Randy Helm was President of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA from 2003 -2015, and Interim Chancellor of UMass Dartmouth from 2016-2017. He is a founding principal of Torrey Helm, LLC.
Never ever criticize your predecessor to anyone but your spouse, dog, or cat. You will only make yourself look small, petty, and insecure. Your predecessor will have made some bad decisions (so will you). If others try to ingratiate themselves by bad-mouthing your predecessor, politely change the subject.
Walk to work by a different route every day if possible; eat lunch in the dining hall frequently. Smile and make eye contact with everybody you encounter. Learn names, say hello, make small talk. You are always being observed. Don’t give others an excuse to perceive you as superior, aloof, or self-important.
Master the art of self-deprecating humor without putting yourself down. Never make jokes at the expense of others.
When called on to “say a few words” get to the point. No one ever complained that a speech was too short.
Don’t rush to replace senior staff. Take time to assess them. Make sure you understand their strengths as well as their weaknesses. They will certainly have more institutional knowledge and better personal networks than you do. That knowledge has value. If you must replace someone, work out the separation privately and, if possible, let them leave with their dignity intact.
Don’t overprotect your calendar. You should have a honeymoon period -- don’t squander it. Tell your scheduling secretary that you will accept short meetings with anybody who asks, but protect a couple of hours each day for returning phone calls and emails. Once the curiosity dies down, so will the requests for meetings.
Don’t inherit anybody’s grudges. Offer a welcoming smile, a handshake, and a clean slate to everybody – even those who were the bane of your predecessor’s existence. You’ll have plenty of time to make your own unpopular decisions and create your own nemeses.
Start every meeting with a smile and a warm, enthusiastic greeting – especially the difficult ones. This will throw troublemakers off guard and may trick them into being warm and helpful in return.
Don’t have a meeting unless you have an agenda – and let everybody in the meeting contribute to the agenda. Don’t leave a meeting until everybody agrees what has been decided, what the next steps are, and who is responsible. Keep track.
When stressed out or exhausted, have lunch with some students. It will never fail to cheer you up.
And a bonus: Authenticity matters. As my dear old mother used to tell me: “Just be your own sweet self.”
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