Experienced CAOs Share Challenges and Explore What It Means to Lead

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Kim Coplin, provost of Denison University (OH) and cofacilitator of the February Workshop for Chief Academic Officers in Their Third or Fourth Year of Service, explored a wide-range of topics with participants.

Offered for the first time in a virtual format, CIC’s latest Workshop for Chief Academic Officers in Their Third or Fourth Year of Service took place on February 27, 2021. Experienced CAOs Paula Dehn, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Kentucky Wesleyan College, and Kim Coplin, provost of Denison University (OH), cofacilitated the workshop. Participants from eight U.S. states and one Canadian province discussed leadership challenges related to the academic management of independent colleges during the pandemic. In addition to exploring strategies for adapting during a crisis, the workshop guided participants on how to move beyond short- term management into strategic thinking appropriate for a more seasoned CAO.

Dehn kicked off the workshop with a session on assessment of crisis leadership traits and skills. She emphasized that a positive attitude and extensive, candid communication is necessary to develop trust among faculty and staff members during times of high anxiety. Participants shared how strong bonds that were created between CAOs and faculty members in previous years were helpful in navigating COVID-19 emergencies over the last year. And several CAOs discussed the importance of taking time to recognize faculty exhaustion and to show explicit appreciation of the work faculty members have done to transform their teaching during the past year.

Small-group discussions of current challenges for CAOs are always a key element of this workshop. One advantage of this year’s virtual format was that the randomized assignment of participants into Zoom rooms made it easier for people to meet one another and to share experiences among different institutional types. In breakout sessions, CAOs discussed strategic planning, retention, enrollment, prioritization processes, and shared governance. One participant noted that the coronavirus crisis demonstrated the importance of shared governance and that moving quickly to develop protocols worked well only because of the relationships previously built among board members, administrators, and faculty members.

At a time when chief academic officers are trying to hold their institution’s academic program together, it can be difficult to imagine what a post-pandemic version of regular campus life might look like. For this reason, the workshop considered how CAOs might maintain what worked well during the pandemic while also helping the institution adapt to heightened pressures from expanded student needs and increased public scrutiny. Coplin urged participants to set aside time specifically for strategic thinking and personal leadership development. “Our institutions need us to lead, to get our heads above the fray, and envision the path toward long-term goals,” she said.

In shifting from being a CAO who primarily manages to being one who leads, Coplin emphasized, it is important to reduce time spent on “doing” and to spend more time on “thinking.” CAOs can delegate management tasks while they focus on big-picture strategic questions in the process of leading change. Coplin also observed that during times of transition there are greater opportunities to lead. For example, when the organization is shaken by external forces, there are more decision points for CAOs to handle. During this time, CAOs also may carry a greater burden for communicating the overall strategy and rationale for change to other campus constituencies. Coplin further noted that academic leaders with any personality type can become strong leaders if others perceive that they genuinely care about the people with and for whom they work.

In thinking about moving toward a post-pandemic future, Coplin cited author and management thought leader John P. Kotter’s 2001 Harvard Business Review article, “What Leaders Really Do,” to highlight the tension between leading and managing: “Managers promote stability while leaders press for change, and only organizations that embrace both sides of that contradiction can thrive in turbulent times.” Coplin urged participants to think about how to “lead oneself” as well. Developing leadership skills takes time and energy, and those investments will serve the institution and one’s professional career. She added that the hardest question for CAOs to answer might be “When is the right time to move to the next professional opportunity?”

Workshop participants also enjoyed lighter moments when members of the group shared unexpected tasks during their time as chief academic officers. Noting that resourcefulness is a key leadership skill, especially in difficult times, Dehn told a story of evacuating students to a local hotel and then serving as their shuttle bus driver to campus. “You may be surprised by the things you need to do, or that you’re asked to do,” she said. “But nothing is impossible.”

In the fall, the Workshop for Chief Academic Officers in Their Third or Fourth Year of Service will return to its usual time slot on November 6, 2021, the opening day of the Institute for Chief Academic Officers. More information on the workshop and the Institute will be available in mid-May.

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