The 21st-century challenge: Growing your own leaders


Prior to the pandemic, there was a realization that community colleges were facing real challenges of staffing and leadership as the Baby Boomer generation reached retirement age.  Experts anticipated acute personnel shortages at every level of the community college organization. The staffing reality was exacerbated by the Great Recession and budget cuts which led to buy-outs, retirements and even layoffs. 

Unexpectedly, many opted to delay planned retirements, in part because of all of the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic. Recently, however, colleges are again witnessing an alarming rate of employee departures driven by “The Great Resignation,” changing expectations regarding remote work, a far more competitive job market, and now the “Quiet Quitting” movement. 

Developing within

College leadership is therefore challenged to find new ways to ensure proper levels of staffing and leadership. Ironically, the “new” way is actually an option that has always been available: internalized career paths and leadership training. This approach has been historically overlooked as institutions focused on national searches and recruitment. Often, internal candidates have been passed over for external ones.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Certainly, there are advantages to hiring external candidates; it helps to address diversity and can bring fresh ideas and inspired leadership. On the other hand, internal candidates are a known commodity and are familiar — and successful — in the existing campus culture.  This shortens any learning curve and can be reassuring to the campus community.  It also addresses the “revolving door” problem, as those external candidates are more likely to move on to other institutions as they progress in their career track.

Eight strategies that work

Strategies for instituting an internalized structure to “grow your own” careerists and leadership include:

  • Enhanced professional development. Avenues for professional growth and advancement need to be implemented. Structured and tiered leadership training will also be required. 
  • Changes in interview practices. Those hired must be interested in internalized advancement opportunities. Screening criteria and specific interview questions need to be adopted and enshrined in the hiring process.
  • Restructuring the employee evaluation process. The evaluation process also needs to be restructured to fully develop each employee’s potential. I’ve witnessed a great deal of frustration and disappointment by colleagues at all levels of the organization who feel passed over or ignored regarding opportunities for promotion. This adversely impacts individual and overall morale and diminishes institutional loyalty. An appropriate evaluation process can recognize strengths and help to constructively address any limitations.
  • Mentoring/coaching programs. An effective mentoring/coaching program can accomplish a great deal at any level of the organization. It also fosters relationships, trust and support for the overall campus culture. Colleagues do not feel ignored, overwhelmed or abandoned; rather they feel supported, guided and valued.  
  • Increased support for professional development-related travel. You might normally think of this, but it is very important that all levels of staffing have the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” with colleagues from other institutions at state, regional and national conferences. This strategy helps to minimize campus culture inbreeding and exposes staff to new approaches and ideas.
  • Development of structured – and progressive – leadership training programs. This is an essential strategy of success for “growing your own” staff for advancement and leadership. You should review national leadership programs to help shape your specific topic and training strategies. It can also be beneficial to send colleagues to external leadership training – again to counterbalance too much internal culture as well as expose colleagues to a broader level of thinking.
  • Seek out collaborations with other institutions to share training and mentoring. If your campus is part of a system, or if you have neighboring institutions, it is worth finding out if you can collaborate especially for leadership training. If possible, this approach can also work for leadership mentoring/coaching.
  • Invigorate the current work environment. The Great Resignation has confirmed that the pandemic gave many of us the opportunity to rethink what we were doing workwise.  Many of our colleagues truly enjoyed working from home. And national studies indicate that productivity increased. Others realized they didn’t like what they were doing and headed for the exit. Now we are experiencing the Quiet Quitting movement – many don’t want a job that seems to be 24/7; they want quality time, more “me” time and less stress. The private sector (especially tech companies) has responded by creating a work environment that is less demanding, more flexible and openly respectful of the employee. All colleges have an opportunity to reshape their work environments if they want to. And there could be consequences if they don’t.

Time for change

There has never been a more turbulent era for higher education.  A myriad of significant – and serious – challenges are facing us. We simply cannot continue to do what we’ve done.

During periods of uncertainty and challenge, stability and well-prepared leadership are key elements to our ability to meet the challenges head-on. Now is the perfect time to recognize current hiring/retention practices no longer work. Now is the time to reassess past practices and develop a set of new strategies going forward that foster a more positive, open, flexible and less-stressful work environment. And most importantly, now is the time to find ways to value the colleagues you have and invest in their professional growth and advancement.

About the Author

Fred Lokken
Fred Lokken is chair of the Business, History and Political Science Department – and former dean of the WebCollege – at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. He is past chair and a board member of the Instructional Technology Council (ITC), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges. Lokken has conducted the Annual ITC National Distance Learning Survey for the past 17 years.