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Why “becoming strategic leaders” should be at the top of every cabinet’s to-do list

March 9, 2020

2019 was full of headlines, snapshots, and first-hand accounts of the challenges facing higher education in the coming decade. And for many of our community college partners whom we spoke with over the course of the year, the “looming” enrollment crisis has already become a reality. In a period of such turmoil, effective and strategic leadership has never been more valuable.

Leading has become more difficult for community college presidents

Unfortunately for college presidents, the task of leading their institutions has only become more challenging. Shorter presidential tenures, a rise in no-confidence votes, and increasing public scrutiny of the sector as a whole has placed college presidents under a microscope that many fear directly inhibit their ability to effectively lead their institutions.

As part of our 2019 research on crafting transformational strategy, the Community College Executive Forum spoke with presidents across the country about the challenges they faced in creating institutional visions in an era of volatility. Many were cautiously optimistic and were encouraged about ongoing efforts on their campuses to boost student success, workforce development, and equitable enrollment.

However, all expressed serious concerns about the demographic shifts and funding cuts squeezing the two-year sector, as well as their ability to communicate these threats to their community in a way that inspired action rather than fear. And when we asked presidents what resources or services would be most valuable in achieving this goal, they provided a surprising response: help me empower my cabinet to be more strategic.

Community college leadership is a team sport

Presidents recognize that they can’t do it all, and as external pressures make increasing demands on their time, they rely on cabinet leaders more than ever to take on a strategic leadership role on campus. In many cases, however, this is unfamiliar territory for cabinets.

“My cabinet is really good at doing what they’re told, but empowering them to think more strategically is tough. It’s a new experience for them.”

President, Community College

As one president told us, “My cabinet is really good at doing what they’re told, but empowering them to think more strategically is tough. It’s a new experience for them.” We heard similar stories from other partner presidents; cabinet leaders who had excelled in operational management struggled when confronted with the large strategic challenges facing many community colleges today.

It’s clear that in order to navigate these challenges, college leaders must cultivate a strategic mindset on campus that prepares them to craft transformational—rather than incremental—solutions. The college cabinet plays an integral role in this effort. Cabinet leaders are in the unique position of being able to craft and cascade the president’s vision for the institution while also being able to elevate valuable contributions from stakeholders across campus. In doing so, they play a vital role in ensuring their institution’s success and sustainability in the coming years.

We recognize the significant challenges facing cabinet leaders, many of which require developing and deploying a new set of strategic thinking skills. That why we developed the Strategic Community College Cabinet Resource Center, a living repository of research, tools, and guidance to empower cabinet leaders to take on a role of strategic leadership on campus. These resources will help cabinet leaders flex new strategic muscles, craft differentiated visions, and cascade that vision throughout campus to meet and overcome that challenges in 2020 and beyond.

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