Administrative leadership roles are more complex and challenging today. Yet expectations remain high that campus and system leaders will handle both internal and external responsibilities with finesse and success. Twenty-first-century students also expect a quality education that guarantees a job, increased accessibility to resources and professors, and schedule flexibility. As a result, leaders are faced with an insurmountable workload of strategic choices and decisions. Today’s reality is that initiatives cannot be successful if they are driven solely by an individual chancellor or president. High-functioning teams are essential. Campus communities and cultures vary widely, so no institutional goals are identical and no two teams are alike. Yet every team has the potential to be high-performing if leaders follow these critical paths to success:
Develop a successful onboarding process. “You cannot assume high-performing individuals will automatically and independently become high-performing team members,” says Michele Nealon-Woods, PsyD, national president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “Onboarding new senior administrators is an essential function of the CEO and one that requires dedicated time, careful planning, and the deliberate engagement of all members of the leadership team. When the CEO does not attend carefully to such onboarding, he or she opens up the team to not only unhealthy team dynamics but confusion in project and role execution.” To onboard successfully, provide a shared understanding of campus governance; indicate how decisions are really made and by whom; and describe the campus, system, and state political environments. Then state clearly any and all expectations. In addition, develop and consistently use an effective mentoring process and/or buddy system.
Encourage team members to work together to accommodate differences. Utilize an assessment tool to uncover individuals’ preferred operating styles and preferred ways of achieving goals. Determine to what degree these preferences align with or conflict with the way the rest of their colleagues on the senior leadership team work. Encourage the sharing of individual expertise and strengths within the group to help balance out the president’s portfolio.
Avoid solving issues between and among team members. Encourage team members who are at odds with each other to work through their differences utilizing collaborative decision making and conflict management techniques. If there are clear and legitimate differences of opinion that cannot be resolved, only then, with both individuals in the room, should the leader serve as mediator.
Create an environment where “speaking truth to power” is encouraged. Coined by the Quakers to address the issue of nonviolent ways to deal with conflict, this term in a broader sense invites team members to be candid in discussions with one another and the leader in order to avoid groupthink. Honest dialogue permits the exchange of vital information and innovative ideas crucial in the development and maintenance of high-functioning teams. Address key questions openly to provide a better sense of team ownership, role clarity, and challenges on the horizon. This will lay the groundwork for future success. For example, following a challenging discussion, immediately develop a few talking points before everyone walks out the door. This will test the degree to which the team is on the same page and their ability to communicate decisions with fidelity.
Demonstrate consistent behavior. It is important for leaders to send consistent messages and to avoid even the appearance of flip-flopping in decision making. If there is new information that impacts a prior decision, say so. Then provide a context for changing the decision in a face-to-face meeting; emails can be misinterpreted. Follow up on commitments, and role-model the behavior expected of others.
Keep in mind that succession is inevitable. More often than not, team members will leave. Whether this is the result of career aspirations, retirement, or job relocation, they will need to be replaced. “A president should presume that even if they have selected all of their direct reports, the cabinet will have a shelf life ranging from three to seven years,” says Mohammad H. Qayoumi, president of San Jose State University. “Even in those unusual circumstances when a cabinet remains together for the above duration, the president must seek ways to invigorate the team with new and audacious goals and directions so the team can rejuvenate and transmute itself. Otherwise, the cabinet will experience boredom, monotony, and disengagement that lead to a dysfunctional team. Therefore, recognizing the shelf life of a cabinet can help a president to always maintain a high-performing team.”
In higher education, a skilled senior leadership team that thrives in complex and less predictable environments is essential for achieving institutional goals. As the arc of leadership continues to evolve, team accountability and effectiveness are vital to the future of each institution. Certainly, challenges exist, especially as the composition of the team changes over time. Yet considering the benefits gained, investing the time and effort into building and maintaining high-performance teams is a workable and effective game plan that will continue to move institutions forward.
Barbara Kaufman is president of ROI Consulting Group, Inc. (www.roiconsultinggroup.com). An executive coach and educator, she specializes in leadership effectiveness and organizational development strategies for private- and public-sector leadership teams and boards. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adapted from “The Importance of Collective Leadership: Building and Maintaining High-Performing Teams” in Academic Leader 29.9(2013)4,5 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.