We met seven years ago at a professional development workshop for new chief academic officers (CAOs) full of questions for how to be successful in our new roles. Since that time, we have provided critical support for each other as we navigated through the challenges of leading the academic program at our institutions, and as you will see below, developing this key peer support is an important strategy for success. Between us we now have 14 years of experience, and we are often asked for advice from new CAOs. So, we thought we would write down some of the lessons we learned to provide advice for people taking on the CAO position for the first time.
Especially if you are new to the institution, but even if you are not, your main job in your first year is to listen and figure out the landscape. We were both internal candidates, but we learned so much about our institutions, regarding such things as personnel, budgeting, facilities, and how to operate within shared governance structures, etc., in the first year. Resist the temptation to try to “fix” things, especially problems brought to you early on, before understanding the full picture.
Establish guiding principles and then rely on them to help you with decision making. For example, one guiding principle might be to put students at the center and evaluate your choices in light of what is best for your students. Relying on this type of north star will help you to be consistent and mission driven. With experience, you will find it helpful to establish guiding principles for many different types of decisions, such as determining on what basis you will evaluate faculty for merit pay or how to allocate programmatic resources. And, with guiding principles at the center, you will be able to provide clear rationales for when you have to say no. Understand you will need a thick skin and that no matter what decisions you make, there will be people who are upset with you. In these times, relying on those guiding principles is very helpful.
Communication is key–verbally and in writing. You can never say things too many times. An information vacuum creates space for conjecture that often tends towards the worst-case scenario. Also remember that what you say and what people hear can differ greatly. In individual meetings we found it helpful to have people repeat their understanding back to us. Sending meeting summaries when the stakes are high is key to making sure everyone is on the same page.
Where email is concerned you need a strategy. Many exist, such as blocking time in your calendar or answering in free moments during the day. You need to figure out what works best for you. A triage mentality can help, sorting those that can be handled with a quick response and those that require more thought. Even if you need time to formulate a response, people do appreciate a quick email to say that you received their message and are considering it.
We recommend that every year you choose your top priority. One president shared that you can only push one “big rock” up the mountain each year. You will find that in your daily work there will be a million little fires to put out; you need to have one significant project related to strategic goals to maintain focus. It is critical to prioritize your goals and be realistic as to what can be accomplished. This means you need to assess the landscape such as faculty appetite and bandwidth, alignment with mission, and resources available for the work when choosing your “big rock.” A strategic approach is more likely to result in positive results.
Most of us did not go to graduate school to learn how to manage people. As a CAO you will find yourself working with many constituents, and you will need to think strategically about leading the faculty as well as managing up, down, and sideways. Praise and recognition will go a long way towards making people feel seen and valued. When people feel valued, they are motivated to do their best work. We share our general approach to working with various constituents below.
Working with the Faculty
The faculty are the CAO’s primary, though by no means sole, constituent. As you navigate working with the faculty, it will behoove you to view shared governance as your friend and helpmate, as opposed to an obstacle you need to work around. We recommend that you work through the shared governance system whenever possible and that you work early to establish that you view the faculty committees as partners. You will find that when the administration and faculty pull together, accomplishing goals becomes an easier task.
In dealing with individual faculty, it is important to listen, not make any immediate promises, investigate, and then follow up with a response that includes a rationale for any decisions. There is often a history to requests that come in, especially the early ones. We recommend that you steer clear of making side deals. Inevitably, others will hear about whatever deals you strike, and they will expect you to do the same for them.
Working with the President
You report to the president, and perhaps the number one piece of advice we can give is that you never surprise them. With experience, you will be able to anticipate what your president will want to know, but at the beginning of your appointment we recommend you ask your president how they would like to receive information and at what level of detail. If you think something is likely to land on the president’s desk, be sure to give a heads up.
You need to assess the president’s leadership style and recognize that it might differ from yours. Try to leverage the ways you complement each other, and understand that even when you disagree, it is important to support the president in public. Finally, presidents are busy, and it’s helpful to always bring along some potential solutions when you bring problems to their attention.
Working with the President’s Senior Staff
All too often in academia, we work in silos, and fostering strong relationships with your senior staff peers will facilitate communication and build trust. When we need to tackle college-wide concerns, working from that position of trust means that we have full information and a strong foundation from which to solve problems. Consider monthly one-on-one lunch meetings or quarterly team happy hours. Even if these are purely social events, you will be building a foundation that will help you advance the mission of the college.
Working with Your Direct Reports
Your direct reports are key to realizing institutional goals and running the day-to-day operations of the university. You can’t do it all by yourself. You need to let go of control, trust your people, and delegate. Try to avoid micromanaging. Foster communication and the exchange of ideas. Model for them how you expect them to interact with their direct reports. At the outset, we recommend you set clear expectations for their work and how you will hold them accountable.
Also, you need to respect their time and model for them appropriate work/life balance. For example, respect people’s time off, and don’t send email or texts after business hours, except in case of an emergency.
One of your most critical direct reports is your executive assistant. Trust them, and only keep someone in that role who you can be completely open with. Frankly, a low-drama personality is helpful. Here are a few quick tips for working with your assistant. Give them control of your calendar but set limits as to what types of meetings need your clearance, and what time blocks are to be kept empty or at a minimum require your approval to fill. Let them be your gatekeeper. Set up a system of interruption–a quick knock on the door can help keep you on schedule. Never schedule meetings back-to-back–ask your assistant to incorporate a 10 minute cushion. Everyone needs time to catch their breath and collect their thoughts. Remember it’s important to let them manage you a bit as well. Welcome their suggestions as they often know what is best for you in any given situation.
Finally, if you don’t take care of yourself, you will not be able to do anything else we have talked about. Engage in self-care. You need to learn how to depersonalize as well as compartmentalize to reduce stress. Build time into your schedule for regular exercise–yoga, meditation, or regular runs/walks can make a big difference in recentering. Be sure to eat a healthy diet and get a good night’s sleep. We tell our students and children to do this; we need to do it for ourselves as well.
Figure out what brings you joy in the position and make sure you attend to that. If writing feeds you, set aside time for it. If you enjoy faculty scholarship, attend faculty seminars. If you miss the students and don’t have time to teach, visit the cafeteria or create a student council that meets with you monthly.
Developing a peer network will provide you with a much-needed outlet and support. We found that attending conferences for professional development helped us to learn valuable skills, such as how to have difficult conversations or to lead the reorganization of the curriculum. But perhaps more important, these provide the opportunity for you to connect with peers at other institutions. Having a network of peers will help you to drown out the negative and avoid burnout. We had a positivity group of five female CAOs where we committed to sharing weekly examples of wins–large and small–as the difficult events of any given day often made it hard to see the positive impacts.
In closing, our last piece of advice is to treat yourself and others with grace and a generosity of spirit. We did not perfectly follow our own advice. In fact, much of our advice comes from learning by doing. Things will go sideways and you will make mistakes, as we both have. The key is to exercise what one of our presidents termed “effective failure.” Examine when and why things went haywire and determine what you can learn from the experience. In the end, the best outcomes emerge when you act with integrity by following well-vetted, mission-driven guiding principles that place students at the center. Students unify us all, no matter our individual preferences. Never lose sight of the joy they bring all of us in higher education and good luck!