I. Setting the Stage

Building an Effective Leadership Team

Dr. Kim A. Wilcox

This essay focuses on the creation and support of a true “team” that works together to advance the institution. The premise of the chapter is that simply assembling a collection of talented individuals is not sufficient to ensure success; instead, the group must see themselves as part of a leadership team with individual and joint responsibilities within that team. The chapter will discuss the professional attributes of a successful team member, the nature of interactions within the team, and how the leader might best nurture the group as a “team.” Advice for leaders will include what to look for in recruiting and interviewing potential team members as well as how to create a collaborative environment that encourages teamwork as an expected part of everyone’s performance. Those topics will be specifically considered in relation to the creation and nurturing of a diverse and inclusive leadership team, and the leader’s responsibility for professional development for women and colleagues of color. Importantly, successful leaders and team members share many of the same attributes: integrity, candor, effective listening, a commitment to the institution first, staying in one’s professional lane, the ability to adjust/compromise, and the ability to provide frank feedback on performance (both to and from the supervisor and the subordinate).

In a large, complex university, it takes a team to both manage and lead the institution. A group of talented individuals, however, is not necessarily a team. Instead, members of an effective team must also share a common commitment to the institution and to each other. This essay describes some attributes of an effective leadership team, and how to assemble and lead one.

Personal Attributes of Team Members

When I am asked what I look for in a colleague, my first response is always a good listener. The obvious reason is that major universities are too large for anyone to know completely; so one must listen continually to keep up with all that is happening on the campus. Leaders must also be able to listen carefully enough to judge the accuracy and utility of what they’re hearing and contextualize that information within their existing knowledge.

I also put listening first on my list because it is a key indicator of a person’s humility and patience. Those who are always talking generally put themselves first, if not in their own minds, then in the eyes of others; and that persona is not helpful to effective leadership. One must not only listen to learn but also to provide the speakers, who generally have less power than the leader, with the time and respect that they deserve. Effective leadership requires compromise, and effective compromise derives from careful and respectful listening.

Another key attribute that a team and each of its members must share is an abiding commitment to the institution and its well-being. While self-confidence and self-promotion are often requirements for advancement at lower levels of the organization, members on an executive team must possess political savvy and a nuanced approach to highlighting the areas they lead while first prioritizing the needs of the institution as a whole. Inflated ego undermines an individual’s performance as well as relationships between and among team members, making everyone less effective. Leadership often comes with increased public visibility and access to special events and opportunities. It is easy to have this go to one’s head; so leaders must actively cultivate gratitude for their roles to remain humble. Attention is fleeting. In almost every case, once you’re out of the job, you’re out of people’s minds, as well; so it’s wise to avoid becoming too used to the attention.

Universities are great places, in part, because there are so many resources, and there is a general willingness to support a wide range of new ideas. Unfortunately, for some this becomes an irresistible temptation to use the campus as a personal hobby farm—a provost who has always wanted to create a new boutique academic department or a student affairs director who wants to start a student program exactly like the one they participated in themselves as a student. When initiatives like these are aligned with the university’s goals and aspirations, they may be great, but when they are driven by personal histories or desires, they indicate a commitment to individual interests that supersedes a commitment to the university.

I have often advised deans to avoid catching “Dean’s Disease,” which is the desire to start a new program as part of their legacy. Nearly every dean that I know can point to a department, research center, or program in their college that they wish had never been created. We have all inherited programs or departments that we wish we didn’t have. These programs don’t fit with the university’s broader mission, lack a culture of excellence, or have never been sustainable. Perhaps if our predecessors had thought more carefully about the long-term role of these programs within the university, we wouldn’t be saddled with them today. It is almost always easier to start something at a university than it is to close something down. Selfless leaders spend a great deal of time evaluating how any given decision will be seen by their successors. Whether it is a new initiative, new strategic direction, or even a public statement on an important issue, selfless team members consider each decision through the dual lenses of current institutional needs and long-term impact.

