Leading your institution through crisis: three imperatives from a university chief of staff

Expert Insight

Leading your institution through crisis: three imperatives from a university chief of staff

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National and global crises—the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, continued racial injustice, and rapid changes in higher education—have made 2020 a uniquely challenging year, and chiefs of staff have played an important role in guiding their institutions through these crises.

To offer insight into these challenges and advice for leading through them, on October 15, the Higher Education Strategy Forum hosted a working session for presidential chiefs of staff and other strategic deputies, featuring an interview and Q&A with Candace Dodson-Reed, Chief of Staff to the President and Executive Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

Here are the top three imperatives from the session based on comments from Candace and other participants about how chiefs of staff should lead through crisis:

Imperative 1: “More than any other university position, the chief of staff role requires trust.”

Before becoming chief of staff, Candace carved out time to connect with UMBC’s president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski. Candace and President Hrabowski’s discussions extended beyond work; by sharing about their families, hobbies, and interests, they developed a strong bond. As a result, when the opportunity arose to establish a new Office of Equity and Inclusion, President Hrabowski knew he could trust Candace to lead it. Through this experience, Candace learned it is essential for senior officials to intentionally form strong, trusting relationships to be able to make important decisions and feel confident taking risks to benefit the institution.

Imperative 2: “It’s important to remember that administrators are people, too.”

“Scheduling 20-minute individual meetings with everyone on my team helped build trust and a culture of inclusion that are more challenging to achieve in the remote work environment.”

-Candace Dodson-Reed, Chief of Staff to the President and Executive Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

It is easy to get caught up in crises, and we often forget to take a moment to think about our colleagues outside of their professional roles. To combat this, Candace recommends doing pulse checks at the beginning of every meeting—two minutes per person to see how everyone is doing, both professionally and personally. Chiefs of staff are uniquely positioned to promote relationship-building and self-care on campus because they touch so many aspects of the institution. This is a crucial role, since, as Candace notes, self-care is critical not just for students, but for staff as well.

For example, the University of Illinois System has also employed strategies to make up for the loss of face-to-face interactions while employees are working from home. The System implemented a weekly 45-minute check-in call for presidents and vice presidents that is less formal than a cabinet meeting, as well as “Zoomtini Hour,” where employees gather virtually and chat.

Imperative 3: “It’s not about me, it’s about us.”

When asked what the current national and global crises have taught Candace about herself and her president’s leadership style, Candace highlighted President Hrabowski’s mindset “it’s not about me, it’s about us,” which is also the opening line of his new book, The Empowered University. Just as President Hrabowski empowers others to lead, Candace strives to do the same with her team. Under Candace’s leadership, each team member in the Office of Equity and Inclusion gets a chance to lead a meeting. This serves a dual benefit of giving each team member a voice and making them feel empowered, while also relieving some of the pressure on Candace to be the sole voice for the team.

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