Executive Recruiting Blog

EFL Associates insights on executive recruiting, talent management and succession planning.

January 11, 2019

The Critical Trait in a University President

By: Steve Waldron

Leadership – the critical trait in a university president

Consult First, Search Second

The motto of EFL Associates does not come from a marketing agency – but from one of our clients. We know every search is different. And because a search firm becomes an extension of its client, great care must be taken to understand needs, culture, and fit.  

That said, there is one trait that should surpass all others when searching for your next university president. And that’s leadership.

Hiring committees should not fear the non-traditional candidate. Superb higher education leaders are not required to come with a higher education pedigree. A talented leader will quickly learn higher education, surround herself with subject matter experts, and empower them to excel.

Instead, look for someone who is honorable, inspiring, empowering, approachable, pragmatic and decisive. Higher education experience is the bonus.

Leadership is a rare skill that can be honed in many professions. A leader sets the tone. Honesty and integrity are paramount to achieving institutional goals. Some say that management is doing things right while leadership is doing the right things. Belief that the president makes decisions in an honorable way creates energy and trust. Even those who professionally disagree with a direction will have faith to support and execute when they have confidence in the honorable intent of their leader.

Senior leaders must inspire and radiate enthusiasm at all times. Whether at the football game, alumni dinner or visiting a chemistry lab, they must exude positivity. Even the most difficult conversations should end with optimism.

Empowerment is the key to motivation, momentum and accomplishment. The president must be instrumental in developing the “what” and even more instrumental in relinquishing the “how” to her team. Absent such a decentralized approach, the university will never be more innovative than the singular vision of the president. True empowerment requires trust, empathy, encouragement and a degree of forgiveness. Find a leader with the confidence to entrust her capable team to act.

Relationships built upon communication and approachability will move mountains. Seek the leader who feels confined and uncomfortable when in her office. A compelling leader must be readily seen, heard and at ease when approached, equally ready to engage and give of herself to donors, faculty, students and alums.

A heavy dose of rationality and practicality is also required of an effective leader. Pragmatism in the days of shrinking university budgets is essential. At a recent president’s conference, one leader proposed that the only cure for her institution’s growing debt was more money from the state. That attitude puts her school on the road to disaster. Your new president must understand the revenue and expense levers, principles of operating margin and line 19 on Form 990. 

The president must ultimately be decisive, which is far different from being autocratic. Once all have had their say, the president owes her team a decision. She cannot allow stagnation by lack of consensus nor veto by the few.

It is uncommon to find men and women possessing these traits. Don’t fear nontraditional candidates. They may pay huge dividends. Just ask Birmingham-Southern about Chuck Krulak.


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