Last Updated on Sep 22, 2020 by James W

1. Financial Acumen

In a 2017 survey by the consulting firm Deloitte, nearly two-thirds of college presidents ranked fundraising, alumni relations, and donor relations among their top three priorities. Respondents also said that fundraising was the most important leadership skill they needed to further develop. This is especially true for public institutions, as state and federal aid have steadily decreased since the 1970s.

Fundraising is certainly a critical part of the job for a college president, as private funding pays for employee salaries, faculty research, capital projects, and student financial aid. However, financial acumen is much more than fundraising. Leaders in higher education need experience in developing budgets, overseeing endowments, and creating financial plans at a time of economic uncertainty. You can also find the best here higher education executive search firms 

2. Collaboration

The concept of collaborative leadership in higher education emphasizes “bridging the gap” among various internal and external stakeholders. Within the institution, for example, a collaborative leader would view laboratory research and classroom teaching as complementing each other rather than competing. Collaboration also means bringing departments together for opportunities to learn from each other, whether it’s a better way to teach an online course or a more efficient way to clean a building.

Outside the campus, this type of leadership involves mutually beneficial partnerships with local businesses and organizations. Collaborative initiatives could include scholarship opportunities, internship job placement programs, or ongoing conversations with government policymakers about community issues such as housing, transportation, or conservation. Colleges and universities are often among the largest employers in their communities, and a collaborative approach to leadership in higher education can reduce the stigma of the institution as an isolated “ivory tower.”

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3. Building New Leaders

Successful leaders in any industry recognize the importance of providing development opportunities for mid-career or middle-tier professionals with both the potential and the desire to take on a leadership role of their own. This helps the organization strengthen and expand its pool of candidates for leadership positions while allowing staff to progress in their careers at their current institution.  

Leadership training and mentoring programs enable leaders in higher education to empower faculty and academic staff to develop their own leadership skills. This provides two benefits: It allows current leaders to support those who have expressed interest in becoming future leaders, and it enables leadership to focus training and professional development on the most critical needs of the institution. 

4. Communication

Just like executives in other industries, leaders in higher education must be effective communicators. They must be comfortable engaging with a wide range of audiences both on and off-campus and in both public and private settings. Over the course of a single day, for example, a leader may meet with faculty members, employees in support roles, donors, other senior leaders at the college, government officials, current students, prospective students, members of the community, or the press.

There are five steps to effective communication: 

  • Start with what’s most important.
  • Set expectations up front about what you need.
  • Actively listen and take body language into account. 
  • Provide constructive and specific feedback.
  • Address concerns immediately and, if possible, in person.

5. Strategic Planning

Making the transition to a leadership role in higher education means taking on additional responsibility for strategic planning. Whether you lead a single department or an entire institution in your new role, you must assess what your team and its assets are doing well, where there is room for improvement, and what it will take to get there. You will need to consider short-term plans that can be executed quickly and with little disruption as well as long-term plans that will have a broader and deeper impact. 

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Understanding and using data is an important part of strategic planning. Data provides empirical evidence for making a decision, whether it’s choosing a new bookstore vendor or creating a new academic department. In addition, data influences and enables collaborative leadership. Data gives all relevant stakeholders access to the same information as they develop a plan, which allows multidisciplinary teams to build a consensus and come to an agreement.

Data plays a key role in budgeting and financial planning, but data utilization also supports operations, policy development, curriculum development, and student and staff recruitment. Leaders in higher education should strive to build a culture where staff and faculty are encouraged to use data to create strategic plans and monitor their progress.


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