Ricardo Azziz has held numerous executive positions in higher education and led the merger that resulted in Georgia Regents University, now Augusta University. He is principal at Strategic Partnerships in Higher Education Consulting Group.
He writes the regular Merger Watch opinion series on corporate restructuring in higher education.
These stressors require that many of our colleges and universities make dramatic cuts to programs and begin to seriously consider a merger or other major strategic partnership. Major institutional restructuring, including mergers, corporate conversions (e.g., for-profit to nonprofit models or vice versa), and even planned closures, are what I like to call Big Scary Change.
Having the right leadership in place, along with governing board support, are critical elements to successfully navigating a Big Scary Change. But what exactly is “the right leadership?”
In a recent analysis for the TIAA Institute, I and a handful of other higher education experts explored the competencies and qualities that can improve the success of leading major institutional restructuring in higher education.
We note that Big Scary Change does not just call for “familiar leadership qualities in greater proportion or greater intensity.” The analysis calls for leadership qualitatively “different from otherwise successful leadership in ‘normal’ times” — if there is such a thing as “normal” in today’s higher ed environment.
Successfully managing Big Scary Change requires a particular type of leadership that is not usual in higher education. Though some necessary skills may be learned, it is important that we recognize that the leadership skills that have gotten us here will not necessarily get us there — “there” being major restructuring success.
Big Scary Change also tests the limits of institutional leaders’ comfort. And it places those leaders in peril, as faculty and students rebel with no-confidence votes and some officials abruptly leave with work undone. These are risks that institutional leaders should be prepared for.
A question I often get asked is, “Can these competencies be learned?”
The short answer, paraphrasing former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, is that the one quality that can be developed by studious reflection and practice is leadership.
In our analysis, we identified six competencies that merit highlighting. They are the capacity and experience to manage significant change and uncertainty; the ability to provide an inclusive vision of how the future enterprise will work; the aptitude to set and drive the pace of change; the creation of a restructuring-focused executive team; the capability to lead from the front; and courage.
While many competencies and skills can be learned, some fundamental individual qualities and aptitudes are more difficult to acquire.
Of the skills or qualities noted in our analysis, I believe that three of these can be readily learned with deliberate and focused training, guidance and exercise, if a leader genuinely strives to do so: providing a vision of future operations, driving the pace of the transformation, and recruiting and fostering the right executive team.
The three that will be more difficult to learn, as they generally refer to intrinsic personal qualities, are: comfort and experience with significant ambiguity, the ability and desire to directly engage and to lead from the front, and courage.
So, while many leaders can develop the skills necessary to manage Big Scary Change successfully, not all will be able to do so. However, certain actions can help identify future leaders with these qualities as well as foster them in existing leaders.
The first is to address the search process for leaders in higher ed. We must remember that most executive leaders in higher ed today are identified by committees that include a significant or dominant proportion of faculty, students and alumni. These committees often select leaders who will serve as guardians of the institution and its mission and heritage.
Hence, search committees frequently have considerations that best align with preserving the status quo. They often do not align well with selecting leaders possessing the qualities or skills needed to propose, advocate for and manage Big Scary Change — such as comfort with ambiguity, experience with major institutional restructuring, and leading from the front.
Because — and here I am speaking as a sitting faculty member — all of us want change, just not for ourselves, our units, or even our colleges or schools. In other words, not in our backyard. While the need for change never ceases, neither does the fear of change.
Consequently, addressing the search process — including its members and its mission — is a starting point to identifying leaders who can manage potential major restructuring events.
The second is for governing boards to take a more active role in providing air cover to their chosen leaders.
Governing boards must have the resilience to resist the expected opposition that will arise once a difficult restructuring decision has been made. They must have the ability, respect for and patience to allow their leaders to find their way — and to make mistakes — as these difficult initiatives are undertaken. Too often, governing boards, who are not in the firing line themselves, are too quick to toss in the towel — and their leaders’ careers with it.
Finally, while courage is an intrinsic quality, its expression can be fostered by careful and deliberate planning by governing boards. Nothing can squash courage more than personal financial or professional uncertainty.
The proactive development of an exit plan, including the thoughtful use of severance and deferred compensation packages — and the guarantee of a future position, including within the system or at the college through a tenured slot — will go a long way toward ensuring that college and university leaders express their inherent courage on behalf of the difficult initiatives that so many institutions critically need.