6.1. The Importance of Mentoring
All study participants highlighted the importance of mentoring in the success of aspiring presidents, although they differed in experiences with formal and informal mentoring practices. “I think we develop them (skills) by having mentors, people who we either admire, work with, consult with, who can help us develop those skills,” said one president. Another president stated, “I think what you would need to do is find someone to mentor you, find someone on an HBCU level who’s respected in the HBCU community that you may know or someone else may know, who can mentor you.” Participants felt these mentoring relationships were vital. One president responded that aspirants “... have to develop several mentoring relationships with individuals on a regular basis, on a pretty consistent basis, and give them feedback about where they are and help them develop as leaders, who can invite them to their campus.” Literature supports the importance of identifying a mentor, but also highlights the challenges of securing a mentor, particularly for persons of color [4
]. Furthermore, the findings of Chang and colleagues support the notion of developing several mentoring relationships, explaining how traditional definitions of mentoring, one-on-one mentoring, do not always fit with the experiences of the mentees. These mentoring relationships included developmental relationships as well as peer professionals [4
A key aspect of mentoring is the idea of shadowing. A number of mentoring programs include an element of shadowing [3
]. Likewise, shadowing a president was often mentioned by participants as important preparation for the HBCU presidency. Six of the sitting presidents interviewed mentioned that they really had no idea what it was a president did until they actually saw them do it. By working closely with a president many participants shared how the mentoring presidents pointed out skill sets that mentees needed to develop. Also, in shadowing an HBCU president many of the participants were able to see the unique challenges and the particular ways one must navigate within the HBCU context specifically. For those aspirants who may not have had prior experience working within the HBCU context, shadowing also provides insight into a culture with which they will need to be intimately familiar in order to be successful.
In the case of higher education leadership, opportunities for mentees to participate in shadowing can be challenging due to the time constraints of accessible mentors [3
]. Therefore, the ability to properly groom presidential aspirants is also challenging. There is no discussion pertaining to whether or not this is more or less of a challenge in the HBCU sector. However, HBCUs have a unique institutional context and culture in which they operate. One who desires to lead an HBCU can only benefit from early exposure to the HBCU culture and community. Whether or not one has experience with HBCUs, the practice of shadowing a current HBCU president is beneficial. Not only did participants share that they learned a lot about the day-to-day job of an HBCU president through shadowing, but also they learned much about themselves.
Although all participants agreed that mentoring was an important part of the path to the presidency, there was no consensus as to the way in which that mentoring should or could occur. This reflects Bozeman and Feeney’s assertion that, currently, defining mentoring is difficult as it is often conflated with adjacent concepts [14
]. The conflation of concepts also creates difficulty in identifying the best manner in which to mentor. One president summed up this sentiment by saying, “Mentoring happens in a lot of different ways.” Both formal and informal mentoring opportunities were championed. Three participants felt a singular leader should mentor aspirants. For example, one president felt that a one-on-one relationship allowed the mentee to observe and learn skills in an up-close and personal setting. “At least for me the experience that was the most helpful was just watching up close how it’s done and seeing the strengths and weaknesses of that person and taking that information and using that which you feel you want to and disregarding those things which you think are inappropriate for you,” the participant shared. Another president stated, “You have to work around someone who is humble, so I think you have to humble yourself in order to lead any of our colleges, and he would have to work around someone, be around someone, who can teach you exactly how to do that.” One president expounded on the idea of gleaning skills and coaching that can be received from an individual mentor.
They (skills) will be acquired also from pairing yourself with someone who is more skilled in a particular area than you and calling on them to help mentor you or to help be a sounding board or person that you can call on for particular skill sets that you may not have acquired and may not even have the need to acquire…they stated.
However, the president went on to say that,
…So it’s not that you’re going to have to walk around with all of the skill sets within your person. It may be that you are smart enough to line up a cadre of folks that you can bounce things off of who are specialists in those particular areas, who can keep you abreast of what is actually coming down the pipe or what is subject to be going on based on the trend data that is out there.
