With nearly a decade of experience as the president of Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County, California, you might think Brian King would have seen it all before becoming chancellor of the 75,000-student Los Rios Community College District in the greater Sacramento area.
But King, who joined Los Rios in 2013, says he is still learning on the job. He relishes the chance to meet with executives from other colleges and talk shop.
“I can think of several instances where feedback from peers has been helpful,” he says.
For instance, as head of a district with four separately accredited colleges, King has had opportunities to talk with chancellors of other multi-college districts across the country and has learned the importance of having a collaborative framework for input before making decisions
“The temptation for leaders is to move too quickly,” he notes, “and in talking to colleagues, I have learned the importance of patience.”
An ongoing process
King’s example shows how ongoing professional development is critical even for the very top executives at community colleges. While many community college systems focus on the onboarding of new presidents, professional learning should be a never-ending process. The best institutions recognize this and devote time and resources to the continuing development of their leaders.
“Our search processes encourage candidates to share all the things they know, which is appropriate,” King says. “But the reality is, a president — and particularly a first-time CEO — doesn’t know everything he needs to know.”
A critical form of professional development for presidents and chancellors is the opportunity to network with peers, King says.
“Once someone becomes a CEO, they really no longer have any peers at the college,” he notes. “Having an opportunity to interact with others who are in a similar position is very important, so there is a chance to share ideas and bounce certain situations off of other presidents or chancellors to get their insights.”
The Los Rios board of trustees builds opportunities for King to travel and learn from colleagues at other institutions into the district’s budget.
“I have been fortunate my whole career to have governing boards appreciate the need for professional development for the president or chancellor,” he said. “And I think that’s a mistake that some boards make: They assume that once they hire a president, that person is beyond the need for professional development. Really, the opposite is true.”
Working with a coach
The Virginia Community College System (VCCS) offers yearly Leadership Academies for aspiring college leaders and a thorough onboarding process for new presidents. For instance, first-year presidents are assigned to an executive coach — such as a former college president, or the CEO of a business — who helps them develop their leadership skills.
But the state also focuses on the continuing development of its sitting college presidents, says Abigail Stonerock, director of faculty development in the VCCS office of professional development. Many of these activities are structured around opportunities to learn from colleagues. For instance, Virginia’s 23 community college presidents gather in Richmond several times a year for an Advisory Council of Presidents meeting.
Much of this time is spent discussing policy issues, Stonerock says, but a recent meeting included a workshop on solving enrollment challenges.
“The presidents had a guided discussion on what they are doing to increase enrollment at their institutions,” she says. “It was a chance for them to benchmark against each other and learn from each other in a non-pressure situation.”