I. Setting the Stage

Building the Leadership Team

Dr. Brit Kirwan

As Jim Collins has so astutely observed, “getting the right people in the right seats on the ‘bus’ you’ll be driving and the wrong people off the bus” is an essential step of effective CEO leadership. Unfortunately, for most presidents, this is an extremely challenging task.

This essay will look at the challenges and dynamics in responding to Jim Collins’ proposition.  Topics to be included:

  • Identifying and recruiting the right talent to the leadership members
  • Building a mutually supportive and collaborative team
  • Developing a leadership agenda
  • Assessing team members and providing constructive feedback
  • How to know when to invite someone off the bus and how to go about it

In most cases, a president inherits an unknown leadership group. An immediate challenge for such a new president is to begin assessing these individuals for their fit on the leadership team. The essay will discuss the strategies and timing for making these assessments. When a president is recruited from within, the challenges are even greater because the judgements are being made about individuals with whom personal relationships already exist.

I will draw upon 27 years of experience building and leading administrative teams and observing other leaders grapple with these issues to provide the best guidance I can to aspiring and new presidents. This guidance will make concrete examples of successful efforts, as well as missteps I and other presidents have made with this essential responsibility.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins (2001) has the following prescient passage:

Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: business leaders) immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they’re going—by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision. In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction.

Although the reference here is to corporations, the principle applies equally well to universities. Indeed, getting the right people in the right seats on the “bus” you’ll be driving as a president and the wrong people off the bus is a sine qua non of effective presidential leadership.

This essay examines the challenges and dynamics in responding to Jim Collins’s proposition. Topics to be addressed include:

  • Identifying and recruiting the right talent to the leadership team;
  • Building a unified and collaborative team;
  • Developing a leadership agenda;
  • Constructive assessment of team members; and
  • Knowing when to invite someone off the bus and how to go about it.

Identifying and Recruiting the Right Talent to the Leadership Team

Creating the right leadership team is a radically different proposition, depending on whether a president is selected as an internal or external candidate. I have experienced both. I became president of the University of Maryland in 1988 after serving twenty-four years as a faculty member, four years as department chair, and seven years as provost. Over these years, I had served on numerous university-wide committees and the Campus Senate, and I had been a regular participant in university events. My knowledge of the campus and its culture and my acquaintance with people at all levels of the institution were extensive. Moreover, I had worked closely with the departing president’s leadership team members for several years. When I assumed the presidency, I had a good sense of the team members who shared my vision and aspirations for the university and those who did not. This made the decision of who should continue on my leadership team relatively straightforward. The task of recruiting the right people for the other seats on the bus remained, and I’ll turn to that topic later in the essay.

I left the University of Maryland in 1998 to become president of the Ohio State University, where I knew almost no one and only had a superficial sense of the campus and the Columbus, Ohio, culture. I was immediately inundated with advice from people on campus and in the community about what was right and wrong with the university and its present leadership team. I vividly recall an unsettling feeling I had not previously experienced in my professional life; whose advice can I trust? This is a reality virtually every new externally recruited president will experience. How can it best be addressed? First, any new president should heed Aaron Burr’s advice to Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton, “talk less and listen more.” New presidents can feel pressure to move quickly and demonstrate their decisiveness. This should be avoided. Presidents are better served by taking a period of six months or so to get to know the campus, its culture, and its community before making any major decisions, including personnel decisions.

A second strategy that worked well for me when I became president of Ohio State is worth considering. I invited Frank Rhodes, recently retired as president of Cornell University and a widely admired and respected academic leader, to spend several weeks on the campus conducting confidential interviews with campus and community leaders, faculty, staff, and students. Interviewees were asked what they would like the new president to know about the university, its strengths and weaknesses, issues that needed immediate attention, the administration’s effectiveness, and their hopes and dreams for the institution. Frank delivered a thirty-page report that became an indispensable guide for me. It greatly accelerated my induction into the campus and the Columbus community and helped shape my views on the skills I would need for the team joining me on the bus I would be driving.

Putting a team together will almost surely require national searches for the needed talent. It is common practice these days to use an institution-based search committee. Obviously, search committee members should reflect the diversity of the institution and community served, but it’s important that the committee not be drawn solely from the division the person being recruited will lead. In fact, I always tried to select a chair of the committee from another division, for example, the provost or another respected academic in the search for the chief financial officer or the vice-president for student affairs in the search for the vice-president for communications. This ensures that the perspectives of the broader campus community will be reflected in the search process.

Although I am not a fan of search consultants, they have become commonplace today. Among my concerns is the overreliance on consultants to develop the candidate pool and conduct the reference checks. Although the president needs to be careful about directly suggesting names for consideration (to avoid an appearance of bias in the search), the search committee should be expected to do so.

