Early in my career as a search consultant, I had an “ah-ha” moment while meeting with the president of a large national university. We were sitting at a coffee table in his office discussing the characteristics he was looking for in a new vice president. He began the conversation by reciting a straightforward list of qualifications that could have been lifted directly from the job description. No surprises. It was a nice list of practitioner skills that would allow the new vice president to be successful in the job. After about 10 minutes, the president paused, leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the coffee table and said, “And this is what I’m REALLY looking for…”
The president spent the remainder of the hour listing qualities, traits and characteristics that I would place under the more general heading of “Leadership Skills.” He was looking for someone who could think strategically, put together a strategic plan, and get buy-in from the university. He was looking for someone who could manage organizational change—not by using position power but by utilizing inclusive change management. He wanted someone who could broadly build ally relationships and coalitions of disparate stakeholders—each having his or her own priorities. Someone who was calm in a crisis and could de-escalate conflict. Someone with a high degree of professional ethics who could be a role model to others. A person who had great content knowledge, yet came across as humble and inclusive. Someone with political savvy. A leader who was deeply committed to diversity, inclusion and social justice. Excellent critical and creative-thinking skills—with good problem-solving abilities. The capacity to teach the next generation of leaders in higher education through internal professional development and succession planning.
An important consideration: many candidates put together cover letters and resumes that focus only on basic job responsibilities and the “practitioner skills.” Those pieces are important and need to be included in application documents, but you can be assured that there will be a pile of resumes that do just—and only—that. Candidates shine when they demonstrate broader leadership skills and outline how they will be able to, based on past practice, use their strategic-thinking abilities and interpersonal skills to manage progressive change as they transition to the new institution.