Twenty Years As A U.S. University President--Universal Management Lessons Learned
That May Not be Taught in the Classroom
William J. Carroll
President, Hunter Global Education
President Emeritus, Benedictine University
July 11, 2023
VNU University of Economics and Business, Hanoi
In life, some of us are given unique opportunities to better ourselves and those around us. I was fortunate enough to be a university president for some 20 years. It was a journey that I never anticipated but one that I will never forget. When asked to give a talk today to you I thought a lot about what I might be able to say to you that might be beneficial. When I look back on my presidency, there are certain key elements that enabled me to be successful. During my tenure at Benedictine University, the University was listed by The Chronicle of Higher Education as “the fastest growing university in the country for ten years.” What led to that success? With my presidency over, I wondered what are the takeaways that I might share with others to help them in their leadership journey? My experience does not simply apply to a university or a business, it applies throughout your life and your journey.
What led to my success at Benedictine University? Here are the key takeaways.
As I ascended the leadership ranks from faculty member to department chair to dean to provost to president, I heard voices. As a faculty member, I heard my fellow colleagues discussing their programs and their concerns about the university. As a dean, I heard from a larger audience of faculty across disciplines about their concerns and the future of the university. As a provost, I heard the concerns of the entire academic segment of the university.
As I climbed the leadership ranks of this audio ladder, I began to hear another voice. It was weak at first but the higher I got in terms of leadership the louder the voice became. It was the voice of the institution. It spoke to me about its history, its wounds, its successes, and its mission in the past and its anticipation for the future. While the institutional voice did not replace the voices of the individuals, it was an extremely important ingredient in my understanding the place at which I worked and was charged with leading.
When I became Benedictine University president, I was presented with the Rule of St. Benedict. It was a manual by St. Benedict on how monks should live. The most important word for me is the very first word—"Listen.” While intended for monks, it is advice that served me well as a president and I hope throughout my life. Our world is filled with noise pollution. At home, in the marketplace, and even at work we are inundated by noise. As a leader, one of the most important traits throughout your leadership tenure is to learn how to listen. No matter the business, listen to all constituents thereof. Listen, not just with your ears, but with your heart. An institution speaks to its leader (s) in many ways. Become attuned to those ways. They will give you the necessary background and input to move the institution forward.
Once you have reached the vaulted goal of becoming a leader. What do you do? At the risk of being redundant, a leader must lead! Leading implies taking others somewhere. But where? The “where” is the vision the leader has for the institution. It is where the leader wants to take the institution. A leader without a vision, is like a ship without a rudder. Rudderless institutions will never do anything but go in circles in their industry. The vision, if we can continue the ship analogy, is the spot on the horizon to which the leader is steering the ship. Importantly, this spot on the horizon must be shared and understood by the entire community. If the vision, spot on the horizon, is known and subscribed to only by the leader, it is called a hallucination. This spot on the horizon, this vision, may not be reached in any given leader’s term. But it is moving the institution forward to new frontiers, new opportunities, and to the continued strengthening of the institution.
Where does this vision come from? I suggest it is a byproduct of our first characteristic, listening. Through listening, the leader knows the concerns, hopes, aspirations of the institutional constituents and from the institution itself. These “voices” become the ingredients that go into forming the vision. The spot on the horizon is the culmination of all the voices the leader has heard from the institution, including the institution itself.
Respect for Individuals
In my long career, I have had the opportunity of working with literally thousands of individuals. Working with others can be challenging and even daunting. As the leader of an institution, a leader’s job is to protect and grow the institution. As a leader, you are often called upon to make very difficult decisions that involve individuals. The hardest part of leadership for me was having to let people go, to “fire” them. I dislike this word because it is so hurtful. In the many instances I've had to let someone go, I never encountered a single person who thought they did a bad job. As a fellow human being, we need to respect that person as a person and be as compassionate and respectful as the situation will allow.
A Continuous “Founding”
Every institution celebrates its founders. These individuals, through their genius, entrepreneurial abilities, and acumen set the institution on its path to success. The original founders established the institution based on the environment and circumstances of the time. Environment and circumstances change with time. Hence the need for modern day founders to adapt the institution to the changing environment, circumstances, and opportunities. An institution cannot rest on its past but must be guided to the future. A vibrant and successful institution is led by a modern-day founder--who is as much as a founder as the original founders. To fail to be a modern-day founder, leaves the institution in stagnation and perhaps even decline. I urge leaders and those they lead, to see themselves as “modern day founders” of the institution. Earlier founders passed the torch on to the present, present-day founders must grow the institution and be prepared to pass the torch to the next generation of founders.
Know When It Is Time To Move On…
Finally, and perhaps the most important aspect of leadership is to know when it is time to move on. One of the hardest parts of leadership, especially a successful leader, is knowing when to leave. Leaders are not the institution. They are guardians who've been appointed for a time and that time has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Leaders can often stay too long to the detriment of the institution. As a leader, the question we must always ask ourselves is what is best for the institution? Be that a regular commercial business or a university! The question as to what is best for the business should permeate every single day of a leader's tenure. This question impacts hiring, removing employees, program development, etc. A leader’s job and responsibility are always to put the best of the institution in front of her/him. Always remember, there will come a time when you have to decide what is best for the institution and for you. Leadership is not about the leader; it is about the institution. You and the institution are not always in tandem. Someday for yourself or for the good of the institution, it will be time for you to leave.
Finally, a leader is in the unique position of understanding an institution’s past in anticipation of its future. That “position of understanding” is the present. To realize the best future possible, I submit the above-mentioned leadership characteristics are the keys to success.