The president should play a primary role in checking references for the final candidates. Several guiding principles are important in carrying out this responsibility, some of which I learned through my mistakes. First, it is important to speak both to people the candidate reported to and some who reported to the candidate. During one of my presidencies, I failed to do the latter in a critical search and soon paid the price for this oversight. A second principle I always tried to follow when a candidate has served more than one institution is including reference checks from his or her former employer. Current employers can have conflicts of interest, both in terms of wanting to see the candidate stay or leave, which can color the accuracy of their comments.

The care taken in selecting the right candidate to join the leadership team cannot be overstated. From personal experience, the wrong choice takes a heavy toll on the leadership agenda.

Building a Unified Team

Once the team is in place, it’s time to start driving the bus. But where to? Done well, a strategic plan serves as the best road map to that destination. But “done well” is the key. A plan full of platitudes signifying nothing and not connected to resource allocations is worse than useless. It is a waste of precious time. Unfortunately, too many of the institutional strategic plans I have read over the years are of this ilk. However, a plan grounded in the institution’s values with clear priorities identified through an inclusive and rigorous process and tied to annual budget allocations is invaluable. In fact, it is the surest way an institution can make measurable gains in its quality and impact.

Thus, under the president’s direction, the leadership team’s central focus should be developing and implementing a comprehensive institutional strategic plan. The effort in creating the plan can also serve to build a unified and collaborative leadership team. This conclusion was driven home to me by my experiences at Ohio State.

Thanks in part to what I learned and acted upon from the Frank Rhodes’s report, I had my leadership team in place before the first anniversary of my presidency. The report clarified for me that this large and sprawling university, with branch campuses and physical locations in every Ohio county, was trying to be everything for everybody. The problem was that it didn’t have the resources for such a grand mission. No university does. If the university was to increase its quality and impact on the state, it needed greater focus. My team and I set about overseeing the development of a strategic plan to do precisely that. We did all the standard things, conducted a SWOT analysis, sent out surveys, appointed priority-setting committees, sought broad input, had a diverse writing team, and made a stab at producing a draft plan. When it was circulated for comment, it got decidedly mixed reviews. It was seen as too general, full of platitudes, and not requiring any meaningful actions. Back to the drawing board we went to produce a second draft and then a third draft, both of which got similar reviews. A sense of malaise fell over the team. We seemed stuck in a version of the classic movie Groundhog Day. Then one day, the vice-president for communications came into my office and said, “Brit, there is a Stanford management scholar named Jim Collins who is writing a book titled Good to Great. He seems to have keen insights into quality enhancement and strategic thinking. Maybe we could get him to consult with us on our plan.” Desperate to get us moving forward, I said, “OK, see if we can get him on the phone.” Sure enough, we did. I told him what we were trying to do, where we were with the effort. Then I asked if he could be a consultant for us. I’ll never forget his response. He laughed and said, “Out of the question for two reasons: I’m too busy writing my next book, and you can’t afford me.” But then he said, “I’m impressed with what you’re trying to do, so if you bring your team to Aspen where I live, I’ll give you two days of consultation pro bono.” Now that’s an offer no president could refuse. So, my team and I flew to Aspen and came to our first session with Jim Collins full of anticipation. As we settled in, his first question to us was, “What are your university’s values?” There was a long and pregnant pause. Finally, a few of us offered a few values, but it was clear that, as a group, we had never discussed and agreed upon a set of institutional values. After a few awkward moments, Jim said, “OK folks, we have lots of work to do. Let’s get started.” For the rest of the day and the next, we engaged in deep and meaningful discussions, developing a shared sense of values and vision for the institution. We agreed upon a structure for our strategic plan with clear priorities and a process for tying those to budget allocations.

We left for Aspen as a group of well-intended, dedicated individuals with no real sense of shared vision. We returned exhilarated as a unified team grounded in a shared sense of values, purpose, and vision for Ohio State’s future. In short order, a new version of our strategic plan was produced with rave reviews from the campus and external communities. The plan became the blueprint for the institution’s progress during my tenure, and its impact on the university is evident to this day. The leadership team found the experience so meaningful for our work together that we set aside time each year to go off on a retreat and have a candid discussion assessing our performance, the status of the strategic plan implementation, mid-course adjustments we needed to make in it, and how we could perform better collectively.

This experience taught me that building a unified, engaged, and dedicated leadership team takes significant effort, intentional planning, and concentrated time together in meaningful conversations about the institution’s purpose, shortcomings, and successes, and future directions. This doesn’t require the serendipitous good fortune of a session with Jim Collins. Every campus has, or can easily find, individuals capable of facilitating the kind of foundational discussion Jim Collins led for us. Such sessions are the most effective and efficient way for a president to build the leadership team’s unity, cohesion, and sense of purpose.

