Look Before You Leap
BY DIANA DOYLE
Welcome to one of the most challenging jobs you will ever love! The average student affairs professional does not move through his or her career aspiring to become a college or uni- versity president. This aspiration may not emerge until professionals are in a position that affords them regular contact with their president. Everyone follows a different route and
reasoning on the path to a presidency. Before you send that first application, I challenge you to heed the
adage: Look before you leap.
Build;your;career;portfolio. Your portfolio is a collection of
experiences that provides the groundwork and necessary skill
sets for understanding how to be a senior leader. These experiences can reflect previous positions, but they should not be
limited exclusively to employment.
• Take a personal inventory of your skills and talents, and be
honest. Have you added professional leadership experiences outside of your job to your portfolio? Leadership
roles in professional associations, in the community, or on
campus beyond the student affairs arena all contribute to
broadening your ability to lead diverse groups of people
with varied agendas.
• As you move along your career path, take every opportunity to develop visioning, problem-solving, and big-picture capabilities. As a president, you will need to look
at the college, the community, and the profession with a
bird’s eye view.
• Sometimes you must follow a detour to reach your
destination. Do not be afraid to make a lateral move to a
larger campus, a position with greater responsibilities, or a
different type of institution or system. These routes could
lead more quickly to your ultimate goal.
• Build your portfolio with every experience you encounter.
• Learn the “language” of faculty, finance personnel, foundation staff, and other key groups on campus. Understand
the terminology and vocabulary they use. Know what is
important to them as a group—on campus, in the class-room/office, and in their profession. Engage in one-on-one conversations, attend open faculty meetings, and ask
to sit in on department/division meetings. Add to your
portfolio of experiences by listening and taking notes.
• Teach a class. Faculty and students have an affinity for
presidential candidates who understand and appreciate
what it is like to be in the classroom.
Step;outside;student;affairs. Student affairs experience
contributes significantly to the development of skill sets necessary for senior leadership. If you are serious about becoming
a college president, you must learn to think, analyze, and
converse like an instructor, a business officer, and a developer,
among other roles you will play. A broad understanding of the
diverse perspectives and needs of an institution is critical.
• volunteer to serve on committees outside student affairs,
especially those involving curriculum, strategic planning,
and budget. You will find that colleagues throughout
campus will gain a better appreciation for what you do
for students and how you and student affairs contribute
to the institution.
• Team up with a faculty or staff member in another department to complete a project, and present your results in a
variety of on- and off-campus venues.
• Establish a mini-advisory board for yourself and/or your
department with individuals from different areas on
campus. Learn from the participants’ best thinking and
perspectives on timely issues. The experience will give
you the opportunity to understand your institution and
students from a new vantage point.
presidency. When you assume a presidency, reality sets
in very quickly. Any predetermined visions you had for the
position may fade with the first challenge.
• If you currently report to a president and have regular
one-on-one meetings, set aside time to go beyond
the usual business of the day. Ask for regular one-on-one meetings with your president if they are not
• Seek opportunities for one-on-one conversations with
current or former college presidents. Ask them to share
perspectives on the challenges and rewards of the position.
Elicit feedback and their honest assessment of what experiences and skills are required before venturing forward
in your career. If they believe you have what it takes to
become a president, ask to be included in events, meetings, and activities that can give you a clear, up-close, and
personal view of their responsibilities and challenges.
• If you have the opportunity to serve as an interim president, take it. Enjoy the opportunity to try on the job
without a long-term commitment. You can determine
if the position is a good fit and what new skills must
be added to your portfolio before applying for a
Learn;effective;fundraising;skills. Presidents of all types
of colleges and universities are expected to cultivate resources
for their institutions, whether building upon the foundation already in place or by securing new donors and partners.
The college community, the board of trustees, and external
constituents will judge your success as a president, in part, by
the success you have bringing resources to your institution. To
gain direct experience, volunteer now to participate in institutional fundraising efforts, and assume increasing leadership
roles at each event. Your college foundation staff will welcome