New Manager Assimilation
- from the May 1997 AAHE Bulletin
One of the most challenging things a new president or other new campus leader must do is "take charge." That first act of leadership will differ in process from person to person and setting to setting. The entry process can be especially difficult where the newcomer follows a long-serving and strong predecessor.
Such was the case at San Diego State University, where one of us (Weber) succeeded President Thomas B. Day, who during his more than twenty years of service had led SDSU through a long period of growth and change, including its incorporation into the California State University system.
In anticipation of that succession, the other of us (Krinsky) was brought in to help in the leadership transition, and together we concluded that, in fact, transition itself would have to be a major theme of the new presidency. Dr. Day had been a strong and effective president, and his signature was everywhere in hiring, management, external relations, and most significantly in the way the community viewed the presidency itself. We discussed various approaches that might be employed to shorten the time needed to firmly establish a new presidency, a matter especially important due to pressures of several significant and ongoing campus initiatives, including development of important new programs and construction of major new facilities.
From Susan Way-Smith, a senior human resources executive at the Teledyne Corporation, we learned about a procedure the manufacturer uses to help its new executives make the transition into new roles. In what Teledyne calls its "New Manager Assimilation" process, a facilitator meets with each person who will directly report to the new manager, asking several questions in 30- to 45-minute sessions. Ground rules provide for anonymity. The questions include
The facilitator concludes the process by convening the entire group (including the new manager) and summarizing the answers he or she heard to the five questions. The facilitator then turns the session over to the new manager and withdraws, and the new manager takes over.
We decided to try this "assimilation" process with SDSU's President's Cabinet of top administrators. We did so last June 12th. Here's how it went.
What We Did
I (Weber) sent a memo explaining the rationale and procedure to each Cabinet member well in advance of the session. My memo explained the ground rules, presented the questions, and set forth the schedule: 30-minute meetings with the facilitator (Krinsky), followed by a wrap-up session at the close of the day. We presented six questions to the Cabinet members:
The memo explained, "The process is an informal way to get acquainted quickly, address any concerns the Cabinet may have, and begin building strong, positive, and productive working relationships. At the conclusion of the meetings, I will meet with you as a Cabinet and Ira to discuss his summary of the responses."
The eight individual meetings began at 8:00 am and continued through 5:00 pm. The wrap-up meeting began promptly at 5:30 pm, with Ira summarizing the Cabinet's responses. The members of the Cabinet were then encouraged to supplement Ira's summary. Here are some of their representative concerns:
What do we want to know about the new president?
What should he know about us?
What does he need to know to be successful here?
What significant issues need to be addressed quickly?
What specific suggestions do we have for addressing the issues we have identified?
The summary discussion became a basis for planning the president and Cabinet's first retreat, which was held in late August 1996 and was, by all accounts, most successful and productive.
What We Learned
Each member of the Cabinet was asked to evaluate our "New President's Assimilation." Most participants believed the process was useful. Some had ideas about improving it; specifically, they suggested the following:
Some of the suggestions for change in the process seem to relate to differences between Teledyne's private-sector context and SDSU's not-for-profit culture. The campus environment is typically more process-oriented, and senior officers are accustomed to a higher level of interaction than would their counterparts in a business setting. In an academic setting, then, it might be wise if the new president, facilitator, and Cabinet (or other direct participants) were to plan the assimilation process together. After enacting the process, pretty much as described herein, the president and the facilitator might allow time prior to the wrap-up session to review privately the concerns surfaced in interviews.
To take charge of an organization as special and complicated as a university is very difficult, even for an experienced president such as this one (Weber). Too often, new leaders believe they have the luxury of "taking a year to settle in" before launching tactical and strategic plans. But in the current climate of change, rising costs, shrinking resources, and competition for student, faculty, and administrator talent, that approach can waste a narrow window of opportunity to effect needed change. It seems prudent, then, for a new president to accelerate the way he or she comes to understand the campus and assess its needs, and to move forward with an agenda. A "New President's Assimilation" process may help in this.
Relevant AAHE Resources
The Search Committee Handbook The authoritative source of advice in finding, selecting, and appointing the best people to key administrative posts. Its last chapter, "The Appointment: Bringing a New Person Aboard," discusses strategies for helping a new administrator succeed. 1988, 64pp., $7.50(members)/$8.95
On Assuming a College or University Presidency: Lessons and Advice From the Field Practical essays from two researchers ("Five Approaches to Think About" and "The President-Trustee Relationship") and an experienced president ("Strategies for an Effective Presidency"), plus an annotated resource guide. 1989, 80pp., $8.00(members)/$10.00
To order, contact AAHE's Publications Order Desk at 202/293-6440 x11.
Since the purpose of the transition process was to facilitate the successful start of my new presidency, the "bottom-line" questions immediately emerge:
Just now completing my first year at San Diego State, and knowing it will be some time before "success" can be declared, I am yet an enthusiastic supporter of the transition process, and I believe it was valuable in getting my presidency off to a good start.
The process we've described here did indeed facilitate communication with my Cabinet officers, who were naturally curious and somewhat apprehensive about their new president. But more than just an exchange of information, the process signaled a president who was eager for the views of senior officers and who valued their feelings as professional colleagues. Because of the transition dialogues, it was easier to enter into conversations with them, both as a Cabinet and as individuals. Most important, they felt more comfortable in delivering bad news or identifying problems and issues that needed resolution. It's always difficult to say what might have been, but I suspect that the process has made Cabinet members more self-confident and willing to risk telling me things I might not be eager to hear. My own learning curve was certainly accelerated. There was less game playing, and more honest conversation.
Tested by Crisis
Unfortunately, only six weeks into my new presidency, San Diego State experienced a horrible triple homicide, probably as difficult and unanticipated an emergency as could have confronted a new leadership team. The crisis allowed little time for us all to "feel one another out"; decisions had to be made quickly, and communication had to be candid. In short, it was important that we be a team in fact and in appearance. I believe the presidential transition process deserves part of the credit for bringing our leadership team to a higher degree of readiness and effectiveness than might otherwise have been possible.
For those administrations that understand that a president is not a "solo act," but must work effectively with a campus leadership team, I strongly recommend a process like that employed at San Diego State.
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