Of course, simply being a good listener who is committed to the institution is not enough. Effective teammates must also be content area experts, preferably with extensive experience. A productive team needs each member to do their job effectively which, in turn, makes everyone’s job easier. I didn’t list “content expert” first in my list however, because it is the “obvious” attribute and the one that is often too highly prioritized. Assembling a group of independent experts with little interest in each other’s concerns will not yield the most effective team. Instead, one should look for experts who want to be part of a team and understand what it means to be an effective teammate.

It is not always easy to select the right team members, but equally challenging can be advising those who want to be part of the team, but either aren’t ready or whose current position doesn’t warrant, in your eyes, a seat at the table. For those who aren’t yet at the table, personal mentoring is my response of choice. Hopefully, you can assist with their development. Your time and attention signal their importance to the institution.

Nurturing a Team

A good team should function well when everyone’s assembled in a large meeting, or when any two or three members of the group are meeting separately. The characteristics and behaviors, as well as the shared goals, should be the same in both settings. Similarly, a leader’s interactions with the team should be consistent across settings and should be guided by some basic principles. Among those principles is the requirement that you walk the walk of cooperative leadership. I openly admit to my colleagues that I don’t have all the knowledge needed to run a campus, and I need them to help me. I explicitly state when their advice has shaped, or changed, my thinking or altered one of my decisions. This admission opens the door for more frank advice in the future.

Assuming that the team members have been selected, in part, because they are good listeners, then the team leader should provide the opportunity for all of the team members to exhibit that skill. As an example, agendas for my leadership team never have more than three items. Once a week for ninety minutes, we meet not for sharing reports, but for discussions on important institutional issues for which broad input and perspective is needed. Often, some team member may have more knowledge of a subject than others and may be called on to lead the discussion, but there is time for everyone to participate in the conversation. The leader should in fact, be sure that everyone does participate, either by calling on those who haven’t spoken or, more effectively, by posing questions from differing perspectives that call for the other “experts” in the room to weigh in.

I also avoid sitting at the end of the table during team meetings. Instead, I try to sit at the middle of one of the sides. When the leader sits at the end, that end becomes the de facto “head” of the table and seats nearby the “head” become privileged seats. Sitting in the middle of the table not only brings some equity to the seating arrangement but also puts the team leader in the middle of things where it’s easier to hear everyone, maintain eye contact, and draw others into the conversation. I also vary which side of the table and which of the middle seats I choose, furthering reducing the belief that some seats are more important than others.

Another personal bias is my disdain for “Round Table” (where you go around the room and everyone provides a general update) as an agenda item. These often remind me of show-and-tell in kindergarten with everyone having to come up with something to say, some people saying way too much, and little if any of the comments yielding productive conversations pertinent to the entire group. Most—or all—of what is shared in a round table agenda item can better be shared by email. Additionally, important issues should not be put off until a staff meeting, but should instead be addressed in a timely fashion.

Candor is another important attribute of any effective team. Members of a successful team must be candid with one another, even in difficult conversations. Such candor, over time, yields an environment where team members speak freely, and at the same time can listen to challenging statements without becoming threatened or angry.

It’s easy to talk about complete candor; in fact, it’s easier to talk about than achieve. Some conversations are difficult, and at times I’ve said too much to someone; but in general, saying too little and withholding feedback has led to bigger problems than saying too much. Moreover, the better informed your colleagues are, the better they will be able to do their jobs. That information may, at times, cross lines of responsibility, but they are all professionals, so they should understand the need to treat that information with discretion. Moreover, they should appreciate that knowledge of issues outside of their portfolio will help them perform their duties, but having that knowledge is not an invitation to assume their colleagues’ roles.