This latter sentiment is what many of our other participants echoed. Six of the 22 participants felt that it was important to have a team of mentors hailing from various positions in academia at majority institutions and at HBCUs, in particular. Explaining that those striving towards the presidency needed to learn a variety of skills, one president pointed out that having several mentors aided this process. “Some people have one mentor or two mentors for everything. Different people have different sets of experiences and expertise and no one is an expert in every area. And I like to call them my personal board of advisors. I have different mentors for different issues,” the participant shared. Another president expressed that having several mentors allowed for a wealth of feedback. “The second thing is they have to develop several mentoring relationships with individuals on a regular basis, on a pretty consistent basis, and give them feedback about where they are and help them develop as leaders, who can invite them to their campus.” Traditional versions of mentoring can be incongruent with the needs of those needing mentoring. Although “heavy-handed” mentoring (traditional mentoring with long-term relationships) has its benefits, benefits can also be derived from “light-handed” mentoring (developmental relationships with multiple peers) [14
] (p. 378). Regardless of how mentoring is accessed or exercised, each participant expressed, via sharing of their own personal stories, the magnitude of learning that occurs through the mentoring process.
Formal mentoring programs were suggested for presidential hopefuls. Programs mentioned were the ACE Spectrum program and the ACE Fellows program. The ACE Spectrum Executive Leadership program is a six-month program targeted to underrepresented groups designed to further diversify leadership in U.S. higher education institutions. Those who participate in the program: prepare for the presidential search process, engage in generative dialogue about the nuances of the presidential search process through the lens of race and gender, interact with presidential facilitators from diverse backgrounds and institutions for guidance in preparing for the search process and the presidency, build a network of peers who share common concerns, experiences and career aspirations, engage in small group and panel discussions on major issues that shape the landscape of U.S. higher education, among other activities [13
The ACE Fellows program has more than 1800 vice presidents, deans, department chairs, faculty, and other emerging leaders who have participated. The ACE Fellows program helps ensure that higher education’s future leaders are ready to take on real-world challenges and serve the capacity-building needs of their institutions. The fellows observe and participate in key meetings and events, take on special projects and assignments while under the mentorship of a team of experienced campus or system leaders, participate in three multi-day seminars, engage in team-based case studies, visit other campuses, attend national meetings, develop a network of higher education leaders across the U.S. and abroad, [13
]. Most presidents mentioned the ACE Spectrum and ACE Fellows programs specifically. It is not clear if the reasoning behind the mention of these specific programs by participants is because the participants found these programs to be superior, or because these are programs target HBCU and/or African American presidential aspirants.
The presidents participating mentioned their own personal involvement with the ACE Spectrum and ACE Fellows programs as either mentors or former mentees. These presidents have also been tapped to be mentors for other groups focusing on underrepresented groups, such as women, in the college presidency. Given the unique context of HBCUs it may be of interest to have formal mentoring programs that speak to the challenges and scenarios that will be commonly found by those reaching the presidential seat. Formal mentoring programs, especially those on the institutional level, provide training that is tailored specifically to the context in which the future leaders will find themselves [3
]. Not only should higher education associations consider developing these programs, but for programs that are targeted towards those most likely to be candidates for the HBCU presidency, such as African Americans, associations should take the time to include information to enhance the understanding of the HBCU sector. Targeting African-American leaders for mentoring programs can aid in dismantling the “structures and culture of higher education (playing) a powerful role in both facilitating and inhibiting the development of leaders of color through sanctioned and limited opportunities of mentoring” [4
] (p. 383).
Informal mentoring seemed to be the more popular form of mentoring participated in and practiced by participants. One president noted, “Sometimes mentoring doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, but it means you have to be observant with people who are doing things that you aspire to do.” Presidents touted that it was through mentoring that both practical and theoretical information is shared. “Maybe someone can go to a seminar and get it, I don’t know, or read about it, but there’s nothing like being in an environment where you can observe someone who is exhibiting those traits and characteristics that are necessary to be successful as a president,” mentioned a president. This information includes a range of topics from what skills are important to acquire to making sure to wear the school colors when interviewing for an HBCU presidency. Next to learning on the job, mentoring is the best means to learn how HBCUs work, how to navigate the HBCU presidency, and how to communicate and interact with the various HBCU constituents. Some argue that mentoring does not have to be interpersonal to occur. In fact, six of the 22 participants mentioned that you can learn much about the path to the presidency and what it takes to reach the HBCU presidency simply from observing, even if from afar.
