What Higher Education Executive Teams Need to Know and Be Able to Do in Order to Survive and Thrive

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Over the last few months I’ve been engaged in conversations about higher education leadership with board trustees, recruiting firms, executives, accreditors, professional organizations, and others with a vested interest in the effectiveness of executive leadership in colleges and universities. There is a strong consensus that the last decade has produced significant failures of leadership across higher education, but there is even stronger consensus that most college C-Suites are woefully unprepared for the challenges presented by the current COVID-19 crisis. Ironically, traditional leaders are really good at “emergency” measures like cutting budgets and laying people off, but they’re lousy at building sustainability through transformation.

Before the Corona pandemic, colleges and universities needed dynamic, game-changing leaders who could empower entire organizations to innovate—to shift from the traditional “fail-safe” cultures of the last century to “safe to fail” environments in which an entrepreneurial spirit prevailed and status quo gave way to transformation. Now, of course, colleges need all that from their executives (and trustees) AND the ability to skillfully navigate an acute, existential crisis. To mix metaphors, if the last ten years were death by a thousand paper cuts, the current state will be a ruthless “culling of the herd,” with the weakest institutions failing to open again in the fall or next spring and many others closing or merging in the next few years.  Executive teams that have never had a meeting on “cash management,” are now doing so daily. Previously “exclusive” institutions who turned away students will find themselves in a de facto “open enrollment” world in a scramble to hit admissions targets, without the normal systems and resources required of that more challenging student demographic. Worse, they will find other institutions poaching both their existing and new students.

Importantly, the current reality requires that we think not just about the knowledge, skills, abilities and orientation of the CEO, but of the entire executive team, and how they work together.

So, what does a high performing university or college cabinet look like in the current circumstances?

First, it absolutely must be a high functioning team. As Patrick Lencioni discovered in his work with senior teams in thousands of organizations, teamwork may be the single greatest competitive advantage any organization can have. It can’t be commoditized and it can’t be bought. As I’ve noted in a previous article, healthy, high functioning teams, even if comprised of lower caliber members, will consistently out-perform even the most capable individuals.

Second, the executive team must collectively meet all of the leadership needs of the institution. It ultimately doesn’t matter which team members have which profiles (the Game Changer Index is a good model), but it is essential that together, an executive team operates without major blind spots and that each member plays to her or his strengths, being supported by others where their interest or aptitude is less pronounced.

Within given roles, the kinds of skills and abilities that produce outsized results in hyper-change, complex, and ambiguous environments, are not what they were, even ten years ago. At the executive level, all leaders must have at least some strategic insight, financial literacy*, and must be able to, if not lead, then at least support, change. Executive level leadership today also requires the ability to leverage human capital, to achieve success through others, to embrace innovation through risk and entrepreneurialism, and it really helps to have some meaningful level of passion and energy. In the context of the current COVID-19 crisis, it is also essential that executives have a plan and speak with one voice. What employees need during a crisis is somewhat different than during “normal” times and executives must be able to instill trust, show compassion, project stability, and offer hope, all in addition to running the daily business and managing the extant crisis!

*Unfortunately, very few college executives are skilled P&L managers. In fact, most CEOs confuse budgets (and expense management) with P&L. In the current environment, any institution whose cabinet level executives understand and can manage profit and loss are at a significant advantage to those who cannot. I have led training exercises with executive teams in which not a single person other than the CFO had ever received any instruction on P&L.

The table below is an incomplete list, but illustrates a number of competencies and orientations that are critical, but rarely exist in college cabinets today. Each column represents the executive leader of that functional area.


To be clear, all executives would benefit from high levels of expertise or orientation in all areas. Having said that, within a given functional domain, for political/cultural/operational reasons, leaders will achieve greater success if they can leverage given competencies more relevant to those respective functional areas. For example, both Provosts and Admissions VPs would benefit from strong business development skills, but that is likely to be more critical for a provost.

In short, required C-Suite skill sets, experience, traits, and aptitudes are not what they used to be—even before COVID-19. And the extent to which a given institution will survive and thrive going forward is inextricably tied to the quality of its collective leadership, which can either be developed or hired, but it cannot be ignored.

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