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What It’s Like to Start a Leadership Role in a Virtual World

Written by: Ryan Crawford and Melissa Fincher
Published on: Oct 1, 2020

This fall, like every other, higher education has welcomed a new cohort of leaders who are doing what new hires always do in their first months on the job — listening, discovering, planning, adjusting. But of course, Covid-19 means this fall is unlike any other, and so is the experience of settling into a new leadership role.

What has it been like to take on a new position — sometimes in an unfamiliar campus and city — in this confusing semester? Campuses feel unusually empty, and in-person meetings are rare. Many recently hired leaders have yet to move into their offices, while most orientation and on-boarding have taken place virtually. In fact, some new leaders haven’t been able to relocate yet to their new cities, given the complexities of the housing market in a pandemic and the challenges of home life for those with children.

As search consultants, we have talked with some newly hired senior administrators to get a sense of their transition and of how they’ve managed their first days and weeks on the job.

Building relationships at a distance. Most institutions that were recruiting senior administrators last spring opted to finish the process with online interviews. When those hires joined their new institutions this fall, many were faced with virtual on-boarding as well. Gone were the traditional ways of getting to know new colleagues — meeting for a cup of coffee, sharing a meal, roaming the halls to chat and introduce yourself.

Thankfully, by the time these leaders started their new positions, most people had adjusted to working inside a Zoom box. So while building relationships with new colleagues certainly looks different this semester, people have found effective solutions. One client arranged a virtual “fireside chat” in which the new administrator was interviewed by a fellow leader on the campus. All employees could join and were able to submit questions ahead of time. The conversation blended personal and professional topics, and helped introduce the new hire to a large group.

Some institutions have sought to build one-on-one relationships in structured ways — for example, assigning mentors or peers to new hires. Others have been fortunate to have a departing or interim leader who can help make introductions and design a transition agenda.

Some of the unintentional effects of working from home have even turned out to be useful in helping people on the campus get to know a new leader. Pets unexpectedly joining Zoom meetings, and children making noise in the background, open the way to personal connection and comic relief that you don’t often get in the office. Sure, such interruptions can create challenges and awkward moments, but they also present opportunities.

“I am intentionally looking for ways to make the best of this remote work environment,” said Stephanie Oberhausen, who recently started as vice president for advancement at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “One of the benefits is that I feel I’ve had the opportunity to get to know people on a more personal level, in an expedited way. If your cat or kids join your meeting, it humanizes you. I have 3-year-old twin boys. My co-workers wouldn’t have seen that side of my life in a pre-Covid office environment. I think it’s allowed my team to see that I am willing to be vulnerable in my personal life, and, as leaders, we must be patient, kind, and flexible as we all work through this next chapter.”

Understanding a new culture. To be effective, new leaders often need to bring the lens of a sociologist or anthropologist to their work. Understanding the campus culture, and the history behind it, is critically important for a leader who is trying to help an organization improve or evolve. Through their own research and conversations, new hires this fall said they’d been able to get a sense of the mission and values of their new campus.

What’s been harder to discern remotely, they said, is when people talk about barriers that affect their work. Some barriers are within the structure of the organization — in the way decisions are made, in a lack of communication across departments, or in informal precedents that are apparent only with experience. Such barriers are harder to uncover and understand in Zoom meetings.

A virtual environment has also made it difficult to fully grasp some of the physical or geographical barriers within an organization. Brad Ringeisen recently started as executive director of the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. The pandemic prevented him from visiting the institute during the interview process, and he has worked remotely since taking the position, in July. While he has been able to get a sense of the culture, he has come to realize some of the challenges of not understanding the space and location. How does office location affect internal dynamics? How do physical distance and travel times affect relationships with partners around the Bay Area? While colleagues can point to these issues, they can be hard to fully grasp without experiencing them on the ground.

Establishing a leadership style. New leaders have had to establish their style, voice, and presence virtually. It’s easier to demonstrate empathy and openness in person, in formal meetings or water-cooler conversations, than via Zoom.

The new chancellor of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Austin A. Lane, said, “I envisioned my next chancellorship to start in an auditorium full of community members to express my sincere enthusiasm to lead the university. I am a ‘handshaker’ and get energized by being out and about on campus — meeting as many students, staff, and faculty as possible. Instead, I find myself one member of the never ending ‘Brady Bunch.’”

But he has adjusted well: “At first, it seemed odd, but, as this has become my new reality, I have grown to embrace the value. Even with hundreds of people, I’ve still been able to individualize my interaction. This virtual format is allowing me to have access to people in my first two months that may have otherwise taken six to sit down with.”

Monica J. Casper, newly appointed dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University, said that she sees some benefit in how videoconferencing can flatten the sense of hierarchy in an organization. Gone (for now) are the days of arriving at the dean’s office and waiting to be announced formally and escorted to a seat at an expansive conference table. “There is a sense of inflated pageantry to that experience,” she said. “This new virtual format is freeing and more democratic.” In a gallery view on Zoom and other platforms, everyone occupies the same amount of space in the “room.”

Some leaders enthusiastically encourage an open-door policy, but a physically closed door can discourage outreach. A quick Zoom session provides the face-to-face interaction that may have otherwise required 10 email exchanges. This virtual environment provides an opportunity for expediency and ally-building that new leaders can take advantage of.

Setting an urgent agenda. New leaders often want to spend their first 90 days on a listening tour to understand their new environment before making critical decisions. Unfortunately, a pandemic, budget challenges, and issues of racial injustice have placed urgent decisions on the agenda of new leaders much earlier than usual in their tenures. There is no honeymoon period and no time to ramp up. Leaders must hit the ground running with decisions that may influence the institution for years to come.

“It’s like drinking from the fire hose,” said Oberhausen of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “There isn’t a lot of runway to figure out what was or wasn’t working in the past because this is a whole new era. I am assessing as I go and then making a decision that is well founded with appropriate urgency.”

Many of the new leaders we spoke with emphasized that it was more important than ever to rely on people with institutional knowledge. An incoming dean may bring extensive experience on accreditation but will need advice on the pressing local context. On issues that are politically charged or sensitive, a new leader may have to look to administrators with more history on the campus to help lead the way.

Despite the challenges of remote working, new leaders can’t be afraid to speak up, said Ringeisen, of the genomics institute. “There is a tendency to be quiet in virtual settings, especially if you are new,” he said, “but people still look to you. There’s a reason they hired you for a leadership role.”

Other new leaders this fall stressed the importance of relying on stated institutional values and goals, and then being clear about what is driving critical decisions. Since her first day as a dean at San Diego State, Casper has been engaged in responding to certain budget cuts for her college. “Transparency helps in these tough decisions,” she said. “It’s really clear what this college values: excellent teaching, commitment to general education, and supporting faculty research. We have approached evaluating cuts by looking at our values.”

In the past, higher education has dragged its feet in embracing drastic change. But 2020 is forcing academe’s hand. Constituents must feel confident that a new leader is facing those challenges with the best interests of the institution in mind.

Ryan Crawford is a principal in the education practice of the executive-search firm WittKieffer. He is based in Austin.