I. Setting the Stage

Organizing to Lead

Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan

New presidents and chancellors [1] are often quoted the metaphor that recommends that they be certain the right people are in the right seats on the bus. This metaphor takes the bus itself for granted. I advise new executives to ensure that the bus is in good repair with the correct number of seats before filling those seats. Careful review of the organization chart and decisions about desirable spans of control are important in assessing the bus.

Before moving on to select people for the seats, the new executive needs information beyond the organization chart. Institutional memory is an important asset but easy to overlook, and a wise executive taps it. Any specific university is a collection of microcultures. Assessing the right people for those bus seats requires not only learning about current vice presidents and deans and their strengths, but also understanding their networks of microcultures.

Previous experience, while valuable to any new executive, can also form a set of blinders about how a workplace could operate. Both executives appointed from outside the university and those promoted from within have blind spots. The larger the university is, the more likely it is that there are many parts that even the best Dean of X did not know before becoming president.

An ideal leadership team will have the following strengths: good communication up, down, and laterally; a diversity of intellectual backgrounds and views; a balance of institutional tradition and innovation; and confidence that the president is strong enough to hear both good and bad news.

Organizational Context

Modern universities are complicated in much the same way that modern conglomerates are, but universities are organizationally very different, not least because top-down leadership does not work in the university as it might in the corporation or the military. I explained to my governing board that the University of Virginia contained at least five enterprise lines: undergraduate education, graduate-professional education, health care, research, and athletics. Other universities may have simpler organizations; for example, not all universities have hospitals. Nevertheless, most universities are organizationally more complex than their constituencies understand. Most board members are familiar with one or two of these enterprise lines, but not all of them, and unfamiliarity risks overlooking some parts of the institution. Thus, the advice about “getting the right people on the bus” ignores how complicated the bus itself is (Collins 2011). Perhaps the bus needs more seats or fewer seats, or perhaps it needs to be replaced with a regional jet.

A new executive should review the organization chart thoughtfully. One thing to note is the span of control, or the number of direct reports to each executive. New presidents vary in their comfort with a wide span of control. My experience is that former provosts, who have usually had all the deans as direct reports, are comfortable with broad spans of control. While there are advantages to, let us say, having all vice presidents report to the president, there can be practical reasons for developing a narrower span of control. Narrow spans of control, however, lead to a steeper hierarchy with accompanying bureaucratization to provide more coordination. A narrow span of control may also constrict the flow of information to the president.

The most immediate decision for the new president is which officers should be direct presidential reports. This decision is not entirely a matter of presidential discretion. The US Department of Education took the position (since rescinded) that the Title IX Coordinator should report directly to the president (US Department of Education 2011, 3). The NCAA expects the president to have control of the athletics program (NCAA, n.d., Operating Principle 1(2)), and athletic conferences may require similar certification. [2] Such requirements may most easily be met by naming the athletic director a direct report. Having the provost and the chief business officer report to the president is conventional, but there is more variation in the reporting lines for student affairs, diversity/inclusion, research, information technology, human resources, health affairs, communication, buildings and grounds, and other positions.

A second important decision is how many seats on the bus to allocate to any function. Consider the budget. Without question, the president needs control of the finances of the university. Also, without question, the president needs to delegate the day-to-day financial issues to others. Unlike many organizations, the university’s revenue sources are not fungible. The endowment principal cannot be spent to reduce tuition—at least, not without legal repercussions and donor anger. Federal research dollars cannot maintain athletic facilities. In public universities, state laws limit how appropriated funds may be spent. In many organizations, all dollars are green; in the university, by contrast, the dollars come in different colors depending on source and regulatory restrictions (Massy 2016, 29–33).

Finance is a function that might require multiple seats on the bus. Finance is not simply a matter of resource allocation. Accounting, purchasing, construction, insurance, taxation, investment, regulatory reporting, fringe benefits, fund-raising, and a host of subfunctions directly involve the finance officer. At the University of Michigan, the vice president and chief financial officer had sweeping responsibilities, but as provost I was the chief budget officer. This separation reinforced the academic priorities in the budget. At the University of Virginia, there has long been a position for a chief operating officer (COO), but also for vice presidents in finance, facilities, and human resources who report to the COO. Realistically, because every executive officer has budgetary responsibility, every officer is at least indirectly involved in the finance function.

New presidents should consider the functional needs of the university and whether key roles are missing. Sometimes administrative positions have remained unchanged for years, and now new areas need executive attention. Having a vice president for information technology was once unusual, but today the chief information officer is necessary.

