about what the term “CEO” means to them.  Is the title of chief executive officer more ceremonial and more like a chief operating officer because the board is as reluctant as any group to share power, influence and authority?  It often turns out that this understanding is more principle than practice among board members despite the best intentions of the search committee, search firm, and accreditors to advocate for best practices.  What remains clear is that boards have a responsibility to craft a climate for success for the new president.  Success begins with all sides understanding the challenges that face them and the terms and conditions that govern their relationships as they meet these challenges.  Presidents must have the courage to lead. Boards must have the confidence to let them do so.  This fact, ultimately, may be the most painful lesson learned at the University of Virginia.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.