Encountering Roadblocks on the Path to Leadership

In the highly competitive realm of higher education leadership, most candidates will at some point experience the sting of rejection. It can be more difficult to accept when the candidate has made it to the final round of an executive search. They most likely have invested a great deal of time and energy preparing for the search process, getting to know a campus, learning about the expectations and aspirations of the office, and forming connections with the people that comprise the institution. What should a candidate do when they have made it to the finals several times but have not received the appointment? It’s a disappointing blow to keep hearing, “The committee has decided to go with someone else” when things appeared to be going so well.

While it’s perfectly valid to feel disappointment and even self-doubt, don’t allow yourself to throw in the towel just yet. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education Program Director Dr. Melinda Leonardo to discuss her strategies for forging ahead on the path to leadership when you encounter roadblocks.

Lean on your team: The path to a new position can take a toll on your mental health and is often very lonely. The stakes are elevated when it comes to higher education leadership positions, and every decision in a candidate’s history will be analyzed as a fit for the institution. It is critical to have a team of supporters composed of family and friends who can provide you with encouragement and reassurance while you’re on your leadership journey.

While emotional support is crucial, be sure you’re also surrounding yourself with colleagues who can provide honest feedback about your professional performance. Consider reaching out to mentors with whom you have positive relationships and who have guided you to where you are today. Leonardo makes a point to keep in contact with past fellows of the AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education and offer guidance and a friendly ear when career pursuits don’t end in success. “I often talk with them many times – letting them vent, serving as cheerleader,” she says. “It is a gut punch for each person to lose out on a highly desired position.” Whether you’re actively seeking feedback or just need someone to talk to, establishing ahead of time people you can turn to for support will help make the journey feel a little less isolating.

Reflect on your priorities: What are your career aspirations? Are you looking to progress to the next rung on the leadership ladder? Are you hoping to gain experience in a new area of administration, or to tackle leadership in a larger institution or system? Are you looking for a stable leadership position to make your permanent home? All of these are valid answers, along with so many others to consider when you are deciding for which positions and institutions to apply. When searches don’t end successfully, it might be worthwhile to step back from applying and really consider what it is you are trying to achieve. If you received any professional feedback from the search committees, now would be the time to reflect on it and decide how to incorporate it into your next professional pursuit.

On the other hand, it’s fine to acknowledge if your current work situation is untenable and you need to continue seeking a new position. “These are the most difficult situations [for applicants] because they feel an added pressure, and that creates a tremendous amount of burnout in and of itself,” sympathizes Leonardo. If taking time to reflect on potential opportunities isn’t an option, be sure you’re inviting mentors’ insights, as well as checking in with yourself about your own mental health. Keeping your priorities in perspective can help you focus on the quality and fit of the position rather than quantity of searches you are pursuing.

Explore professional development opportunities: For those who have just started their leadership journey, it can be overwhelming to parse out which professional development programs may be beneficial to your goals. There are a multitude of programs that are designed to provide you with the necessary skills to excel in leadership at a college or university, so consider programs that align with your leadership philosophies. When speaking to presidential search candidates about what sort of skills are needed for the role, Leonardo says, “If they have not already gone through the AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance, I do recommend it to them.” The Institute for Leadership & Governance is designed specifically for those leaders who aspire to presidencies at four-year public research universities and regional comprehensive institutions. While the focus is on presidencies, the Institute emphasizes the shared governance models of leadership and prides itself on providing one-on-one mentoring beyond the completion of the program, philosophies that are beneficial to leaders at all stages. “If I know where [candidates] need to build their portfolio, I refer to specific areas of our Institute that would be most beneficial for them,” says Leonardo. Ideally, a professional development program should align with your priorities while providing challenging opportunities to expand your leadership capabilities.

Valuable advice: When things aren’t going your way professionally, there may not be a clear and easy solution. Depending on the role and institution you applied for, you may never know why you were not granted a successful placement. Leaders are inclined towards perfection, and in the cases where you’re not given feedback from the search committee, you may question yourself and your capabilities. Do not allow this to be an opportunity to devalue yourself. You have worked hard to get where you are, and while your search may be derailed for the moment, there are still opportunities – don’t let a few disappointments cause you to rethink your trajectory altogether. “I always encourage candidates to be selective about what opportunities they choose to pursue,” says Leonardo. “They have earned the right in their professional trajectory to apply for opportunities that speak to them.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, visit the National Association of Mental Illness for guidance, resources, and support. https://www.nami.org/

Posted on 05.05.2022