Advice for a senior leader who has been promoted from within (opinion)

April 17, 2024
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In a labor market marked by high executive turnover and shortened leadership tenures, many organizations are recognizing the value of promoting from within. Internal CEO appointments hit a record high in 2023, and internal recruitment at all levels is increasingly central to strengthening organizational culture and succession planning.

If you are a newly promoted member of a senior leadership team in higher education, we offer our congratulations and a piece of advice: even as you hit the ground running, don’t rush past the benefits of newness that would ordinarily accrue to an appointee coming from the outside.

What does this mean for you, the newly promoted leader? Rising from within your institution, you bring many advantages. You’re familiar with its history, goals and challenges. You know the administrative systems and processes. But overreliance on familiarity carries risks and can foreclose valuable opportunities. If your college or university doesn’t provide mentoring or coaching for newly promoted leaders, consider creating your own onboarding, with the following practices as a guide.

Reinvest in relationships. Given your prior interactions with members of the senior team or their deputies, it might be tempting to assume you’ve already established a sufficient working connection with them. But newness in your role is a rare and valuable opportunity to get to know them and their work differently and more deeply—and vice versa.

Seek out regular informal meetings with your colleagues to ask questions. Be open with them about what aspects of senior team work might be new to you, such as board relations or institution-wide budgeting. Resist the idea that requesting get-to-know you time from busy administrators is an imposition; in most cases, it is a welcomed opportunity for them to reflect on the larger purpose of their day-to-day work and the insights they have gained in their own leadership journey. Moreover, the better you know one another, the more readily you can collaborate and offer mutual support.

Look with fresh eyes. You might not be new to the institution but the occasion of your promotion is a call to view it anew, clearly and expansively. The Zen tradition might characterize this practice as “beginner’s mind.” Such a mindset pays dividends to you and your college or university, especially as you join a senior team setting institutional direction and strategy. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” observed a noted Zen teacher, “but in the expert’s, there are few.” One of the gifts of being new is the freedom to ask “Why?” and “Why not?” with little risk of penalty or embarrassment. Embark on your new role from a place of possibility and commit to returning to it often.

Reframe wins and losses. Serving at the senior leadership level is less about leading the work than charting the course. The mindset required is less “Are we getting the work done?” and more “Are we doing the right work?” As a leader at this level, you are called to look broadly, institution-wide, at the full landscape of opportunities and threats, needs and constraints. In this context, your mindset around wins and losses will probably need to shift. You yourself might not have “won” the budget increase you requested for your division but, as part of the leadership team, you helped allocate institutional resources strategically to advance the institution’s work and secure its future.

Contribute to the collective intelligence. In an effective organization, only the thorniest issues come to the leadership table. (If they weren’t thorny, they’d be solved at more junior levels). Very few issues at the senior team level are straightforward or unidimensional. Those concerning, say, ways to expand diversity, equity and inclusion; communicating through crisis; or developing institutional strategy for AI require a team’s collective intelligence. Your strengths—and those of your colleagues—enhance the cognitive and strategic capacity of the whole team.

It might be tempting to think that you don’t need to give much mindshare to Thorny Topic X because it doesn’t have direct connection to your domain or area of expertise. Not true. You are on the senior team for more than your subject-matter knowledge; you’re no longer free to say “not it.” Make time to understand the issue and its context—then bring your best thinking to the table.

Nearly every notable action an institution takes, whether a policy change, an investment or divestment, a program launch or closure, has ripple effects in other areas. When you join a senior leadership team, you are called to care—and care deeply—about the whole of the institution. The buck stops at the senior table. You and your colleagues—collectively, “the administration”—rise and fall together. Onboarding yourself carefully to new relationships and new ways of thinking is vital. Doing so will ensure that you add value not merely because you know the place and its past, but also because you’re prepared to ask new questions to shape its future.

Laurie Fenlason, founder and principal of L. Fenlason Consulting, advises leaders, teams and boards on strategy, visibility and strategic communications. Jenn Desjarlais is a principal with Cambridge Hill Partners, a consulting group supporting leadership and organizational development.



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