Other presidents felt that traditional, one-on-one mentoring was still the best way to learn the most and gain the best information about what it means and what it takes to be an HBCU president. Developing a relationship with an HBCU president also arose as an important theme. Sitting HBCU presidents mentioned their own presidential mentors and how instrumental these mentors were in teaching them the skills needed to be a successful president. In addition, many of these presidential mentors were able to identify the potential the participants held that would make them good picks for the HBCU presidency. One president expressed this sentiment,
Without the right mentors there is no way I would sit in this chair today. Without the right mentor I was never going to get a doctorate. That was never in my plan. Without the right mentor I would not have moved to different institutions to get varied experiences. It just wasn’t in my lens and I know for a fact without the right mentors I would never have had this opportunity.
Being able to help move individuals from presidential hopefuls to actual sitting presidents is the ultimate goal of mentoring. One president stated, “I have been mentoring young women for a while. In fact, two of my mentees are now presidents, so I feel good about that.” Therefore, these mentoring relationships were not important simply because those who want to be presidents can learn from sitting presidents, but also because they provide an opportunity for sitting presidents to identify up-and-coming talent and in turn aid and increase access to the HBCU presidential pipeline.
6.2. Advice for Aspiring Presidents
Through our interviews, several emerging themes surfaced. Participants strongly felt that there were key bits of information that HBCU presidential hopefuls needed to be aware. Although board members said things such as “…I don’t think that there is necessarily any (one) path to getting there,” there was much advice shared regarding the path to the HBCU president’s seat. This advice will help presidential hopefuls achieve success as they embark upon their path to the HBCU presidency and aid in presidential hopefuls being effective once they attain the presidency.
Aspirants were encouraged to truly know who they were as a person and as a leader. Self-awareness is often an element of the formal training process of transmitting work-related knowledge [14
]. Participants felt that persons aspiring to the presidency must be keenly aware of their strengths and weaknesses in order to be an effective leader. Aspirants must also understand their personality and leadership style. One president expressed this sentiment by saying, “Get to know yourself. You’ve got many people who don’t know who they are.” Understanding these things can assist aspirants in finding opportunities to exercise their strengths as well as opportunities to become stronger where there are weaknesses. It is not in the position of president where candidates should discover these traits. Although the presidency will undoubtedly test and develop some of these traits, persons with a strong and critical awareness of self will fare better when seeking the office as well as once occupying it.
Many participants felt like persons pursuing the presidency often were motivated or distracted by unimportant aspects of the job. Statements from presidents included:
…You need to look in the mirror and you need to really, really answer the following question: Why? And you need to be honest with yourself. And if you don’t know why, then you don’t want to be an HBCU president, and you don’t do it for the glory. You don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the prestige. You have to do it because you really, really want to make a difference in the lives of young people and help an institution progress.
One president provided the following advice for those intrigued with the HBCU presidency,
It’s not about prestige. If you’re thinking that, then you need to think further. It’s not about the house. It’s not about the car. And if that’s what you’re thinking about this, in terms of the perks, for the most part, I’m not ready to have a conversation with you. You’re just a waste of my time. But if you are thinking about it in terms of focus on students, the transformation of students, then I think you need to make sure that you’re getting the kinds of experience that will enable you to have the kinds of skills in these four or five arenas: in the political arena, in the academic arena, in the fundraising arena, in the entrepreneurial arena, and then you need a global and international perspective on all of that.
Having mentors and shadowing presidents offered participants an honest and true perspective on the presidency. These experiences also offered opportunities that pushed the participants to learn skills and work on areas in which they were weak. The vantage point of a sitting HBCU president allows aspirants to gain insight and guidance from someone who knows the job better than any other. This finding supports Bozeman and Feeney’s assertion that the mentoring process of work-related knowledge transmission allows for the mentee to learn the necessary knowledge, but in a way that is from the “self-interested perspective of the two parties” [14
] (p. 735). Along with shadowing a president, building relationships and identifying a mentor who is respected in the HBCU community were also deemed important.