Candor must be modeled by the leader in private, in group discussions, and in performance evaluations, both formal annual evaluations and ongoing feedback. I repeatedly remind my colleagues that performance reviews are formative, not summative. Their purpose is to help us become better at our jobs, and not to simply delineate our success or our shortcomings. Simply put, highlighting the good things that were accomplished in the previous year won’t make us better. Instead, we must honestly assess where we need to improve and how we should change. Beyond the simple metrics of unit progress, I try to identify one or two behaviors for each colleague to focus on in the coming year. In many cases, these are chosen to make the individual more effective in their job and often include team-oriented behaviors. But some are also chosen specifically to improve their potential as a candidate for their next job.

In that vein, early on in my relationship with each of my direct reports I make a point of talking with them about career goals and trajectory, and what I can do to help prepare them for their next job. That may include deeper engagement with the academic enterprise for someone in student affairs, or more budget experience for someone in DEI, and so on. Once defined, we work together to strengthen their knowledge base and their CV so that their experiences in a wide area of activities is apparent to the reader. The important message here is that I’m interested in their future and that it’s okay to be planning for their next job. I also try to develop my performance reviews with the “whole person” in mind, making a point of talking about work-life issues, family, vacations, and so on. I’m genuinely interested in my colleagues’ lives, and I’ve found that expressing that interest has great value in nurturing the team.

Career change is a fact of life and should be a consideration in the organization of the team. For instance, each of my vice chancellors is invited to bring one of their direct reports to our weekly staff meetings for a year. The intent is to provide exposure to the meetings and their topics which should help improve the operation of the university, but it also creates continuity for the time when someone on the team moves on. Each summer, the invited “seconds” rotate, and a new cohort replaces them, broadening the knowledge base of the campus.

I also try to make candor a two-way street. So, for example, at the end of every annual performance evaluation session, I ask each colleague for any advice that they might have for me. I appreciate that this is generally a stilted conversation given the power dynamics, but over time most colleagues become increasingly comfortable offering me feedback on my performance or suggestions for how to be more effective. And I always find that feedback useful. Similarly, I continually encourage colleagues to challenge me. Often when I float an idea I’ll simply say, “Tell me I’m wrong.” Most of the time, I’m encouraged by the response. That success builds over time and contributes to a culture where people feel they can “speak truth to power,” a characteristic that is partially determined by a person’s nature but can be nurtured and modeled over time.

In this media-rich age, how we share information can be as important as what we share. I won’t go through all of the present-day communication options and pitfalls, but one worth mentioning is the risk associated with email. Email can be extremely efficient, and for many of us it defines our working day. But it lacks the nuance of face-to-face or even telephone communication. In a word, email can be impersonal, and being impersonal is generally not a good thing for a team. Many times, I’ve watched issues swirl out of control because all of the communication between the discussants was by email, while a simple phone call would have been quicker and would have addressed the issue before it became a problem. Recognizing when to intercede and suggest that team members talk to each other, as well as modeling that same behavior yourself, can be very helpful in nurturing the relationships with a team.

Many years ago, I worked with a preschool that focused on language development. One of the tactics that the teachers used with the students was “redirection.” When a child came to a teacher with a problem—“he took my toy,” or “she won’t share,” for example—the teacher would tell the child to address the other child directly rather than ask the teacher to intercede. This redirection forced both children to develop language/negotiation skills that they might not have, otherwise. (Note: When the respondent child knew that the teacher had directed that the negotiation take place, the likelihood of success was greatly increased.) So too, with colleagues. Expecting that whenever possible, things get worked out among colleagues, rather than through the boss is crucial and leads to increased ownership for problem-solving in the future. In my experience, this expectation is assumed by more experienced colleagues, but often needs to be nurtured in less experienced ones; so at times you need to be deliberate in your redirection.

A challenge of managing a team is effecting a balance between supporting your colleagues’ independence and redirecting their actions in a way that you feel they could better serve the institution. The key phrase in the previous sentence is “you feel.” You must constantly judge your wisdom against the wisdom of others. Everyone must find their own way in this challenge. For me, I will admit to generally erring on the side of deference to my colleagues, and sometimes I realize too late that my deference may have been misplaced. But so far, the university has survived.

