Institutional Leadership: A Delicate Dance Between Corporate and AcademicLucy Leske | Managing Partner and Director of Higher Education Practice, Witt/Kieffer
And yet it’s happening anyway, not necessarily because schools are treating students and parents like consumers, but because they themselves are behaving that way and expecting more for the price tag for education. Whether in anticipation or response, progressive institutions and their trustees are dispensing with delicacy and exercising competitive muscle – beyond athletics, that is – that until recently was considered the sole purview of private industry. In some cases, they have forged ahead and hired honest-to-goodness captains of industry to help lead their schools. This is not new. From the Ivy League to large public research universities, institutions have dipped into the corporate talent pool for leaders who, for better or worse, have brought approaches shaped in very different environments to higher education. The results to date have been mixed, but not without success in some quarters, leading other institutions and boards to wonder whether they might give it a go.
If higher education is to become more businesslike and entrepreneurial without losing its soul, the trick will be hiring leaders who understand both spheres, corporate and academic. My firm conducted a revealing study last year, comparing personality and leadership traits of corporate leaders to academic ones. What was most interesting about the findings was that the two cohorts of leaders were remarkably similar in most areas assessed; ambition, imaginativeness, altruism, prudence and so forth. In other words, leaders tend to be leaders, regardless of context.
One of the most significant discrepancies between the two groups, however, was in regards to “commerce” orientation, which highlights an individual’s interest in money, profits, investment and business opportunities. Academic leaders scored much lower than their private-sector counterparts, suggesting they’re not predisposed to concern themselves with commercial matters.
One takeaway from this is that college and university boards would do well to conduct comprehensive assessments of presidential, provost and other leadership candidates as they consider hiring them. It is possible to find academic leaders with business savvy and entrepreneurial instincts (often hidden) without having to turn to the corporate sector for new executives.
By the same token, boards and search committees can vet candidates from private industry for their affinity to mission and cultural fit within academia. There are many leaders out there who straddle the academic/corporate fence — who can do the delicate dance — and will make great leaders in the coming years.
Another even more interesting development in the leadership recruiting realm is the competitive nature of the search itself. Just as institutions are finding the market for top faculty and students more competitive, the recruitment of key executives is also competitive. Private industry has long known that attracting top candidates requires a strategic, targeted, tailored approach that’s heavy on leadership cultivation. Higher education institutions would be wise to consider doing the same.
The multifaceted, talented, highly competent individuals who will help revamp the higher education business model (without losing sight of what makes higher learning truly special and life-altering) are hard to find and becoming increasingly challenging to recruit. Boards need to consider a range of strategies and tools to identify and attract the right leaders in this dynamic environment.
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 Witt/Keiffer, “Leadership Traits and Success in Higher Education,” 2013. Accessible at http://www.wittkieffer.com/thought-leadership-research-reports/leadership-traits-and-success-in-higher-education-report
Author Perspective: Business