Meeting Adaptive Challenges: The New Leadership Skill Set

NOTE: For an updated and much deeper look at new leadership skills in higher education, based on years of intensive research, read this complimentary paper from Academic Impressions and Pat Sanaghan.

To define the leadership skill set needed to meet adaptive challenges, we turned to Larry Goldstein, president of Campus Strategies LLC, and Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group. Having consulted for decades with institutional leadership teams, Goldstein and Sanaghan are uniquely positioned to comment on what makes academic leaders effective.

Here is their take on five critical leadership skills needed to meet today's -- and especially tomorrow's -- challenges.

1. Leaders Need to be Systemic Thinkers

The critical initiatives that will move your institution forward -- whether improving student retention, reducing your carbon footprint, or raising money from alumni -- will involve and affect multiple divisions within your institution. This makes it especially critical that not only your institution's president but leaders within each division are able to recognize the impact of a given issue or a given effort on financial, academic, and programmatic decisions across the institution.

Amit Mrig, president of Academic Impressions, notes those institutions that are most successful in responding to these common challenges are those that approach them systematically. Examples include institutions that have effective collaboration between deans and front-line fundraisers; or institutions that not only recognize the importance of faculty involvement in student retention but actually incentivize it and make it part of tenure or promotion reviews.

In practice, encouraging systemic thinking means both forming task forces that cross divisional boundaries, and asking the difficult questions that will help your institution assess both the short- and long-term impacts of possible solutions.

2. Leaders Need a Diagnostic Mentality

In an environment of "pervasive complexity, ambiguity, and fast-paced change," Goldstein and Sanaghan suggest that successful leaders will need to:

  • Be comfortable with not having all the answers
  • Know how to ask the right questions
  • Solicit input broadly and transparently, and report back findings in ways that build trust

Goldstein and Sanaghan refer to this as a "diagnostic mentality"; it involves being able to quickly diagnose a situation and determine which questions matter and what represents the root of a problem.

"A leader needs to assess what parts of the institution will be affected and who to bring into the dialogue. If you don't ask the right questions, you could create a lot of work for a lot of people, and waste a lot of scarce resources."
Larry Goldstein, Campus Strategies LLC

By way of example, Goldstein cites the classic scenario of long registration lines. While the example may be dated, it illustrates the point:

Most of the mid-level managers in enrollment management at Anonymous College assume that the long registration lines represent a problem with physical space. Others assume the issue involves inadequate technology. Then one member of the team visits the bursar and interviews the front-line staff about their daily frustrations. What emerges from this quick assessment is that Anonymous College has set up the office so that the front-line staff dealing with loans and financial aid worked on one side of the physical space, and those dealing with tuition billing on the other. But because the two sets of front-liners had not been cross-trained, if students entered the wrong line, the staff would not be able to assist them with their inquiries. There was a problem with the physical space, but the larger problem had to do with staff training. Anonymous College needed to establish a one-stop approach to fielding student inquiries during the registration process.

The effective leader is one who can assess a situation and identify what questions need to be asked and who needs to be at the table in order to answer them. At Anonymous College, the front-line staff had not been invited to the table, and they had information critical to solving the problem.

3. Leaders Need to be Adept at Cross-Boundary Collaboration

"In the past," Goldstein says, "the typical approach to problem-solving would be for the senior leader to bring together a few members of an executive team and brainstorm. This won't be as successful in the future. Technical challenges lend themselves to that kind of solution, but adaptive challenges require you to listen, gather your data, and identify unintended consequences that will affect other divisions."

Successful leaders, Goldstein and Sanaghan suggest, will demonstrate willingness to:

  • Share their early thinking on an issue and collect feedback from a broad set of stakeholders
  • Establish an inclusive planning process, maximizing rather than minimizing participation from other divisions, and collecting as much input as possible so that you can make the most informed possible decision
  • Look outside of the institution to find partners, such as other institutions who may have resources to share in meeting a shared problem

Meaningful engagement of stakeholders throughout the institution allows you to get authentic buy-in and harness the collective brainpower of your staff.

The challenge, of course, is building and maintaining trust. "In a high-trust environment," Sanaghan notes, "you can do many things even with limited resources. But if you have low trust, even with high resources you can't get much done. To build trust, you need transparency with information -- especially around financial realities, decision-making roles, and process."

4. Leaders Need Creativity

In their book 21st Century Skills (Jossey-Bass: 2009), Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, co-board members on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, cite "creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration" as the top leadership skills needed in this century. The adaptive challenges facing higher education will require creativity and innovation, and institutions of higher education include large pools of creative, innovative minds. The challenge is to get their ideas shared.

"Even a leader who is not particularly creative can encourage and support creative thinking," Sanaghan notes. "Create safe space for getting all ideas on the table, no matter how unlikely an idea may sound at first; there will be time to review them later. Allow for brainstorming. Complex problems need outside-the-box thinking, new strategic alliances, challenges to stagnant processes and policies and procedures. You need leaders who are willing to experiment and learn."

5. Leaders Need to be Willing to Take Measured Risks

"Be willing to take intelligent risks. Be intentional about how much you're willing to put at risk, and mitigate risk by piloting objectives before implementing something new across the campus. Or adopt a phased approach, so that you aren't taking all the risks at one time. But in either case, measure what you can afford to have go wrong, then make the risks that seem reasonable."
Larry Goldstein,  Campus Strategies LLC

"Quick, predictable fixes may not apply to issues such as under-prepared students or improving quality of education in response to increased demands for accountability," Sanaghan adds. Adaptive challenges require both a tolerance of ambiguity and a willingness to risk new approaches and then monitor results.

"Leaders need to be able to leverage and learn from failure," Sanaghan says. The Harvard Business Review recently devoted an entire issue to how CEOs can learn from failure -- a testament to how seriously the corporate sector is taking this issue. Review how your institution handles mistakes; in an environment that increasingly requires risk-taking, mistakes will be inevitable; the institutions that thrive in the future will be those that have cultivated an internal culture that values learning from mistakes.

"In a high-trust culture," Sanaghan says, "people aren't afraid to take a measured risk -- and they know they will be supported if they do make a mistake. This is a defining factor in the quality of your institution. When you deal with complex issues that require creative solutions, failure will be part of the learning process. It is critical that your people aren't terrified of taking risks."