If adjustment is needed, the new president can create positions or adjust the portfolios of existing positions. Creating more seats on the bus is unpopular. I was advised not to create any new vice presidencies. Critics label new vice presidents as administrative bloat and complain about high salaries and corporatization. The more unilateral the decision is, the more likely it is that there will be backlash. I found an alternative approach in enlarging the span of control of some of the seats on the bus for a trial period. Examining each portfolio also allowed me to iron out some redundancies.

The Executive’s Own Background

The governing board examines the backgrounds of the potential presidents and picks someone with a suitable background—suitability being a function perhaps of career accomplishment, previous experience, alumni networks, or political acceptability. To constituents within the university, however, the two most important aspects of the presidential background are discipline and last position held.

As much as commenters speak of the culture of a university, in fact universities are made up of a congeries of microcultures. The work life of research physicists may have little in common with that of accountants in the research office, and physicians in clinical practice experience the university quite differently from the way the English professors experience it. Every internal stakeholder, whether administrator, faculty, staff, or student, has experienced the institution differently in terms of daily work tasks, resources, and colleagues. Significant diversity within the institution arises from different worldviews and practices of the disciplines.

Wise presidents seek out team members whose backgrounds and networks are different from their own. Research indicates that more diverse teams make better decisions (Page 2008). Demographic diversity is certainly an important consideration, but there are other aspects of diversity to consider too. I am a social scientist and I benefited greatly from having provosts who came from chemistry in one case and engineering in another.

It is dangerously short-sighted to assume that the entire university is just like the microcultures the president already knows. Moreover, because the president’s own microcultures are a comfort zone, it is a great temptation to pick team members from the same microculture. This similarity creates a comfortable team but builds in blind spots. Just as the university that taught only one subject would not be worthy of the name, a leadership team that is an intellectual monoculture will be seriously limited. Not only does a diverse team make better decisions, but it also signals to the campus that different views are being heard.

The second issue is whether the new president is an insider or an outsider. Outsider Presidents can come from a variety of backgrounds, including business, government, the military, and other educational institutions. For a honeymoon period of variable length, Outsider Presidents may benefit from a perception of their strengths without a matching perception of their weaknesses. Insider Presidents have been working inside the institutions they are now called to lead. Their familiarity with the institution is valuable, but the institution’s familiarity with them means that both their strengths and weaknesses are known. On the one hand, insiders often begin with knowledge of the institution’s needs and priorities, a decided advantage. On the other hand, Insider Presidents may assume that that they know “all about” the institution, and just like the assumption that all university microcultures are the same, the assumption that one “knows” the university is misleading. Even lifelong members of a university community will find that within its complexities there are many new things left to discover.

The Outsider President has the opposite problem: how to learn about an institution while trying to lead it. A true advantage of the Outsider President is knowledge of how things may be done differently based on previous postings. (A temptation to avoid is talking out loud about the previous institution or comparing the two institutions.) Outsider Presidents need a plan for learning about their new institution, and they need to be proactive and inclusive in their search for information. Many people who want to brief the new president have an agenda or an axe to grind. An important rule for new administrators, especially those coming from outside the institution, is to remember that there are multiple sides to every issue.

Choosing New Team Members

Assembling a new team does not imply that every team member must be new. Every new president needs to complete an in-depth, individual interview with each member of the current leadership team. One of the worst mistakes I have seen a new president make is to ask for the resignations of the entire team on Day One. This decision created fear and resistance throughout the institution. This president’s tenure was less than two years. The message of disdain he communicated for the previous team unified the campus against him. He was judged unfair for denying the previous officers so much as an interview.

Too much institutional memory is embedded in the current team to discard without an effort to learn it. Some important issues for questions are the usual SWOT matters (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Recent turnover, internal and external conflicts, and new regulatory matters are fruitful areas of conversation. This conversation also gives the new president an opportunity to assess the incumbent’s fit into the new team, and to schedule a dignified transition if a change is needed. Sometimes this conversation reveals that the incumbent wants to leave and has postponed retirement until the new president arrived.

Active listening is the best tool the new president has in these initial conversations. The existing team will do their best to learn the new president’s agenda, while the new president is trying to learn the current state of the institution. Listening carefully, volunteering little, and asking questions are important tactics. One result of these interviews should be that the new president starts to hear the same issues from different people. While this repetition might be a bit boring, it is also reassuring: it shows consensus among multiple executives about important issues.

One exception to this practice occurs if a crisis has led to the new presidency. The news media might make clear what the crisis is; perhaps some current executives are centrally implicated in a scandal. The governing board might even suggest that the new president replace certain team members. The reality of the situation is nearly always more complicated than the narratives the new president will hear at first. I advise consulting the General Counsel before acting, because even at-will employees could have due process rights. Talk to the other team members first; then make a reasoned decision about how to consult with the team members embroiled in the crisis. Keep in mind the advice to hear multiple sides of a story, because the news media can miss some key facts and get others wrong. New presidents want to avoid hasty judgment. In the end, although the board may offer advice, the choice of the leadership team should be the president’s (MacTaggart 2011, 45).

