Published on 2016/12/02
The EvoLLLution | Five Pieces of Advice For New Provosts
Few administrators receive adequate preparation before stepping into senior leadership roles, so here are a few tips to help make the transition easier for new provosts.

I started a new position as a provost in 2015, and I have not had to worry about having a blank to-do list since then. Being a provost has been both very challenging and very fulfilling. From my short window of experience in the role, here are a few reflections for others who are beginning or contemplating a career as a university provost.

1. Establish Trust

As a provost, people need to rely on you for many things. You’ll be privy to a great deal of confidential information, and it is critical that you keep that information private. You’ll be asked a wide variety of questions, and people are relying on you to be responsive. You’ll make commitments, and people will be counting on you to follow through. It is critical that you treat everyone with respect both in public and in private. If you don’t, you will make people wonder what you are saying about them when they aren’t around. Set your personal interests aside, and work hard to focus on what is best for the institution. Collectively, those actions and others can help build trust. If you aren’t trusted, you will soon find yourself out of the information loop, and you won’t have the data you will need to make good decisions. A lack of trust will make everything you need to do more difficult, and it will make some things impossible. So, above almost everything else, your words and actions should increase the trust others place in you.

2. Listen More Than You Talk

Particularly if you are new to an institution, there is a tremendous amount to learn about the culture, the history, the policies and procedures and other key elements of what makes the university tick. One of the best ways to learn about these things is to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers.

As you consider new policies, practices or procedures, it also is important to listen carefully to concerns. The tremendous benefit of shared governance is that it provides an opportunity to learn from the many very intelligent people who work on campus. While some of the advice you receive may be contradictory and narrowly focused, you will be in the best position to ensure that any changes will be in the best interest of the institution, if you understand all sides of an issue.

When you do talk, don’t spend a lot of time describing how things were done at your last institution. While that information can be applied when appropriate, constantly talking about how well things were done at your previous institution may make people wonder why you left.

3. “Find out what your boss wants you to do—and do it”

This was a quote from a former colleague, and I think it is one of the most useful pieces of advice for anyone who wishes to be successful in their job. As provost, the chancellor or president of the institution will be your direct supervisor. It is therefore critical to learn what your chancellor or president thinks is important for you to accomplish, and then for you to regularly update them on your progress toward those goals. Weekly or bi-weekly meetings are critical to maintain that dialog.

It is also important to update the chancellor or president when things aren’t going well or if there is an unanticipated problem or other concern. It is always better to be the bearer of bad news when things are still at a point where there are more options available to find a solution.

On a related note, your president or chancellor does not want to be surprised by something he or she may hear from a reporter, a parent or a faculty member. Make sure you keep the president or chancellor up-to-date on anything that you think might become an issue, even if the information is not positive.

4. Realize that People Are Almost Always Paying Attention to What You Say and Do

As a provost, you are a key senior leader of your institution. People are looking to you to set an example in both your words and actions. Therefore, be mindful in every interaction, email, casual greeting in a hallway, and major speech to campus of how your words and actions may be interpreted.

While we are all human, being positive and patient whenever possible will go a long way in conveying a sense that, despite the challenges an institution may be experiencing, we’ll be able to work through those obstacles and get to a better place.

5. Act Like a Ribosome

If you got this far in the article, I thought you might be able to handle a little biology. The ribosome is a microscopic machine in our cells that makes proteins. In some conditions, it can operate very quickly, but it makes a lot of defective proteins. This can damage or even kill the cell. Under other conditions, the ribosome can be slow and very accurate, but the slowness can mean the cell might die due to a lack of new proteins. From the point of view of being a provost, the goal is to find that balance of fast enough to get needed work done, but slow enough to have sufficient accuracy.

This is simple in concept but difficult in practice, so here are a few examples. Double checking emails for spelling or grammatical errors is important. However, reviewing them 10 times to make sure you’ve written the most compelling piece of literature in human history is overkill. Checking with colleagues about a difficult decision is helpful; once you have had conversations and reviewed the data, waiting too long to chart a course is problematic. So, like a ribosome, work to find the appropriate balance between speed and accuracy.

From my experience, the work of a provost is important, challenging and rarely dull. I hope this advice has been helpful, and I wish you well on your journey as an administrator.

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