Building Strong University Leadership Through Mentoring:

with Dr. Ron Crutcher | Changing Higher Ed 018

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Building Strong University Leadership Through Mentoring

The key to building strong university leadership through mentoring is by inspiring current leaders to pass on their experience and legacy to high-potentials. Higher education needs to do a better job of preparing future leaders, especially in terms of leadership development and succession planning.  Some leaders, while academically very bright in their discipline, take on administrative roles with no knowledge of leadership or management. This can have severe ramifications for a department, college or university. Therefore, it’s important to identify and develop high potential leaders before the administrative job is open.

Higher education could learn many lessons from counterparts in business and other organizations. For example, General Electric, which emphasizes leadership development, in its heyday, placed more of their executives in CEO roles at other companies than any other organization in the U.S. (and possibly the world).

Building Strong University Leadership by Identifying Aspiring Leaders and High-Potentials

The first step to growing higher education leaders is identifying individuals who have potential. This can happen by watching how individuals interact and think during meetings and conversations.

The next step is having conversations with these high-potential leaders. During these conversations, the senior leader can begin to explore the idea of whether the individual is interested in considering a leadership role. If the answer is “yes,” the senior leader can then begin to find ways to help the aspiring leader prepare for future leadership roles.

Setting the Next Steps with High-Potential Leaders

Senior leaders can assist aspiring leaders as they start their leadership journey in numerous ways. These include:

  • Encourage faculty who are aspiring leaders to gain leadership skills through participating in specific programs such as a leadership academy for faculty members who have promise. Participation in this type of program could prepare aspiring leaders to become effective mid-level leaders, such as a department chair or associate dean. Even if the faculty member decides not to assume a leadership position, they will have a better understanding of the complexities of leadership.
  • Serve as a mentor or coach, or recommending other leaders who can serve in these capacities.
  • Assign an aspiring leader to serve as a special assistant to the president.
  • Nominate promising mid-level leaders such as deans for specific leadership programs and then eventually nominating them for presidencies.

Approaching a Potential Mentor

While seasoned leaders need to be on the look-out for aspiring leaders, many leaders don’t think about serving as mentors. Therefore, it’s important for aspiring leaders to proactively seek out mentors and request assistance, such as asking if they could shadow the leader or schedule periodic meetings.

Individuals from the Millennial Generation are more willing to reach out and ask a senior leader to serve as a mentor. They may meet a mentor at a conference or strike up a correspondence after reading an article that the mentor has written.

Many senior leaders state that their motivation for becoming a mentor is to “pay forward” the kindness of an earlier personal mentor. Many mentors say they were spotted early in their career by a leader who helped groom then for success. Mentoring doesn’t have to be onerous or even formal – it can include providing feedback to young faculty or undergraduate students. These types of relationships create benefits for both the mentor and the mentees.

While the senior leader’s schedule may not allow him or her to participate in time-intensive efforts such as shadowing, the leader may (and should) be open to having a conversation with an aspiring leader. This could open doors in the institution to help the aspiring leader grow.

Key Steps to Support Leadership Through Mentoring

Three critical steps that higher ed leaders can do to develop aspiring leaders:

  • Identify those individuals that have certain habits of mind and personality traits that indicate they have leadership potential.
  • Have a discussion with the individual about their leadership options.
  • Provide institutional opportunities for leadership development, whether through mentorships, coaching, or specific trainings.

Bullet Points

  • Higher education leaders need to do a better job of identifying and nurturing the next generation of leaders.
  • The first step is identifying potential leaders. This can happen during meetings or conversations.
  • After the identification happens, the senior leader should be proactive in reaching out to that individual and schedule a time to talk with them to gauge his or her interest in assuming a leadership role in the future.
  • If the faculty member is interested in leadership, the senior leader can begin to suggest opportunities, such as a leadership development seminar, a mentor, or a coach.
  • Aspiring leaders also need to be open to asking higher education leaders to serve as mentors. This could include having regular meetings together or the aspiring leader shadowing the senior leader.
  • Senior leaders can nominate aspiring leaders for roles that would allow them to use their growing leadership toolkit and eventually nominate them for positions such as department head or assistant dean.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides leadership coaching and leadership development services for Higher Education for building strong university leadership teams. 

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