Creating Administrative Teams: A Discussion With Community College Presidents
July 2014, Volume 27, Number 7
By Steve Nunez
As community college budgets become tighter and accountability becomes more paramount, community college leaders are faced with some of the toughest challenges ever. At the same time, many of the most experienced leaders in higher education are planning to retire soon, leaving a leadership and experience void in colleges throughout the nation. In fact, some predict that up to 75 percent of community college presidents will retire within the next decade. Certainly, the creation of effective leadership teams that can navigate the difficult waters of leadership turnover, dwindling budgets, and increased accoutability is most critical to the survival of community colleges.
In an effort to understand how community college leaders are dealing with these issues, the author interviewed five community college presidents in the fall of 2013. Most commonly, discussions centered on three facets of leadership: building effective leadership teams; providing leadership training to current team members; and hiring the right people to serve as administrative team members.
Building Effective Teams
The presidents were very concerned with building close-knit, trustworthy, hardworking teams. One said, “Without [effective] relationships, I can’t get anything else done.” He went on to indicate that when academic leaders think they make all of the decisions, it is a “big mistake.” Another said, “You are as good as your executive team.” In order to build effective teams, it’s important to “pay attention to the little things” in fostering those relationships, be accessible to everyone, and be open to others’ views. Building effective relationships is about “listening more and talking less,” which builds trust and team unity. As one president noted, “The most important stuff is people stuff, paper can wait.”
Providing Leadership Training
Providing leadership training and empowering employees is critical to creating and maintaining efficient leadership teams. One president indicated that he works individually with each of his team members to build their leadership skills and expects them to do the same with their own staff members. Therefore, leadership skills are passed down through the ranks. Other presidents host more formal leadership academies. These leadership academies often result in the discovery of new campus leaders, which may lead to their promotion. Other presidents encourage team members to expand their skills, knowledge, and networking by attending conferences and enrolling in graduate programs. Continuous professional development is critical to providing and maintaining leadership momentum.
Hiring the Right People
Certainly, hiring the right people is as important as enhancing the ones already there. In Monday Morning Leadership (2002), author David Cottrell emphasizes that good leaders must hire people who will fit with their leadership style, can articulate their vision, will work efficiently and effectively, and will be life-long learners. Cottrell states that in order to hire the right people, job interviews should be conducted multiple times to determine if the person is the best fit for the organization. Essentially, if an employee is important to the institution, then the hiring process should reflect this importance. Many of the community college presidents who were interviewed reiterated these thoughts in their own way.
The presidents referred to using traditional techniques when hiring a new team member. Standard fare included using hiring committees composed of a wide swath of employee types (i.e., staff, faculty, and administration) to get a broad perspective on which candidate fits best with the institution. Conducting deep reference checks was another. However, the outliers proved to be more interesting than the norm.
One president uses a lengthy interview process to evaluate candidates for his administrative team. The process includes a full day of on-campus interviews where the potential employee meets with the president, his leadership team, and others at the college, including faculty and staff. He concludes the interview process by taking each candidate out to dinner to observe interactions with other team members in a more social, less structured situation. Seeing candidates in a casual setting can be as enlightening as a formal interview, he said. Is the person collegial? Is the person polite to the wait staff? Is the person curious? Can this person fit in with the rest of the team? After the president has evaluated each candidate closely and has gathered feedback from others, he makes his choice about whom to hire. Cottrell (2002) believes that hiring the right people is one of the most important jobs of leaders and that the process should be laborious in order to find the right fit. This president is a clear practitioner of that creed.
One president believes that a potential new team member must have an excellent understanding of the community college mission before he or she is hired. She is, therefore, clearly focused on finding not only the right skill set in the new team member, but also the right values. She builds teams and hires people by “looking for the values of the heart, looking for people who are compassionate, not here to equip their ego or résumé ,and [who] know that we are here to equip our students for life.” Certainly these attributes are needed traits of a community college leader who deals with students where they are and understands the transformative role of a community college.
Other presidents were more focused on professional and cultural diversity. Teams should be a combination of new people, hired from outside the organization, and those who are promoted from within. Hiring from outside the organization is risky because, “if you don’t learn the culture [of an organization quickly], you can’t get things done,” but “new blood” brings fresh ideas and energy to an organization. Also of importance is hiring culturally diverse team members, as this creates cultural competence. “You may not be a member of an underrepresented group, but you need to work with, appreciate, and not just tolerate the diversity of the community,” said one president. The combination of mixing new and old blood and cultural diversity can create a unique melting pot that helps an institution respond more effectively to changing conditions.
Another president, who expects his leadership team to be very action oriented, said he hires individuals who are “players.” He is looking for people who are decision makers and people of action and participation. Interview questions center on major decisions that they have made professionally. He also asks a number of questions about what activities, outside their main duties, they been involved in. Have they been involved in community outreach, strategic planning, or hiring other employees? He wants an individual who gets outside of his or her comfort zone, works within the institution as a whole, and can operate outside traditional silos. This would be especially true for team members working in small colleges where they are often required to wear many hats. These make the best leaders because they are willing to “get things done.”
Community college presidents find administrative team building to be their most important responsibility. However, building a quality team is a twofold process. First, leaders already on campus must have regular leadership training and professional development. Second, vacancies in the organization must be filled with the highest quality individuals who fit with the personality and leadership style of the president and the culture of the institution. Building these effective teams should help community colleges navigate the difficult waters ahead.
Cottrell, D. (2002). Monday morning leadership: 8 mentoring sessions you can't afford to miss. Dallas, TX: Cornerstone Leadership Institute.
Steve Nunez is Dean of Instructional Research and Planning at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Illinois.