Outsider Presidents are often permitted by the governing board to bring key team members with them from their previous postings. While bringing a ready-made team is comfortable for the new president, it also multiplies the number of leaders who do not understand the new institution, and it may signal mistrust of the new community. The worst result is creating a crony echo chamber, in which partial information is repeated to create a false reality. One seasoned and successful president once told me, “If you want a friend, get a dog.” Presidential comfort should always be a secondary consideration to doing the job well.

Another disadvantage is that crony appointments usually sidestep established search procedures. Most institutions expect open searches for executive vacancies. This expectation for a search may be formalized in bylaws or an administrative handbook. Avoiding this opportunity for shared governance can be misconstrued as a distaste for transparency.

However, a relevant issue is the institution’s bandwidth for multiple formal searches atop the existing workload. The governing board should know the schedule for searches, especially if they must be spaced out over several semesters. Although the appointment of the team is the president’s prerogative, the board should know the general plan for reorganization and recruitment, and in some universities the board must ratify selections for certain positions. Remember that the board receives information, some of it spurious, from many sources, and they need to know from the president what to believe.

Because of the centrality of the academic portfolio to the mission, a decision about the provost is one of the first the president should make. The new president has several options, including confirming the incumbent, confirming the incumbent for a limited period to conduct a search, or appointing an interim while conducting a search. The second position to appoint or confirm will likely be the chief financial or business officer. Wide consultation, even informally, is helpful both in making a good decision and in setting a pattern of consultation. Even if the team selection process takes several years, the new president needs to keep working to get the best team possible (Flawn 1990, 30).

The Channels of Communication

Good university executives need to communicate in three directions: up to their supervisor; laterally with one another; and down to subordinates. A good president not only cultivates these communication channels for others, the president also is a model of good communication. Managing up for the president means keeping the board, its executive committee, and/or the system office apprised of campus developments. Managing laterally is most likely to be important if the university is part of a system and collaboration with other presidents is expected. Managing down is the information, support, and evaluation the president gives to direct reports.

It is fun to communicate good news, but it is more important to communicate upward any actual or potential bad news. Failure to transmit negative information is the most common mistake in managing up, nearly always with poor results. It is a bad day when board members hear on television or read a tweet about a negative event for which they were unprepared. One seasoned president who had filled several presidencies told me he accomplished communication with a weekly letter to the entire board in which possible bad news could be previewed. (One word of warning: depending on the state’s open records laws, in public universities this letter might become available to the public. This becomes problematic if personnel matters or other sensitive topics need to be communicated.)

A common communication pattern is that vice presidents hold staff meetings on Monday mornings. Then on Tuesday mornings the president’s cabinet meets. This pattern can be effective in ensuring that issues are elevated to appropriate levels of oversight. The Monday staff meetings allow vice presidents to practice upward, lateral, and downward communication. This advantage is lost if the presider at staff meetings, whether the vice president or the president, creates a one-way lecture with others’ participation limited to questions. One-way staff meetings are demoralizing and a waste of time. The content of the monologue could have been delivered in an email; meantime, important institutional issues go unaddressed. Occasional anonymous evaluations of staff meetings can help presidents and their teams avoid this trap.

Two practices can alleviate the one-way communication problem: joint agenda setting and the round robin. In joint agenda setting, any member of the team can place an item on the agenda and then prepare to speak on it. The ensuing conversation should emphasize problem-solving, not blaming. The president must frequently reinforce that there is no punishment for bringing bad news. I candidly told my team that I would not punish the messenger who brought bad news. Neither the board members nor the president wants to read the bad news for the first time in the media.

The round-robin encourages lateral communication. All the team members are asked for a brief report on their portfolios, with a focus on problematic or cross-cutting issues. To take an example, the government relations executive is likely to have information valuable for every portfolio. Mary Sue Coleman, while president at the University of Michigan, introduced me to the helpful practice of the dance card. The dance card was a ten-minute break in the middle of the meeting when the team members in twos or threes could address brief issues with one another. By eliminating the need for later phone calls or email, the dance card saved time and kept the team members in touch with one another. Vice presidents soon learned to make appointments with each other for a few minutes—hence the term “dance card.”

Lateral communication among the vice presidents is important and might run against ingrained practices of jockeying for favor or guarding one’s turf. These practices waste time and energy and should not be rewarded. I knew a president who as a leadership technique set his vice presidents against one another. He believed that this practice made him seem to be a stronger leader and gave him more power. Ultimately the internal warfare and chaos drew the attention of the board and led to his firing.

