Lonely but not alone


After a small stint in municipal government, I began my career as a student affairs practitioner in 1995. I believe that every position I have held, every degree I have earned and every mentor I have had, prepared me for the position of president. As I transitioned out of my chief student affairs officer position with the Maricopa Community College System (Arizona) into my presidency in 2021, I was prepared to deal with difficult decisions and dilemmas executive leaders must deal daily. I am grateful for my long journey to the presidency.

After participating in three presidential pathway programs from 2017-2020, I felt confident in my ability to lead an institution and my ability to empower others to lead. I felt confident in my communication skills and my ability to be an empathetic leader. Given my decision to enter a presidency during the Covid pandemic, I also felt confident that I could lead the college as we faced new challenges related to how we operate as an institution, how we manage our enrollment decline, and how we compete in an oversaturated higher education space. Coming into my first year of the presidency, I ran hard, loved hard, motivated others and pushed to get results. I accomplished more than I could have ever imagined given the cards I was dealt.

This article is from the current issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

The one thing that hit me harder than a stack of bricks was the level of loneliness one experiences as the CEO. I can remember saying “its lonely at the top” to people as they would ask about my first-year experience as president. While I never said it to dissuade someone from seeking a presidency, or to overshadow the great things I had experienced in my first year as president, it was my acknowledgment of an ominous fact that I could not ignore.

Changing relationships

For every level of my career, I have had close counterparts who I worked with every day — like-minded colleagues I could rely on for comic relief, venting, strategizing and partnering. These were my BFF (best friends forever) work buddies who lifted me up when I was down, who gave me good feedback who were my amen corner when someone was being ill-willed toward me or my team.

As the president, your work BFFs become figments of your past. Yes, you may have a great working relationship with your cabinet and your administrative team, but they work for you. Their lens and perspective are totally different from yours.

There is a level of respect that is ingrained in our culture that won’t allow your team to step beyond a certain level of comfortability with you. As important, there is a level of comfortability that a president should never go beyond with their team or with anyone who works at their institution. The importance of these degrees of separation was drilled in my head by every presidential training program and every presidential mentor I have had.

There are opportunities throughout the year for presidents to congregate and learn from one another. However, the life of a president is hectic and packed with thousands of responsibilities. The opportunity to have the same level of camaraderie with other college presidents is challenging. There is no strolling over to my BFF college president’s office down the hall and lamenting over a contentious meeting. There is no texting my work squad president to say, “Got a minute, girl, we need to talk,” because there are no minutes. Our admins have booked us solid the entire day. There is no quick presidential huddle where you can talk through a decision you have to make in the next 30 minutes. It’s just you.

Finding my squad

Over this past year, though, I have realized that while I felt lonely, I was and am not alone. I walked into a community with seasoned and/or recently retired presidents who give their time freely to mentor newbies. I also walked into a community of local corporate CEOs who, like me, were searching for like-minded CEO BFFs. While I may not have a work squad, I had a squad of people who loved me and wanted to see me be successful. They can cheer me on, give an outsider’s perspective, and help me think through options.

Growing up, my father would always tell me, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” He encouraged me to search out and ask for things that I wanted or needed. As I began my second year of presidency, I could hear my dad’s advice ringing in my ears. I have taken the time to nurture relationships and connections to create the circle of friends and advisors I need for this season of my life. If I had to go back to my first day in my presidency, I would have spent time developing this circle of friends and advisors immediately. I can say proudly that I have my squad now.

My advice to anyone pursuing a presidency is to seek out your “squad” of friends and advisors who can help you be at your best. Your squad should be people who have already walked this journey, who have expertise in areas you don’t, who can help you think through ideas, and who can challenge you. Don’t wait until you get into the presidency to start this process; start seeking and asking people to join your squad in preparation for your first gig. You’ll be surprised at how many people will say “yes.” If you don’t ask, they will never know you need them on Team YOU.

About the Author

Felicia Ganther
Felicia Ganther, J.D., Ph.D., is president of Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania.
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