In previous columns, intended particularly for women contemplating a college or university presidency, I’ve written about examining your own appetite and aptitude for this role, and the benefits of learning more about modes of leadership both within and beyond the academy. I’ve also explored the need to deepen your knowledge base through research on American higher education in general and your (current or aspirational) institution in particular, as well as to consciously note (and evaluate) the leadership choices you encounter in everyday life.
Let’s assume that you’re now ready to move from preparation to action. How do you get the opportunity, the break, to move farther along your own leadership path? My suggestion: create your own job.
I vividly recall when I first encountered such a possibility. It happened when I was serving as assistant to the president of a university. The president often invited me to sit in on his meetings. Sometimes it was so that I could do follow-up on the meeting; sometimes it was just a great learning experience. On this occasion, a colleague on the business side of the institution came to present the president with a proposal. His idea was to create an entirely new office, which he was also proposing to lead. The president discussed it with him and indicated he would read and consider the proposal. A few days later, the president gave the go-ahead to create the new entity. That office still exists and performs an important function for the university. And its original proposer still leads it.
I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, that guy just created his own job!” It would never have occurred to me to attempt that. And I venture to guess that, in fact, fewer women than men would be initially disposed to take that kind of initiative. Once exposed to it, however, I’ve done it many times in my career.
There are two aspects to carrying out this create-a-role strategy successfully. One, your proposal must meet a real need. Two, you must have the skills -- or be reasonably able to acquire them -- to carry it out successfully. In the case of the fellow I just discussed, those two criteria were met: changing times called for a new office the university had not yet created, and the proposer was eminently qualified to design and lead it (as witness, his continuing role there today, decades later).
Is There a Need?
Every college or university has unmet needs: studies, actions, structures and processes that would enable it to fulfill its mission more successfully but that no one has been charged to carry out. Note especially that last phrase: “that no one has been charged to carry out.” Do not become entangled in turf issues. If Dean Q sees this as her responsibility -- even if you know that she’s not delivering and/or you could do it much better -- do not propose moving onto this turf, unless (unlikely) Dean Q should say to you, “Could you please take this off my hands? I’d be so grateful!” Even then, proceed with caution.
This caveat is typically not a problem. Many initiatives could add value to the institution, so identifying one far from someone else’s purview is usually not hard.
A second consideration about the create-a-role strategy: Why does the institution have so many unmet needs? Sometimes the reason may be lack of foresight or imagination. Much more often, it will be lack of resources, financial or human.
And that is a concern for you. Volunteering to take on an important, currently neglected, task can offer valuable experience, pride in the accomplishment and a higher profile in -- and perhaps beyond -- the institution. But if you are indeed volunteering for this task (which will most likely be the case), be aware that it will also offer yet more work on your plate, with little or no compensatory time or resources. (That isn’t always the case, of course. Your idea may seem so compelling and important that time and resources may be reallocated to it, perhaps on a project management basis.)
Why would you make extra work for yourself, particularly when the payoff -- to you and perhaps to the institution -- is uncertain? You would do it for the reasons I mentioned above: valuable learning experience, the satisfaction of accomplishing something worthwhile and the potential of professional benefit.
Here’s an example. In the late ’90s, it seemed that every college president in America suddenly felt that “the train had left the station” with online learning and their institution was being left behind. Sensing that trend, I began to research it and ultimately presented a proposal to the president of my university. It was an area completely out of my bailiwick, but it seemed clear to me that online education would continue to grow in importance. And I reasoned that a plan would require good faculty relations, a deep interest in pedagogy, a desire to learn more and great colleagues in IT -- all of which I had.
My president accepted my proposal and gave me the opportunity to travel around the country researching best practices; enter into a partnership with Oxford, Stanford and Yale Universities; build out an IT team with extraordinary creative expertise; and actually head the academic technology unit for a period of years. Today, I find it challenging even to manage my smartphone. But those years of working with and managing IT professionals had a profound effect on my own professional growth and opportunities.
Is the Need for You?
Sometimes it isn’t necessary to create a new role for yourself; rather, you just need to step forward and accept one. Such a situation is particularly important for women to consider.
My favorite, eloquent example comes from a terrific colleague on a board composed mainly of women who are current and former presidents. This colleague tells the story that she was in a provostial position and very happy with it. Then a headhunter called her about a presidential role. She had no interest in such a transition and said so. But the headhunter called back three times. Finally, my colleague told me, she had to stop and ask herself, “What do they see in me that I don’t see in myself?” Today, she’s a sitting university president.
Without falling back too much on gender stereotypes, it’s reasonable to note that research has identified discrepancies in men’s and women’s levels of self-confidence and in men’s and women’s perceptions of their own competencies. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, whereby those with high competence underestimate their abilities, while those with low competence overestimate them, does have a gendered dimension and can be particularly significant in holding women back from leadership positions.
Authors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever document women’s reticence to step forth on their own behalf, for example in salary negotiation, in their 2007 book, Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation and Positive Strategies for Change. But even before getting to such a negotiation, you must put yourself forward for the job. In presidential searches today, boards and search firms are much more open to and actively seeking female applicants. Yet even so, American college and university boards are only about 30 percent female. (That percentage has remained stagnant for several decades and has even slipped slightly in the public sector.) It would be naïve to ignore the likelihood that search committees will tend to identify and prioritize -- even if unconsciously -- candidates like themselves. Women who want to advance can’t necessarily wait for the call to come; they need also to be willing to initiate the call.
For example, much earlier in my career, an organization called the Teaching Company was beginning to tape audio and video lectures by Ivy League professors for distribution to a broad public. (They called the series “Superstar Teachers.”) A friend who had taped a few lectures told me about it, and I contacted the company. The need, in that case, was my own: I was a junior professor who needed extra cash. As it turned out, they also needed a female lecturer; women whom they’d contacted, they told me, had said they would require a year to prepare. I’d been teaching large lecture courses for years and could be ready at once. I taped close to two dozen lectures for them, and besides providing extra income, the experience gave me new exposure to the public and opened up an entirely new, lifelong interest in adult education.
Taking the risk of taking the initiative, rather than waiting for a call, didn’t stop there. For two of my three presidential roles, I was sought out. But for the first one, I actively reached out. The role that I’ve held for the past six years as senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges came about because I proposed a new initiative to the president and suggested that I could lead it (a classic instance of the create-a-role strategy).
Another way to take initiative as you follow your leadership path is to avail yourself of the increasing number of preparatory programs available. Many organizations offer programs that can assist with both discernment (“Do I want to do this?”) and development (“How can I prepare?”). For more than 50 years, the American Council on Education Fellows Program has been offering presidential aspirants the opportunity to shadow a president for a semester or a year. The Millennium Leadership Initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities concentrates particularly on presidential preparation for those currently underrepresented in the presidential ranks. AASCU (for the public sector) and CIC (for the private sector) jointly sponsor the Emerging Leaders Program and the Executive Leadership Academy, both excellent opportunities for learning, mentorship and networking with colleagues. These learning opportunities, and others, can help you to find -- or create -- the role you’d like to have.