Strategic Coaching Builds More Successful Academic Leaders

By Anthony Knerr

Imagine a new provost – a respected scholar and former dean who wowed the search committee only a few months ago – sitting at her desk, head in her hands. Far from the campus at which she had previously spent 25 years as a faculty member and department chair, she is facing myriad challenges in her new role, wondering how to deal with competing requests from worthy deans while balancing the president’s concern over growth in faculty lines with public criticism of the increasing use of contingent faculty.

To whom should she turn to figure out how to replace the grumpy dean who lost his faculty’s confidence, trim the budget while improving academic quality, and persuade the university’s best microbiologist to turn down a tempting competing job offer?

She knows all about longitudinal epidemiological analyses—her Ph.D. thesis was the basis of her first book, published by Oxford University Press—but she’s never been trained to prepare a budget, deal with a complex sexual abuse case, or present a new academic degree proposal to the faculty senate or board of trustees. She’s had no professional development to help her become skilled and confident in strategic planning, institutional operations, or academic management. And she has her eye on the possibility of succeeding her president, whom she greatly respects, and wants to move to the next level with a strong record of effective leadership.

The Frustrated Provost’s Situation

If our fictional provost’s situation sounds daunting, consider that higher education leadership—the top presidential, provostial, decanal, and administrative roles—is likely to grow even more challenging in the decade ahead in view of ever increasing financial pressures, growing politicization on and off campus, new concerns about free speech, and greater calls for strong institutional leadership.

Happily, there is a continuous stream of gifted, able, and enthusiastic individuals keen to lead universities and colleges, intrigued by the opportunities and challenges of the future of higher education, and blessed with such critical leadership capabilities as integrity, confidence, articulateness, social and political intelligence, and stamina. The growing number of strong female and minority candidates for senior positions has wonderfully deepened the pool of capable leadership talent.

But no matter how gifted and dedicated they may be, many higher education leaders have not received the kind of professional development they require to flourish in positions as complex and scrutinized as those at the apex of higher education leadership. Many a new president, provost, or dean has risen through the academic ranks along the traditional path from department chair to dean (or associate provost) to provost to president. But even the most accomplished and confident typically comes to his or her new role without a substantive understanding of management, strategy, and leadership. And increasingly, university presidents have come from outside the academy and are not well versed in the particular, if not peculiar, customs, culture, and habits of higher education.

While innate capability, drive, and ambition often lead to success, many leaders are truly unprepared for the unrelenting demands, pressures, and complexity of their positions. These leaders often:

  • Face complex strategic and leadership issues that are difficult to discuss comfortably or confidentially with others, including board members, other executive officers, direct reports, and lateral colleagues or peers at other institutions;
  • Want to see the bigger landscape and learn more about best practices and similar issues faced by leaders at other institutions;
  • Have deep experience in a specific program area but need guidance to successfully resolve a wider scope of complex strategic, organizational, or political challenges; and
  • Are transitioning to a new and different role, often one with a more diverse constituency of stakeholders and greater decision making authority.

The strongest institutions have recognized for some time that their human resources are their most important asset: that the quality, impact, and reputation of the institution increasingly depend on the skill, thoughtfulness, and strategic capabilities of academic leaders, from department chairs to provosts to presidents. These institutions know from experience the cost of identifying, attracting, and retaining top leaders—in money, time, and political capital. As they come to realize that many leaders do not have the necessary skill sets or professional experience to be fully successful in a time of unprecedented and unpredictable change, they are acknowledging that investing in the ongoing professional development of their leaders pays remarkable dividends: their leaders become more skillful and agile, think and act more strategically, make wiser decisions about resource planning and allocation, nurture healthier institutional cultures, and promote a stronger sense of community and engagement among their many different stakeholders and constituents.

How Strategic Executive Coaching Helps

Skilled strategic executive coaching helps academic leaders successfully anticipate and resolve key strategic issues, better understand their leadership roles, enhance their effectiveness, strengthen their overall performance, and, by extension, improve the strategic positioning and overall excellence of their institutions.

More particularly, experienced and thoughtful strategic coaches help institutional leaders:

  • Become clear about their individual leadership strengths and weaknesses and how to effectively deploy the former and rectify the latter;
  • Take advantage of emerging opportunities and strategic possibilities, while becoming more confident, self-aware, and capable executives able to assume new, additional, and (often) different leadership responsibilities and to enjoy their current roles and institutional positions;
  • Allocate the resources at their disposal— including budgets, time, infrastructure, cultural norms, and professional relationships—to the best effect in strengthening the quality and character of their leadership;
  • Candidly discuss strategic and related issues that they cannot raise with the individuals to whom they report, lateral colleagues, or direct reports— or their spouses or partners—in view of the sensitive, and typically quite complicated, nature of the issues; and
  • Undertake strategic thinking in a safe space in which confidentiality is strictly maintained, there is a healthy mix of high-altitude strategic and lower-level operational considerations, and there is time to consider, test, and review alternative courses of action with a skilled, experienced strategic coach.

