7 Feb

Book review: The First 120 Days: What a College President Must Do To Succeed

If you’re in development, then you’re likely familiar with Dr. Jerold Panas.  Two of his books – Asking and Mega Gifts – should be on any fundraiser’s short list.  His latest book, The First 120 Days: What a New College President Must Do To Succeed, is a discerning look inside the presidency.  Issues related to working with your board, senior staff, faculty, and your predecessor are all addressed.  Like the two aforementioned books, The First 120 Days offers hands-on, practical advice and would benefit any advancement officer – even if you’re not new to your position.

Panas draws on his extensive work with many presidents as a higher ed consultant as well as interviews with more than 50 college presidents.  I particularly liked one president’s summary of the keys to success: setting high aspirations for the university and all of your staff, recruiting great people, and bringing tremendous energy and enthusiasm to work every day.

As one would expect, they all emphatically agreed that the first 120 days set the course for a new president.  Everyone is watching you; everyone is measuring you.  Panas stresses how important it is to meet as many people as soon as possible.  “Your office is a dangerous place to spend the first 120 days.”  He says that the two most important characteristics during this time period are visibility and delivery (making decisions and making them promptly).

Speaking of decisions, Panas explains that there is great failure in delaying decisions.  Yes, you want to get as much information as possible (he says you’re fortunate if you get 80 percent of what you need), but go ahead…make the decision.  Decisions are easier if you ask yourself what is ultimately going to be right for the students.  “It’s all about the students.”  Panas recommends putting a sign in your office that you’ll see every day with this message.

It’s hard to do this book justice with a short review; there are so many leadership insights.  I’ll share just a few more.

You are the change-agent

I was reminded of Seth Godin’s Tribes when reading the author equate leadership with change.  A president’s job, according to Panas, is to be transformational.  To be a successful president, you have to achieve change – “important and consequential change.”  And often you don’t have the luxury of time.  You must enhance and improve the present while creating an exciting future.

Successful leaders understand that the college is not static.  If you stop innovating, pursuing new directions, and making necessary changes, you and the college will be standing still.  Your senior staff must understand that under your leadership, “they must never stop stretching, seeking, growing, and redefining themselves.”

Panas even advises that every college, to assist the president, should have someone in charge of change and constant renewal.  Can you help fulfill this role at your institution?

The magic partnership – your board

It’s rare to find university leaders who put the onus on themselves for the shortcomings of their board.  Panas clearly states that you are responsible for the quality of the board.  You want a board that “others strive to be on,” and you are the coach.  The author pinpoints the critical role of the nominating committee, who seldom selects anyone above their own level of influence and affluence.  As a result, they “perpetuate their own mediocrity.”  If you’re willing to have less than the best, writes Panas, that’s exactly what you’ll have.  (And doesn’t the same hold true when hiring staff?)

The nominating committee determines the college’s future.  In fact, the author suggests the name “Committee on Trusteeship” to give it the status and relevance it deserves.   This committee should aim high and look for candidates with the 5 W’s – work, wisdom, wealth, wallop (influence), and women.

This has to be a president’s credo:  When recruiting a new board member, soliciting a gift, and in all that you do, remember, “You will be hurt more by those who would have said ‘yes’ but were not asked—than by those who say ‘no.’”

Where there is no pain, there is no momentum.  “Always, always, always do what you are afraid to do,” implores Panas.  What will that be for you this week, this month, this year?

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