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How to be a University Vice President

“A University President is someone who walks around campus with a worried look on the vice presidents’ faces.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes from a university president. He was joking, I think, but didn’t Sigmund Freud give legs to the expression, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke?”

I’ve served as a vice president for marketing, communications, and public affairs for four presidents at two universities over 14 years, and I have come to the conclusion that this particular presidential joke is mostly truth – and a truth that every university vice president should contemplate.

What did the president mean?

For starters, of course, he meant that every president requires each vice president to perform at the highest level individually, and collectively as a Cabinet. Each vice president should love the role and fully embrace the responsibilities that come with it.

That’s it in a nutshell, but let’s take it out of the nutshell. I’ve made a list of the attributes that I think go into the making of a good vice president -- and I invite readers (if there are any) to comment on this list – by taking issue with what is here, or by adding to it, or both, in the comments section.

  • A good vice president is sincerely concerned for the president’s wellbeing. The president is flying the lead plane in a potentially dangerous environment. The vice presidents are the wingmen or wingwomen in the formation, flying beside and slightly behind, providing cover. At an inauguration worship service recently, the campus community prayed for “the physical, emotional and spiritual protection” of the new president. I love the word “protection” in this context. I believe vice presidents should be ever-mindful of that prayer because it will be answered only through their attentiveness to the president, their alertness to the president’s needs, and the quality of the work they do.

  • Have great “news judgment.” On the one hand, never let the president be surprised by good news or bad news; the president should be the first to know about major news or issues. On the other hand, be a smart filter and keep minor annoyances out of the president’s face. Handle these things yourself. Learn to recognize the difference – from the president’s perspective.

  • Never take a problem to the president without taking at least one possible solution. The president already has a lot of unsolved problems. Your job is to help solve problems, not merely to identify more of them.

  • Always make the president look good, always cast the president in a positive light to your staff, and always advocate for the president’s agenda by creating awareness and support. (If you can’t support the president in this consistently upbeat way, you really should ask for a different role at the University.)

  • This does not mean being a spineless “yes-person.” When an issue is being discussed or debated in the Cabinet, be strong enough to make your case as persuasively as you can with candor and respect. You have an obligation to share your best thinking with the Cabinet. If you can’t trust your boss to listen to opposing viewpoints and occasional, respectful pushback, you are working for the wrong boss.

However! Once a decision is made, the time for dissent is over. Implement the decision to the best of your ability -- and advocate for it -- whether you originally agreed with it or not. (Don’t ever go back and tell your staff that you disagree with an unpopular decision, but the president is “making” you do it. That is throwing your president under the bus, which is unprofessional and cowardly. Instead, explain the president’s rationale and endorse the decision with staff.)

  • View your role on the Cabinet as helping the president and team move the university forward on all fronts, not just with respect to your narrow area alone. You are an officer of the university, not a lobbyist for a special interest group. So work in joyful partnership with the other vice presidents. Help each other succeed. Make each other look good. Your president will love that, and you will find yourselves doing great things in a humane shop.

  • The Cabinet models the university’s culture. How well the Cabinet functions as a collective leadership team and how its members interact positively with each other will serve as a model for teams throughout the University to follow – and they will.

  • Don’t communicate with any board member on any issue of substance unless the president is made aware in advance. If the board member calls you, report the nature and content of the conversation to the president immediately.

  • The vice presidents should become competent at holding themselves and each other accountable for excellent work so the president does not have to do that. Nothing will galvanize directors and staff more than a Cabinet that is focused, in sync, and accountable to themselves and each other.

  • Don’t argue disagreements over e-mail. Body language is absent and tone can be misunderstood. Pick up the phone or better yet, meet face to face.

I was discussing this post with a young advertising executive who admonished me to “tell them what’s in it for them.” Of course, a selfish motive runs counter to all of this advice. And yet the vice president who possesses the above attributes and who does business in this way will find that the president returns the favor many times over – by helping the vice president advance and succeed personally and professionally, by celebrating the vice president’s accomplishments, and by being there with advice and yes, protection, in difficult times. If higher education is your life’s work, there is no better ally, and no better mentor, than a president.

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