Forging the Future: Five Considerations for Developing Leaders at Your Institution 

Person looking down at their shoes with two arrows pointing in different directions

Many have written, studied, and offered advice on the skills higher education leaders need to be successful, and in the wake of COVID-19, some of the needs have shifted and some have reached a fever pitch. Burnout, enrollment declines, artificial intelligence, and political and cultural polarization are just some of the external factors a leader needs to navigate. Internally, there are staffing and salary freezes, politics, racialized hierarchies, and tenure battles – it’s no wonder many institutions are struggling with recruiting and retaining key faculty and staff1

Although employees have many reasons for leaving their jobs, one stands out. From April 2021 – April 2022, a McKinsey survey2 showed that the top reason for quitting a previous job is a lack of career development opportunities and advancement, outranking inadequate compensation. These results closely mirror those from a Pew Research Center survey3, which found lack of opportunities for advancement tied with inadequate pay as the reasons people quit. So, while there are multiple factors associated with driving employees away, it is telling that lack of growth within the organization ranks so highly. 

It’s a message that’s beginning to resonate in higher education. Institutions and departments are beginning to recognize the need to provide growth and development opportunities for their faculty and staff. While it is important to acknowledge that growth and development are different from advancement, they can be just as integral to retaining employees. Data show that simply having growth conversations contributes directly to faculty and staff engagement. 

We are often called to help diagnose, develop, and support folks tasked with building internal leadership development programs. We are seeing an increase in the desire to create these opportunities for faculty and staff, and given the data and trends, it’s a smart choice. Not only will providing leadership development opportunities help with engagement and retention, but it also helps you build capacity for future positions. Who doesn’t want their next director, VP, chair, or faculty leader to be more self-aware, ready to navigate team dynamics, and better able to understand the systemic challenges? 

Below we lay out five strategies for you to keep in mind when developing leaders at your institution: 

  1. Start with Inclusivity. Leadership can often look “one way” in an organization. But it is important to remember there are many styles and approaches to leadership development and what calls to you, or the committee, may not be representative of what your team or your institution needs. Likewise, it’s also important to understand that not every employee receives the same kinds and quality of opportunities and feedback4 . That is why it is important to continue to re-center inclusivity by incorporating elements to support your leaders’ understanding of their own identities, implicit biases, and navigating conversations with their teams.  
  1. You can start simply. Don’t know where to start? We recommend starting with something to help with self-awareness. Understanding one’s own leadership style will help you recognize your habits and work more harmoniously with your colleagues. Bolstering self-awareness is low-risk, and people love to learn about themselves. Assessments like our Five Paths to Leadership℠ Self-Assessment can act as a launching point for the self-awareness journey. 
  1. Encourage creativity. Yesterday’s solutions will not solve today’s problems. In this fast-paced world, leaders who promote and enable experimentation from their teams will be the ones to foster the innovation that pushes their institutions forward. But leaders don’t naturally know how to take risks and your institution’s culture may not incentivize leaders to experiment or take chances. But leaders can be taught to take risks – and they can be prepped to withstand the friction that comes when a chance they take fails. Processes like design thinking encourage potential leaders to “think outside the box” and help them build a skillset that allows them to see solutions when they might not be obvious. 
  1. The one-to-one approach can prove critical. While the training curriculum you plan will be enough for many employees, some will crave that extra nudge to help them clarify their thinking and ensure accountability beyond what leadership training can offer. Coaches and mentors can offer growing leaders a safe space to work through what they have learned and home in on the areas they want to improve. And the positive impacts from coaching can be felt organization-wide.  
  1. Lead by example and be interested. There are many ways to develop leaders within your unit, formal programs, workshops, coaching, but research shows that leaders simply having a conversation with their faculty or staff about their growth or modeling the way and sharing about their own professional and leadership development has a big impact on employee satisfaction and ultimately retention. Simple conversations such as just asking about your faculty or staff’s career aspirations or what they want to learn next can go a long way. 

Higher education must focus on developing its next slate of leaders to retain today’s employees and meet tomorrow’s challenges. What’s more, the approach your institution may have taken to build leaders in the past may not apply to the present. But the good news is that there’s no one way to build leaders. When following a few sound principles, you can create a culture of leadership development that meets your team’s unique needs and helps to prepare them to tackle the challenges the present and future have in store. 



Citations and Further Reading 

1 McClure, “Higher Ed Is a Land of Dead-End Jobs.” 

2 De Smet et al., “The Great Attrition Is Making Hiring Harder. Are You Searching the Right Talent Pools?” 

3 Parker and Horowitz, “Majority of Workers Who Quit a Job in 2021 Cite Low Pay, No Opportunities for Advancement, Feeling Disrespected.” 

4 “Language Bias In Performance Feedback.” 


De Smet, Aaron, Bonnie Dowling, Bryan Hancock, and Bill Schaninger. “The Great Attrition Is Making Hiring Harder. Are You Searching the Right Talent Pools?” McKinsey & Company, July 13, 2022.

Harper, Shaun R. “COVID-19 and the Racial Equity Implications of Reopening College and University Campuses.” American Journal of Education 127, no. 1 (November 2020): 153–62.

Leading Effectively Staff. “4 Reasons to Invest in Leadership Development.” Center for Creative Leadership, November 20, 2021.

McClure, Kevin. “Higher Ed Is a Land of Dead-End Jobs.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2, 2022.

Parker, Kim, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz. “Majority of Workers Who Quit a Job in 2021 Cite Low Pay, No Opportunities for Advancement, Feeling Disrespected.” Pew Research Center (blog), March 9, 2022.

Textio. “Language Bias In Performance Feedback: 2022 Data Analysis and Survey Results.” Accessed May 31, 2023.

Wang, Jianping. “The Power of A Coaching Mindset and Its Impact on Leadership in Higher Ed.” Academic Impressions (blog), April 21, 2021.