Higher Education Consultant Highlights Three Necessary Capacities for College Leaders and the Students They Serve

Patrick Sanaghan is an organizational consultant who has worked with more than 1,000 higher education administrators. He spoke at the 2014 USA Funds Symposium on “Global Leadership Begins With a Global Mindset.”

Sanaghan reported that higher education leaders today are operating in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. “Change is the new normal,” he said. “It’s a permanent whitewater, and it’s not going away. The big challenge for leaders is how do you stay in the boat and navigate these permanent white waters.”

Sanaghan listed three critical capacities that higher education leaders, and the student they serve, need to navigate those white waters:

  • Resilience.
  • Influence.
  • Trust.

According to Sanaghan, resilient people have a strong acceptance of reality, an uncanny ability to improvise, the ability to focus, they aren’t afraid to ask others for help, they succeed not in spite of the challenges they face but because of those challenges, and they have the “grit” to persevere in the face of setbacks. “The notion here around resilience is that it can be taught,” he said. “Our students, I think, come to the table with lots of resilience.”

Influence, according to Sanaghan, is exemplified by a two-star general he met, who advised him that he had given only two direct orders in his career.  Sanaghan noted this general knew that he had “a bunch of smart people who are dedicated and want to do the right thing.” He advised the symposium participants, “You can have huge influence on the men and women you lead without telling them what to do.”

Sanaghan reported that influential people deal with relationships before tasks, spend time not just on task but on the processes used to complete tasks, have solid reputations and can themselves be influenced.

Most higher education leaders are personally very trustworthy individuals, Sanaghan said, but they need to address two other types of trust at their institutions: Strategic trust is the faith that senior leadership of the institution will make good decisions for the future of the institution. Organizational trust involves the policies and procedures that an institution has traditionally followed.

Sanaghan offered the following practical steps for building resilience, influence and trust on campus:

  • Identify emerging leaders. Sanaghan urged college leaders to be wary of “high potentials” — charismatic, fast-talking individuals who actually may lack the skill sets for leadership — and be on the lookout for “stylistic invisibles” — individuals who don’t look like leaders but may be the perfect fit for leadership positions.
  • Create opportunities for students to have real conversations with senior leaders. Sanaghan recommended higher education leaders share with students their own challenges and lessons learned from their leadership experiences.
  • Create diverse cross-boundary groups on campus that deal with real institutional challenges and problems. Sanaghan cited the case of a college pursuing 37 different student retention strategies. During a half-day meeting of 50 college staff from various departments, the institution whittled the program to a more focused six strategies.
  • Provide job rotation where employees spend considerable time in a different division of the institution.
  • Promote service learning opportunities.
  • In the classroom, conduct powerful simulations, create immersive learning experiences in a low-risk environment and teach students to learn effectively in groups.
  • Seek feedback about yourself and conduct a leadership audit.
  • Be willing to admit uncertainty because there’s a lot of it out there.

Noting the challenges facing higher education, Sanaghan said, “The easy stuff already has been solved. The only thing that remains for you as leaders in higher education over the next decade is the tough stuff, the hard stuff, the 'wicked' problems.”