From tasks to relationships – the real work of the executive

For many first-time college presidents, the new position is exhilarating but also overwhelming.  Many say that the time demands are breath-taking and the sheer scope of the enterprise is daunting.  However, for many new presidents, the biggest challenge they will face is more nuanced but more difficult to tackle – an adjustment from a task-orientation to a relationship-orientation.

Regardless of the organization type, we know that as an individual moves up the org chart, she will need to focus more on relationship building and less on task accomplishment.  In other words, your success is tied more to how well you work with others and build teams than how well you complete a specific task. Content excellence becomes less important and interpersonal skills moreso.

For new college leaders, this is extremely important.  There are alumni, donors, members of the cabinet, faculty, students, government agencies, accrediting bodies, etc., who suggest that relationships should be the new president’s focus.  However, many new presidents come to the office from the academy where their research, writing, and teaching have been done sans others.   They have earned their reputations, in large part, by working solo.  Building relationships has been, at best, tangential to their success.

In addition, many new presidents find themselves mired in pressing, task-orientated activities – the budget needs balancing or a bond covenance needs reworking. There seemingly may be no one else on campus to get the tasks accomplished in short order.  In those rare instances, the president should work to solve the pressing concern while simultaneously positioning others to do the work in the future.

My own research on new presidents strongly suggests that building relationships are an important key to early success.  Partnerships with board members, key donors, government officials, faculty members and others are needed to advance the university in substantive ways.  The enterprise is to0 large and complex to go it alone.  In addition, when the difficult days arise and some become displeased with the president or a decision, having relational bank accounts with key constituents from which to draw allows the storm to be weathered.

So as a university leader, where will you spend your time today – on tasks or on people?  As the old saying goes, “No road is long with good company.”


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