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Retiring presidents offer advice for those new to the role

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A strategic plan and a solid team are integral to successful leadership, according to Willis Lott, who is retiring as president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Be sure to maintain a great relationship with your colleagues and community and focus on the needs of your students.
 
Those are among the key recommendations some of the retiring presidents who were honored at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention last month have for new presidents. (Click here for a list of retiring community college CEOs.)

“Surround yourself with great people and form a great leadership team,” advised Willis Lott, who has served as president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for the past 13 years.
 
Lott said it’s important to have a strategic plan, so members of the leadership team are on the same page.

“Don’t let it overwhelm you,” Lott said. “That can happen if you try to do everything by yourself.”  
 
Cultivate community leaders
 
Being active in the community and getting to know community leaders is also crucial, Lott said. 

“Keep in contact with business and industry to learn what their needs are and what training the college can provide,” he said, adding, “Never forget the people you’re there to serve—the students.”
 
Stuart Steiner, who is retiring after a 36-year tenure as president of Genesee Community College (GCC) in New York, advised new presidents to build on the strengths of their institutions and not to be reluctant to make changes. 

The biggest challenge for the next president of GCC will be to “develop a new strategic plan to set the direction for the college for the next three to five years,” Steiner said.
 
The college's new CEO, James Sunser, was approved unanimously by the board, so “he should take advantage of that good will to move things along,” Steiner said. That's advice that can apply to all new college presidents.
 
Sometimes transitions are not as smooth, or situations develop that cause friction. Donovan Schwichtenberg, who is retiring after 21 years as the president of Saint Paul College in Minnesota and 51 years as an educator, has some simple but good advice for handling that: “Be honest.” 
 
“Maintain a high energy level, and make sure you develop good relationships with the faculty and community members,” Schwichtenberg said.
 
Focus on students
 
When difficult decisions arise, think of what is best for students, Schwichtenberg said, even though it is tough in the current economic climate, when colleges are dealing with tight budgets and many are forced to consider tuition increases.
 
Noting that he “came into a system with a lot of problems,” Schwichtenberg said, “sometimes adversity makes a better person out of you.”
 
A new president also needs a mentor and a network of colleagues for support, said Gayle Hytrek, the outgoing president of Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin. 

“This should be someone you can bounce ideas and questions off," she said. "It gets lonely at the top, and another president could be a good sounding board.”
 
“Every college has a unique culture,” Hytrek continued. “Take time to learn about the culture, and if you decide to make changes that will essentially change the culture, don’t get discouraged if those changes meet with resistance. It takes a long time to change the culture of an institution.” 
 
When asked what advice she could have benefited from, Hytrek said: “The importance of carving out personal time for myself and my family. It took me too long to realize the importance of that.”
 
When asked what insight he wished he had received when he became president of Guilford Technical Community College (North Carolina) 20 years ago, Don Cameron said he would have appreciated being urged “to be a little more patient in moving your vision and mission forward.”
 
“Don’t try to do it all in the first six months or year,” he said. 

During Cameron's tenure, the focus was on access. Today, college presidents need to focus on student success and data-driven decision-making, he said.
 
Cameron organized his advice for new presidents into what he calls “the five Ps for success”:
• Understand your purpose. "Don't become a college president for the paycheck or to build your resume."
• Be passionate about your work. "Really have passion for the community and the students."
• Be persistent. "When you get knocked down, get up and try again."
• Be patient. Embrace this message from the Kenny Rogers song: “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
• Have a positive attitude. "Your attitude is going to determine your altitude as a college president.”
 
Have a vision
 
“Approach the job with determination,” said soon-to-retire William Giddings, who has taken to heart the slogan: “Accomplishments are the results of extraordinary determination.”
 
Giddings spent six years as president of Northwest Iowa Community College. Before that, he served for 12 years as president of the Grand Island Campus of Central Community College in Nebraska.
 
New presidents should take time to evaluate their institutions and develop a vision for them, Giddings said. Having a vision, even if it changes over time, will “help you work with others in determining a roadmap” for your college, he said.
 
Giddings advised new incoming CEOs to “take a little bit of time for yourself before you start your journey” as president. He believes it’s important to take a breather between jobs for “renewal and refreshment,” because “the job can become very, very consuming.”
 
It is an honor and a privilege to be a community college president, Giddings said. That’s an attitude he urges new presidents to adopt, noting that “community colleges have done so much for our communities and our country.” Presidents should view their roles with a “great deal of pride and great deal of responsibility.”
 
A poster in the office of his first community college job 38 years ago has guided Giddings throughout his career. The poster’s message: “Remember, community is our middle name.” 
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