The Care and Feeding of the 24/7 University President

Guest post by John Thornburgh

Attention university trustees: Protect your academic chief executive.

Running a university is unpredictable and stressful, and it takes a 24/7 commitment, yet most academic presidents wouldn’t trade their roles for anything. These men and women are patient, confident, optimistic, energetic – and rare.

Recognize that a great president counts among your institution’s most valuable assets, and be sure that your board is aware of how important it is to properly care for and protect him or her.

Make a plan now to avoid presidential burnout and optimize the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of your chief academic officer. Don’t wait: Include a plan for presidential well-being on your next board agenda – and make sure you include execution and follow-up on the agenda at least once a year.

Start by considering these initiatives:

1.      Personal support staff. Beyond the need for an experienced team and a professional executive assistant, many presidents now rely on a chief of staff to prioritize daily activities, deflect distractions and keep the executive office focused on important issues.

2.      Professional development opportunities. A change of scenery can be revitalizing and relieve stress. Consider offering your chief executive opportunities to serve on a corporate or non-profit board or take an extended sabbatical. Be thoughtful in how you approach these, however. They can generate negative reaction in the press or community – especially if the board service is well compensated or the sabbatical is interpreted as a sign of a leadership transition.

Another option is a return to the classroom. Teaching can provide intellectual refreshment, spark valuable interactions with students and increase on-campus visibility.

3.      Mentoring or coaching. It’s often lonely at the top. Some leaders welcome a relationship with a peer for sustained, confidential dialogue. Others prefer a more formal relationship with an executive coach who will help them develop or refine specific skills like relationship building or stress management.

4.      Personal perks. Design the package of benefits that accompanies a presidential appointment – official residence, car and driver, club memberships, etc. – to minimize distractions while maximizing time to focus on the welfare of the institution. For example:

  • An on- or near-campus residence supports both official entertaining and the sense of accessibility. Allocate the funds needed to manage what may be a sizeable home and busy official schedule, including support staff, building maintenance and event management.
  • Allow for a car – and a driver as well – to support your expectations that your president travel frequently on university business while maintaining his or her productivity. Also formalize a policy regarding business travel expenses for the president—and the president’s spouse.
  • Club memberships effectively ease the official business of cultivating friends and donors. Also, encourage your leader to choose and use a club to foster his or her mental health and physical fitness. And require an annual physical.
  • And speaking of wellness, see that your president takes time off. Vacations offer a meaningful respite from a demanding role and provide for a properly balanced life.

5.      What gets measured gets done. Assign oversight of the plan for presidential well-being to a committee of your board. Expect regular and positive reports on the “care and feeding” of your chief executive.

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