A president who has selected strong individuals from diverse backgrounds is bound to encounter some conflict among the meeting attendees. Very secure subordinates may even challenge the president’s assumptions or plans. Sorting out the conflict can be productive for the institution, and addressing the disagreements directly is better than letting the conflict fester. Ultimately, disagreements about initiatives allow the president to assess multiple views and make better decisions. Abraham Lincoln’s courage in assembling a cabinet of “rivals” was seen in hindsight as a strength, although at the time it was no doubt uncomfortable (Goodwin 2016).

Although the staff meeting is important for the president’s downward management, it does not substitute for regular one-to-one meetings with the direct reports, each of whom needs some face time with the president. These meetings can be an occasion to address any conflicts within the team. Presidents who prefer to talk only with a tight kitchen cabinet of just a few people will frustrate their direct reports and make it harder to align the university to the president’s priorities.

The vice presidents and other direct reports must also communicate the institution’s priorities and initiatives to their own direct reports. This downward communication is a little more difficult for the president to judge, but it is important to make it a topic for the annual assessment of the direct reports.

Team Assessment

Assessing the leadership team is necessary for best performance. I followed a three-step procedure annually with each direct report. First, each of them wrote a report about their major goals in the past year, their successes and challenges, and proposed goals for the following year. If the vice presidents are staffing certain board committees, getting feedback from board members is a helpful part of the assessment process.

Second, I met with each one, sometimes requesting revisions and asking questions about issues in their teams. Third, I wrote a detailed evaluation letter—usually long on praise and sparing in criticism—as a clear signal for the vice president, a justification for any salary adjustment, and a written record of the encounter. These assessments are onerous, and there is never a good time in the academic calendar to complete them. Nevertheless, it is important (and often gratifying) for the vice president, and it is a good learning experience for the president.

Occasionally, a direct report is simply not functioning well in the role. A frank conversation about perceived shortcomings is unpleasant, but it is important to do before issues accumulate and morale sinks within the person’s portfolio. There are alternative ways to handle poor performance: creating a performance plan with benchmarks for improvement, providing additional support, or creating a glide path to a different role (or no role) in the university. The human relations department probably has an experienced practitioner who can provide advice, but the president needs to have the conversation in person with the direct report.

There are different schools of thought on whether the leadership team members should be appointed for set terms. A term appointment—say for five years—does not change the at-will status of the vice president, but it does provide reasonable time frames for more detailed assessments. Many universities have 360-degree assessments before the reappointment decision is made; this assessment, often conducted by an outside consultant, collects confidential information from all the constituencies that deal with the vice president. I found these assessments to be most valuable if the vice president is debriefed about the results.


Before the president can lead the university, the president must lead a team. Modern universities are too complex for direct presidential control of their many functions; delegation to trusted subordinates is the most feasible alternative. With a strong leadership team, the president will stay well informed but will have the time to focus on the institution’s chief priorities. It is both a privilege and a heavy responsibility to pick and support a talented team. There are days when their enthusiasm, good ideas, and success may even feel threatening.

However, the president who always must be the smartest person in the room has picked the wrong team and will eventually find that the room has become very small indeed.


Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Business.

Flawn, Peter T. 1990. A Primer for University Presidents: Managing the Modern University. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2006. A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.

MacTaggart, Terrence. 2011. Leading Change: How Boards and Presidents Build Exceptional Academic Institutions. Washington, DC: AGB Press.

Massy, William F. 2016. Reengineering the University: How to Be Mission Centered, Market Smart, and Margin Conscious. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

NCAA. “16 Principles for Conduct of Intercollegiate Athletics.” https://www.ncaa.org/sports/2016/7/6/the-16-principles-for-conduct-of-intercollegiate-athletics.aspx . Retrieved May 26, 2023.

Page, Scott. 2008. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, and Societies. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

United States Department of Education. 2011. Office for Civil Rights. “Dear Colleague” letter. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201504-title-ix-coordinators.pdf. Retrieved May 25, 2023.

  1. In this essay, I use the term “president” to refer to the chief executive of a higher education institution, even though this person may carry the title of Chancellor, Superintendent, or something else. Similarly, I use the term university even though some institutions might call themselves a college or school. I use the term board to refer to the governing board whose members might be called trustees, regents, governors, visitors, curators, or something else.
  2. For an example, see University of Virginia Board of Visitors, Minutes for September 23–24, 2021, https://bov.virginia.edu/system/files/public/minutes/%2721%20SEP%2024%20FULL%20BOARD%20MINUTES.pdf, 85. Retrieved May 25, 2023.

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Organizing to Lead Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.