ccDaily > Adjusting to a new environment in a new institution

Adjusting to a new environment in a new institution

John “Ski” Sygielski

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the June/July edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Leaving home—and finding a new one—is never easy. The task can be especially hard for a college president hoping to make his or her mark on campus. For insights, the Journal turned to former AACC Board Chair John “Ski” Sygielski, who, after serving for three years as president of Mt. Hood Community College (Oregon), last year made the 2,800-mile cross-country trek with his family to become president of Harrisburg Area Community College (Pennsylvania).

What advice would you give to a college president attempting to move to a new institution?

My first advice would be to conduct thorough research about the institution and the communities it serves. Before and during the interview process:

  • Contact key formal and informal leaders within the community (before you complete your application) to learn more about the value of the institution within the community and the key challenges the institution is facing over the next three to five years.
  • Attempt to understand the internal culture and related issues before your arrival.
  • Determine if there is a fit between your skill set and experiences and what the institution needs in its next president.
  • Attempt to better understand the internal culture of the institution before your first interview.
  • Remember, the interview is a two-way process—ask questions, even if it annoys the consultants, but not the search committee, for this is one of the most important professional decisions you will ever make.
  • Develop a 90-day plan (in cooperation with your board chair) to direct your focus.
  • Dedicate yourself to leading by “your ears” for at least the first six months before making any personnel and/or organizational decisions.

When changing institutions, is there an adjustment period that presidents have to go through?

Yes, professionally, after assuming the role as president, one must dedicate him- or herself to understanding and observing internal and external individuals and associated cultures. Personally, remember that there is an adjustment period for your significant other or family. Since, as a president, you will be consumed with meeting people and addressing issues, know that your family will not have that same opportunity. Think of ways to engage them in the social aspect of your professional life, if possible.

How difficult is it to make changes or assimilate to a new culture as the leader of an institution?

It is all about mindset. If you are passionate and excited about your new institution and committed to its students’ successes, it might not be too difficult. Be patient and gentle with yourself and those who are learning to better understand you and your ways.

Above all, remember you (and yours) need to be invited into the communities you serve. Avoid forcing yourself into these communities.

What is that process?

Some parts of the formula I’ve used have included:

  • Research;
  • Question the fit between you and the institution and communities it serves;
  • Reflect on the qualitative and quantitative information gained;
  • Determine a course of action for interviews and college visits;
  • Execute; and
  • Repeat all or part of the above formula, as needed.

It is imperative that you demonstrate a commitment to the success of students and employees, not to yourself. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.