Inclusion

Much has been written about the benefits in terms of the quality of discussions and decisions that come from having a diverse team. I won’t repeat that here. I will note that for leadership teams there is another important benefit, and that is the model that it sets for the rest of university. When administrators are struggling to identify the best choice among various diversity initiatives for their department, school, or unit; I generally advise them not to worry about making the best choice, but just do something. It is unlikely that a conscientious leader will do something untoward. They may not select the “best” option, but whichever one they choose will likely move their agenda ahead. Moreover, they can always change to something else later. The important point is not what they do, but the fact that they do something, and the sooner that they do it, the better, because people are watching. So too with building a diverse leadership team which may be the most visible diversity initiative on the campus.

Universities are rightfully criticized for their slowness in diversifying our administrative teams. But criticizing an entire university (or all of academia) lets individuals off the hook. Instead, I believe in a simple axiom: The immediate supervisor is responsible. So if the department chairs in a college are not diverse, we should hold the dean responsible; if the deans are not diverse, we should hold the provost responsible; and if the vice-chancellors are not diverse, we should hold the chancellor responsible; and excuses should not be tolerated. I recognize that it can take some work to find diverse candidates, but so be it. That is our responsibility.

Part of the difficulty we have in identifying candidates from historically underrepresented groups is self-created. For example, the most common path to the university president is department chair then dean then provost, and the extent to which we continue to recruit “traditional” looking chairs and deans makes diversifying upper administration even more difficult. Of course, those in the “traditional” mode, are largely white males. We need to work harder at diversifying our entry-level administrative positions, for they serve as the primary entrée to upper administration; and we must be more willing to select those with non-traditional credentials if we are to diversify our leadership. To be clear, this is not a call to recruit large numbers of people from outside the academy (although I am not necessarily opposed); instead, it is a call to recognize the full range of talent within the academy when looking for leaders.

Leaders from diverse backgrounds face their own set of challenges. First, of course, everyone is watching, which makes their every task more difficult. Second, they rightfully have a perspective that brings value to the conversation and may feel a special burden in being sure that their perspective is heard. Third, in many cases, women leaders and those of color often face criticism that others may not. Team leaders have a responsibility to seek out diverse team members, but they also have a special responsibility to support them. I will admit to struggling with this, at times. It can be hard to be supportive and not appear patronizing. And it can be hard to be “helpful” without undermining the colleague’s effectiveness. My best advice is to face the challenge and do your best. A particularly difficult task in this regard is balancing external feedback. Faculty and staff are asked to formally review administrators regularly and can offer advice and criticism nearly anytime they want. Sorting out what is valid and what is bias-driven can be difficult in any situation, but even more so when the feedback is directed toward colleagues from historically underrepresented groups.

Leadership jobs can be hard, and everyone needs support. Women and colleagues of color often need that support more than others and can be disadvantaged in career advancement. A good team leader does what they can to minimize that disadvantage. One of my personal measures of success as a leader is my record of advancing my colleagues’ careers.

Years ago, one of my mentors told me that “credit is infinitely divisible.” (Not surprisingly, he was a math professor.) I try to heed that axiom. Recognizing everyone’s contributions is an important part of any leader’s job. Rather than worrying about how much credit you’ll receive for any given success, your efforts are generally much better served by ensuring that everyone else gets credit. That credit will eventually redound to you.

There is no “right way” to create and lead a team. At the end of the day, everyone must do what works for them. What I have offered here is based on my experience, and it fits my style. At the same time, it is grounded in a commitment to university success, a commitment to colleagues’ development, and a commitment to maintaining an environment that is both honest and will serve the institution well.


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Building an Effective Leadership Team Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Kim A. Wilcox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.