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Category: Institutional Culture

Today’s presidents and chancellors are donning more hats than ever before to provide skilled, visionary leadership. Yet in a challenging academic environment in which financial and technological pressures are mounting and resources are scarce, achieving institutional goals alone can be overwhelming. Team support is essential to help communicate and reinforce the senior administrator’s all-inclusive messages. This support becomes critical when initiatives such as reprioritizing resources and/or restructuring academic affairs are under consideration and when stakeholders are increasingly assertive. High-performing teams that go the extra mile to support and execute the leader’s vision and priorities are needed to ensure successful implementation. High-performing teams that additionally put aside interpersonal or philosophical differences and work for the common good of the university make the leader’s objectives more attainable. Though difficult to build and even more challenging to sustain, these deeply committed teams are vital in this high-stakes environment. Changing leadership environment Administrative leadership roles are more complex and challenging today. Yet expectations remain high that campus and system leaders will handle both internal and external responsibilities with finesse and success. These areas may include but are not limited to board relationships, new public-private partnerships, crisis management, shared governance challenges, and fundraising that secures alternative sources of revenue. This demanding balancing act is further complicated by pressure from parents and legislators not to raise tuition. At the same time, increases in student loans are expected and state funding for public universities continues to shrink. In addition, the push to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) is facing resistance from faculty who are concerned about the impact of MOOCs on the quality of education and on their job security. Twenty-first-century students also expect a quality education that guarantees a job, increased accessibility to resources and professors, and schedule flexibility. As a result, leaders are faced with an insurmountable workload of strategic choices and decisions. Benefits of a high-functioning team Today’s reality is that initiatives cannot be successful if they are driven solely by an individual chancellor or president. High-functioning teams are essential. The most effective leadership teams go a step beyond successful implementation and speak with one voice in communicating a leader’s vision and key priorities. Like a well-oiled machine, they work together to communicate the need for change and the rationale for decisions and to seek critical buy-ins from diverse constituent groups. By allowing the president or chancellor to function more efficiently, high-performing teams contribute to propelling their institution forward. By leveraging their individual expertise, they help round out the strengths and weaknesses of the president’s portfolio and present a strong collective leadership face to the campus community. Challenges to building a high-performing team Building and maintaining high-performing teams can be challenging. Individual style differences—such as a preference for collaboration versus a preference to be in charge, or an inability to move between divergent and convergent thinking—can create stumbling blocks to success. Here are just a few of these challenges:
  1. Conflicting sense of urgency that produces conflict among team members. For example, a CFO might butt heads with a chief academic officer if they don’t see eye to eye on how quickly to move ahead on an administrative restructuring.
  2. Individual style preferences prevent team members from recognizing the potential power that can be harnessed from their differences. The cabinet member who processes quickly might have little patience with a colleague who prefers to table a decision until the next meeting. Nothing is accomplished or settled by resorting to playing the blame game.
  3. Resistance to change based on past assumptions harnessed to their differences. Too often team members roll their success strategies forward from their prior role on a different campus or in a different sector rather than embracing their new campus culture.
  4. Reluctance to let go of assumptions and worldviews. Entrenched in their own positions and ways of doing things, some team members may refuse to take advice from colleagues. Often this is intended to show others that they possess the leadership skills to do the job, but in fact this attitude makes collaboration next to impossible.
  5. Inconsistency on the president’s part. Unclear, conflicting, or mixed messages about decisions can erode team trust. Unsure what the president wants, team members may sabotage the decision, disengage, or resort to coping mechanisms, such as vying for the leader’s attention. As a result, there is no sense of shared responsibility or accountability for outcomes.
Strategies for developing and maintaining high-performing teams Campus communities and cultures vary widely, so no institutional goals are identical and no two teams are alike. Yet every team has the potential to be high-performing if leaders follow these critical paths to success: Turning vision into reality In higher education, no matter how dynamic the individual administrative leader may be, a skilled senior leadership team that thrives in complex and less predictable environments is essential for achieving institutional goals. As the arc of leadership continues to evolve, team accountability and effectiveness are vital to the future of each institution. Certainly, challenges exist, especially as the composition of the team changes over time. Yet considering the benefits gained, investing the time and effort into building and maintaining high-performance teams is a workable and effective game plan that will continue to move institutions forward. Barbara Kaufman is president of ROI Consulting Group, Inc. (www.roiconsultinggroup.com). An executive coach and educator, she specializes in leadership effectiveness and organizational development strategies for private- and public-sector leadership teams and boards. Contact her at drbarbkaufman@earthlink.net.