Can Higher Education Leaders Tap Into Their Business Sides?

Two years ago, our firm conducted what we felt was (and still believe to be) a groundbreaking study comparing the skills and competencies of a cohort of higher education leaders to those in the corporate world. We understood there was a lot of sensitivity around this topic. Many academic leaders bristle at the notion of being compared to corporate leaders, much less that they can learn from their corporate counterparts or that their roles are becoming more "businesslike" than ever before.

The fact is, however, higher education has been forced into a new era in which the business side of the industry is in sharp relief at all times. Colleges and universities are doggedly protecting their missions and values, but they also understand that they must watch the bottom line, be creative and entrepreneurial about what they do, and remain highly conscious about how they are faring in the education marketplace. For-profit institutions, creative affiliations and partnerships, online offerings, and more new entities increasingly inhabit that marketplace, and so schools have come to recognize that they need to become much more business savvy and entrepreneurial than in the past.

Which brings us back to our 2013 report, "Leadership Traits and Success in Higher Education." Two things stand out about the findings of the report:

  1. Academic and corporate leaders are surprisingly alike in terms of skills and leadership competencies. They both score well in areas such as ambition, boldness and creativity.
  2. One area of clear differentiation was in regards to what the study termed a "commerce orientation." Corporate execs on the whole, according to the study, are much more "predisposed to concern themselves with matters of finance, investment, and profitability." This is not surprising, perhaps, and it doesn't mean that academic leaders can't focus on commerce, but that it is not top of mind in their work and careers.

Two years later, the landscape has changed even further and we see receptiveness among the academic leaders we work with — presidents, provosts, VPs, deans and others — to thinking and talking about the business of education. Many times they are being pressed into doing so by trustees and alums who hail from the business community and want to make sure their beloved institutions remain viable well into the future.

The Acceptance of Assessments
So the sensitivity around education becoming more corporate or businesslike is still there, but most academic leaders now understand that they need to complement the mission-driven side of their work with a pragmatic, market-driven side.

How is a campus leader to know if she or he has the skills and abilities to be more businesslike? Many are turning to psychometric and behavioral assessments to better understand their own capabilities and capacities for growth and development. There has been a refreshing shift in the willingness of academic leaders to question their standard ways of operating while remaining true to their values and principles.

Assessment methodologies are mostly about awareness of one's tendencies rather than pinpointing strengths or weaknesses. (Assessment experts try not to use these words — rather, phrases such as "facilitating behaviors" and "success-hindering behaviors" are more useful.) What are you good at that you can do more of? What are you not so good at that you can address? If there are areas in which you do not assess well, are they "derailers" for your career or can you work on them and even get coaching and support to overcome them?

Progressive assessment methodologies can even look at the "dark side" of what many consider to be positive competencies and traits. For instance, being bold and ambitious are usually good things, but do they show up at the expense of other necessary skill areas, such as sociability or prudence?

Tune In and Tap In
If awareness is the goal, then certainly educational leaders can become more businesslike if it is a priority for them. They can focus on: assessments, coaching, and mentoring; interacting and collaborating more with colleagues as well as community and business leaders; prioritizing and scheduling time for creative thinking and idea generation; and questioning their own habits as leaders.

It is important for academic leaders to tune into and tap into their business, corporate and commercial sides, if only to explore what the possibilities for leadership growth are. One doesn't need to sacrifice values and educational mission to do so; in fact, one can make the case that mission and values can only be carried out if leaders ensure that their institutions serve constituents to the fullest and stand out in today's much more competitive and chaotic higher education marketplace.

Lucy Leske is managing partner in the Higher Education practice for the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer ( Richard Metheny is the head of the firm's Leadership Solutions practice.