Creating a Leadership Agenda

The leadership agenda must, of course, be inextricably tied to the institution’s strategic plan. If the community senses that the president has an agenda separate from the institutional plan, both will fail. The leadership agenda should be developed as part of the planning process involving the institution’s and the larger community’s multiple stakeholders. It requires carefully analyzing the institution’s strengths and weaknesses, the university’s needs and those of the community it serves, and the areas where it can have the greatest impact. The first strategic plan I was responsible for at the University of Maryland, some thirty years ago, was developed using many of these elements, but it had a major defect, which I corrected in subsequent strategic plans I developed there, at Ohio State and the University of Maryland System. That first plan was too internally focused. It was what I call an ego-driven plan, calling for higher rankings, more selective admissions, and more institutional prestige. Too many strategic plans I read these days suffer from the same defect.

For both principled and practical reasons, in today’s world, public university strategic plans should be focused on the institution’s capacity to affect the broader community positively. After all, these universities are created and supported by the public for the public good, not for institutions’ internally driven egos. That’s the principled reason. There is also a practical reason why this is important. A successful strategic plan requires both internal and external resources. The plan should drive fundraising campaigns, foundation grant requests, and federal and state grant applications. For the most part, external funders aren’t interested in advancing a school’s rankings. They are interested in funding opportunities to advance the public good.

Another mistake I made with my first strategic plan was to focus priorities and resource allocations too narrowly on the institution’s strongest departments, leading to “winners and losers” as determined by the central administration. A better strategy, which I used with subsequent planning efforts, is to identify broad institutional priorities through the planning process and invite proposals from departments and colleges as to how they would address these priorities. Multidisciplinary responses were encouraged. A selection of distinguished faculty, perhaps drawing on reviews by external experts, then evaluates the proposals and makes recommendations of those that should be funded. This approach appears to be gaining some favor nationally. Under the leadership of President Darryll Pines and Provost Jennifer Rice the University of Maryland just concluded such a process. They invited proposals addressing society’s “Grand Challenges” of our time, which had been identified in the institution’s strategic plan. They made multiyear funding commitments to three large multidisciplinary proposals following a rigorous review and selection process. The results of this process were presented to the university’s foundation and will now become a top priority for fundraising efforts.

Such a process has many virtues. It ensures the quality of funded proposals. It also gives unsuccessful units the sense that they at least had an opportunity for support. Moreover, the reviews of their proposals provide constructive feedback, which will be helpful in future such competitions or other grant proposals.

Assessing Team Members and Providing Constructive Feedback

In general, universities are notoriously bad at providing professional development opportunities and rigorous personnel assessments for administrators and staff. Other sectors of society, including the military and the private sector, do a much better job of this. Ironically, these sectors employ strategies and consultants from our institutions to develop their professional development programs and policies.

The quality and effectiveness of the leadership team can only be sustained over time if the president is willing to devote time and attention to a substantive performance evaluation with constructive feedback to team members. The president should also actively seek professional development opportunities for team members, such as participation in relevant professional associations and support for travel to relevant meetings. Each member of the team should be periodically asked to represent the president at events when the president has a schedule conflict or when the president’s attendance is not deemed necessary.

Performance evaluation is best accomplished by an annual review process based on a set of agreed-upon goals. A process that has worked well for me requires several steps. It begins with a meeting early in the summer to discuss the team member’s leadership challenges, issues facing the team member’s division, and its role in implementing the strategic plan. The team member is then asked to develop a proposed set of performance objectives for the coming year with performance indicators to gauge success with the initiatives. This leads to a second meeting a few weeks later, where agreement is reached on the team member’s yearly performance objectives. Not all objects can be quantitatively measured, but most should be.

Over the course of the year, several meetings are held with the team member dedicated solely to the status of the performance objectives. At these meetings, it is possible there could be some adjustments to the performance metrics because of unforeseen circumstances.

At the end of the academic year, the team member is asked to write a report with an analysis of the progress of each performance objective based on the performance goals. After a careful review of the report and an independent analysis of performance metrics, a frank conversation is held with the team member to provide a constructive assessment of the member’s performance. The meeting is followed by a letter summarizing the discussion. This assessment is the primary tool used to determine team members’ merit increases.

Given a leadership team of half a dozen or more members, the time commitment for this kind of evaluation is substantial. But I have found that the effort produces a significant return on investment in the growth and performance of leadership team members.

There is a second benefit to a process such as this. Despite a president’s best efforts in recruiting talented team members and building a unified team, some members will inevitably not work out and must leave the bus. These are among a president’s most difficult decisions and must be handled with care and sensitivity for both professional and legal reasons. A rigorous, carefully constructed annual review process can help the team member understand that there is a need for a change in the division’s leadership. Importantly, it can also serve as the documented rationale for the decision process should the president’s decision be legally challenged.


Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to Great. Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. New York: HarperBusiness.

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Building the Leadership Team Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Brit Kirwan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.