The Provost and Her Coach

Happily, our frustrated provost’s president knew from experience that even the best new leaders encounter challenges and struggles they are not prepared for. Moreover, he had seen his university’s national and international reputation grow as its successful deans and provosts eventually were recruited by other institutions for their top positions. The president urged the new provost to work with an experienced higher education strategic coach. She readily agreed after she met the coach, discussed his approach, and heard his take on her challenges.

With the president’s blessing, she chose an experienced strategic coach who had advised, counseled, and mentored hundreds of university presidents, provosts, deans, and other academic and administrative officers across a wide range of institutions— large and small, struggling and successful. He had previously held senior executive positions at major private and public universities, had a Ph.D., and was expert at strategic planning.

From his years of coaching and consulting, the coach was also well versed in the distinctive cultures, politics, and decision making processes of higher education. While the coach’s particular focus was on developing strategic thinking among college and university leaders, his extensive experience in the tactical and functional components of higher education— operations, financial planning, marketing, fundraising, faculty and board relations— convinced the provost that he could be for her both a sounding board on which to test her ideas and a reliable portal to the best (and worst) practices of other higher education leaders.

The provost and her coach met in person for a two-hour confidential conversation every month, each bringing an agenda of issues to discuss. Because every coaching session built on earlier ones, the coach was able to surface several recurring themes and considerations on which to focus in general, as well as to provide guidance to the provost and jointly problem-solve on her more immediate and urgent strategic and leadership issues.

The provost and her coach had ongoing discussions about the university’s strategic and competitive positioning, her time management, how best to strengthen her fundraising skills, and the importance of transparency and communications. They also discussed how she might best deal with a difficult under-performing dean, handle a complicated and politically sensitive task the president had recently asked her to undertake, and go about selecting a marketing and branding firm for the university.

The coach helped her identify and focus on the biggest issues, using her time more effectively. He prompted her to reflect regularly on lessons learned, anticipate upcoming problems, and set specific objectives for the next academic year. He listened carefully, asked lots of questions, made suggestions, and observed patterns of behavior. After just a few sessions, they fell into a free-flowing but focused “back and forth” style of interaction, supported by high trust, good humor, and wonderful collegiality. The coach played multiple roles: sounding board, “focuser,” synthesizer, role-player, distiller, thought provoker, and informed observer.

The coach made himself available at all times by phone for brief conversations when issues arose suddenly, to review drafts of communications and proposals, and to discuss progress on time-sensitive issues they had explored during in-person meetings. Of great importance to the provost, the coach had made clear at the start of their relationship that he would maintain strict confidentiality with respect to all of their interactions and he would brief the president or a colleague only with the provost’s express authorization.

The provost found several other benefits of working with her strategic coach:

  • He was a strategist rather than just a leadership coach. While he was skilled at helping leaders become more effective and successful, he did so through the lens of thinking and acting strategically.
  • He had best practices and likely pitfalls at his fingertips, was able to suggest a broad array of options, and drew upon a wider range of professional experience than most senior institutional leaders.
  • He had successfully counseled and coached many different types of leaders with different backgrounds, skill sets, and strengths at many different types of institutions. As a result, he understood not only her situation but those of many of the colleagues with whom she had to interact.
  • He thought regularly and deeply about the challenges, trends, and opportunities of higher education and hence understood the implications of rapid, complex, and increasingly unpredictable change on institutions and their leaders. He couldn’t see into the future, but he could help her peer over the horizon and avoid surprises.

The Provost Might Become a President

The provost worked intensively with her coach for three years, during which she gained great confidence and became recognized as a thoughtful, articulate, and effective academic leader. She made a series of wise decanal and staff appointments, and with her deans recruited stunningly gifted junior and more senior faculty while retaining five world-class faculty members who had attractive offers elsewhere. She balanced the operating budget, building reserves and making a series of strategic investments in innovative programs. She helped to land three major gifts that jump-started important strategic initiatives. And she became widely respected on campus and beyond for being a particularly able, thoughtful, and affable provost.

She credits her strategic coach with helping her grow into her provostship, anticipate and successfully solve a series of thorny and complex strategic issues, and come to enjoy being the chief academic officer of a thriving university. Her president has just announced he is retiring in a year. She is discussing with her coach how she might best become the leading candidate to succeed him.


Anthony Knerr is Managing Director of AKA|Strategy.

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