What I Wish I Had Known About Being a Community College President
December 2013, Volume 26, Number 12
By Lori Sundberg
In the next 10 years, the community college sector will witness a significant exodus of seasoned community college presidents through retirements. In the aftermath, there will be a great need for senior leaders to step up to the challenge of a presidency. As a current sitting president, I can honestly say there are few greater privileges than serving one of our nation’s community colleges. Community colleges have a power and a reach that is unparalleled in their ability to serve America’s higher education needs. However, while the position carries many benefits and rewards, the life of a community college president today is challenging, and while we tend to develop the technical skills and expertise through leadership training, other aspects of the role need to be considered.
When I assumed the leadership of my community college, I felt prepared. I had been a vice president for several years, had participated in leadership programs, and had served as the acting president when the president was away. I was ready. And technically, I was. However, when the day arrived and I moved into the big office, life changed in many ways: some I expected, but some were unexpected. Recently, I compiled some thoughts about what I wish I had known about being a community college president before I accepted the position. As I look back now, I’m confident this knowledge wouldn’t have changed my mind, but these pieces of information would have provided some comfort in those early days as I was finding my way.
Regardless of the level of position occupied prior to being a president, assuming the presidency carries a level of stress and weight that is difficult to describe except to say it felt like an enormously heavy burden had settled on my shoulders. I never felt the proverbial saying that the buck stops with the president more strongly than in those early days as a new CEO. I experienced an unmistakable shift in my consciousness as soon as I took over. Given the challenges facing society today with mental illness and violence on campuses, being responsible for the safety and lives of students and employees carries a burden. I noticed a very subtle switch from my position no longer being a job to which I was incredibly devoted, but a much larger commitment that carries far greater weight and responsibility. I was now responsible for people’s lives. The realization came as a bit of a shock, but more importantly to me was my reaction to it: I was unprepared to feel so encumbered.
Couple this feeling with the expected day-to-day stresses of difficult decisions and choices, and it can turn quickly into a pressure cooker. This was much more than I anticipated, and I believe it results from the combination of the overall commitment and the day-to-day activities of the job. I didn’t address my personal stress until well into my second year, but my advice is to address stress early and find ways to manage it. Establishing and maintaining balance and outside interests are essential to finding and sustaining equilibrium. As I write this, however, I know that nothing is more difficult to do. Today’s community colleges have more events than a single president can possibly attend, and there are demands for participation at community functions as well. Although I had heard this many times before, I really had no way of fully comprehending the significance of these commitments until I was embroiled in the situation myself. By then, it sometimes seemed a bit late. I’ve learned that it is essential to take this aspect of the presidency seriously.
If I am honest with myself, I will admit to having days of significant doubts early on. Doubts that I could do the job; doubts that decisions I had made were good ones; doubts that decisions I would make in the future would be sound ones. In my early days as a president, I seriously contemplated that maybe I was just a really good second in command, but not the person who should be at the helm. These feelings really surprised me. I knew my institution and my communities well. I shared these thoughts with my spouse and our subsequent conversation is one that I will share. A president who contemplates whether he or she is an effective leader or the right person for the job is exhibiting exactly the right qualities of a good leader today. Let me be clear: Good leadership is not blind hubris. It is not fake-it-until-you-make-it. Good leadership today demands thoughtfulness, integrity, and a genuine care for the institution and its students and employees. Routinely questioning motives and decisions demonstrates that the ability to be reflective and the desire to grow are important. My observation is that people would rather be led by someone who is thoughtful and authentic than someone who thinks she or he has it all figured out. Doubts reflect uncertainty, and we inherently dislike feeling uncertain. However, it is essential that from time to time a president takes stock of both self and situation. It is uncomfortable, but I’ve learned that holding one of these jobs requires getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Lonely at the Top
The old adage that it is lonely at the top never felt more true than when I became the CEO. I was an internal candidate and had developed many good, strong relationships on campus in the more than 15 years I worked at my institution. The day I became the president, my relationships changed, some in very subtle ways and others in more substantial ways. When friends and colleagues came to my new office, they were just a bit less comfortable than they had been in my former office. For a while I changed the office furniture almost weekly, trying to get the right feel and thinking it must be the seating arrangements. Surely the feng shui was just off. However, the stark reality is that the president’s office carries unmistakable voltage that cannot be minimized. It intimidates people, a surprising number of whom, when entering the president’s office for a meeting, feel like they’ve been called to the principal’s office.
The power of the office changes interpersonal dynamics, and while inevitable, these changes can be unsettling. The losses can be difficult, and they must be addressed. I was surprised , in some cases, that my relationships changed as dramatically as they did. Perhaps I was naïve. After all, as president, I was now the new supervisor for many of my former colleagues. This dynamic simply cannot be ignored. The reality is relationships will change.
I’ve found that a good way to deal with this issue is to develop friendships and networks with colleagues from other institutions. These relationships have become invaluable as I move through my presidency. Prior to becoming president, I didn’t see much need to build networks, but membership in organizations such as AACC and the League has been a lifesaver. I have developed friendships with other presidents from my state and across the country who have become trusted colleagues to turn to for needed advice.
In the community, my family discovered boundaries they didn’t have before. Spouses or life partners will have opinions or views that differ from the president. Life will change for them as well. People now listen more carefully to what is said by the president and by the president’s spouse or partner. This means in terms of politics, business, and involvement in the community, the spouse will need to be more guarded in affiliations and conversations. It’s not fair, but it is the way it is.
Living in a smaller community, in particular, my personal life became very public. This was never more evident to me than early in my presidency when I was in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store and I heard someone whisper, “She is the new president at Carl Sandburg College.” I looked up and was mortified. There I was in my shorts and flip flops, looking, most decidedly, not presidential. The reality is, I can no longer run to the grocery store on a 95-degree day still dressed in clothes I’ve worn while working in the garden. People recognize me even though I may not know them; the president represents the college—always. Regardless of the task, glamorous or not, that I’m performing, people are watching and paying attention. The president needs to pay equal attention. I knew about life in the fishbowl, but somehow thought it applied to my public role. In smaller communities, it applies 24/7 and it will change almost overnight.
Rewards of the Presidency
I have spent a good deal of time talking about issues that I was unprepared for, and there is one more: the rewards. I couldn’t possibly have appreciated on that first day the rewards that I would feel as a president. There are few things that compare to the rush I get from commencement, my favorite college event. I love seeing our students and their families enjoying the milestone the students have reached. Many of our students are the first in their family to attend college, so the commencement ceremony has special meaning.
Other times, much smaller in scope, give me enormous pleasure as well as a true sense of accomplishment. For instance, when I watch members of our faculty senate laugh and joke with each other, me, and the cabinet officers, a mutual respect that has been earned on both sides is revealed. The interactions also signify that we are a team that can depend on and support each other during the good times and during the times that challenge us. I could give many other examples that remind me of the great privilege I have serving as a community college president, but suffice it to say, it’s a tremendous honor that does not get old.
Community colleges have never enjoyed the national spotlight like they do today. Finally, our time has come to shine. We are poised to do some of our best work yet, and in the next five to ten years, we will need a whole new crop of presidents to lead the way. There is no greater honor than to serve as a community college president, but there are some aspects of the job that may come as a surprise. It seems many times we focus our efforts on getting the job, but that is the easy part. Keeping the job, and better yet, excelling at the job, is more difficult. I believe shedding some light on areas that are important to consider before accepting the job can help aspiring presidents. The decision to become a community college president is one that should be given its due diligence; candidates should carefully consider all aspects. On the flip side, I can guarantee that there will be few opportunities in life that give greater rewards.