Building a Senior Staff: The Burden of Support
August 15, 2012
Presidents must have the courage to lead. Boards must have the confidence to let them do so. This fact, ultimately, may be the most painful lesson learned at the University of Virginia.
As I prepared to take over my duties as president, I sought the advice of a distinguished senior colleague who had experience outside academia and who was used to managing staff as a successful sitting president. I inquired about how best to proceed as I prepared to assume the leadership of an institution. His recommendation intrigued me. My colleague suggested that I seek the resignation letters of each member of the senior staff and place them in a desk drawer until I could make an informed decision about whether they fit into the new team that I would take forward. When asked if he had done so, the president smiled wearily and said simply, “no, but I wish I had.”
This story illustrates the difficult dilemma faced by presidents as CEOs when moving into a relationship with inherited staff. How do you build your team within a culture that the existing senior administrative staff has embraced and protected, and significantly, that may well have defined the senior team more than the team has defined the culture? What happens in those first months when you are the outsider on your own team?
Admittedly, some presidents inherit mature staffs who understand why you were chosen. Yet, many fear change, exactly what your arrival symbolizes.
The dilemma of how best to build a senior staff must focus first on the relationship between the president and the board of trustees. Like institutional culture, boards have widely different levels of maturity, experience, and understanding. The recent debacles at the University of Virginia and Penn State University make this point painfully clear. In a system of shared governance, there must be clear lines of authority. Each group must respect lines that they do not cross. The worst situation is for trustees, many of whom have previous relationships with staff, potentially leading to inequity and abuse of privilege of being a board member. There are structured approaches through which information can and should be gathered by the board through its own leadership team as part of a presidential evaluation. This process must be fair and without agenda…
Therefore, it’s to begin a presidency with an understanding between the president and the board of trustees about what the term “CEO” means to them… Success begins with all sides understanding the challenges that face them and the terms and conditions that govern their relationships as they meet these challenges. Presidents must have the courage to lead. Boards must have the confidence to let them do so. This fact, ultimately, may be the most painful lesson learned at the University of Virginia.
To read the full article, you may view it here on Huffington Post.