Although the literature often positions mentoring as a whole different process of knowledge transmission [14
], participants found the two processes often intertwined. Participants did not merely encourage gaining experience but gaining a variety of experiences. Five of the 22 participants stressed the necessity to work at many different institutions in order to prepare for the HBCU presidency. Even working in different leadership capacities within a single institution was encouraged as a variety of experiences aids in learning various school structures and operations that will serve aspirants well if they attain an HBCU presidency. One president stated, “I think having some kind of administrative position, whether it’s a department head, whether it’s in charge of a program, again just being in some position where you do evaluations, where you do promotions, where you do all the ways and things will then prepare someone to do it at even a larger level.” Having a variety of experiences can aid aspirants in accessing new opportunities for exchanges and collaboration [1
]. A variety of experiences also opens up opportunities for mentees to build networks and gain insight regarding the roles and responsibilities upper-level administrators and presidents face. It was a popular sentiment that institutional context was of less importance than types of administrative positions persons held and executed. In acquiring these varied experiences, presidential hopefuls will be able to easily adapt to new environments and be able to identify similar or dissimilar characteristics to places they have previously worked.
While working in these new environments, it was also advised to really learn and understand the role of the faculty and the role of the board at an institution. This socialization process enables aspirants to gain a necessary knowledge and understanding of not only group norms but also the cultural norms of higher education [14
]. Fifty percent of participants felt the best way to understand and be able to relate to faculty was to have been faculty or to have an extensive and strong academic background. “When you’re the academic leader, the main people who you’re going to be interacting with are faculty, and I think having the respect of faculty, having been successful as faculty, even though I mentioned there are instances of people coming from other disciplines, I actually think that is the most important quality,” one president shared. Learning early the role of the faculty and the board in an institution’s governance practices, as well as being able to garner faculty and board respect, puts presidential hopefuls ahead of the curve.
Experience is not limited to just the occupational professions. Although participants echoed that nothing could replace on-the-job experience, formal education plays an important role. Attaining a terminal degree, preferably a Ph.D., was strongly suggested. One president stated, “First I would say if you don’t have the terminal degree that is something you have to have bar none ...” Another president shared that “If you want to be a president, you’re still probably going to need a Ph.D.” Participants also felt that those who had taken the extra step of attaining a Ph.D., specifically in higher education, deeply understood how higher education works, how their institutions fit in the grander higher education landscape, and various ways in which their schools could do what they do even better and even more effectively. It is to the candidates’ advantage to know both theory and the application of theory.
Fundraising was a specific area in which sitting presidents felt it imperative for those seeking the presidency to possess experience. This perspective mirrors what much of the literature surrounding HBCU leadership espouses. One of the biggest challenges many HBCUs face is in the area of finances. Therefore, many institutions are looking for or are in need of a president who can not only balance a budget, but is also able to identify and successfully tap streams of income.
6.3. The Role of Soft Skills
Participants also stressed the role that politics, presentation, and personality play in achieving and being successful in the presidency. Regarding politics, many participants explained that being the president was not solely about the competency to do the work. One president even felt that getting to the position of president was less about skill and more about timing, stating, “You don’t get to become president because you’re good. It depends on being in the right place at the right time, with the right kind of board.” Another president echoed similar feelings, saying, “The thing about it is it’s more political than it is skill. The best person doesn’t get the job most of the time. The person who gets the votes gets the job.” Participants sharing the importance of being able to navigate the political aspects of attaining the HBCU presidency reinforces the importance of having a mentor who can aid in identifying and interpreting said politics. The mentoring process uniquely aids in the transfer of this knowledge [14
According to participants, aspirants need not only desire to be presidential: aspirants must also possess or perform an aesthetic that communicates a presidential presence to stakeholders. One president shared:
You really have to practice what one is supposed to look like. I have colleagues with the desire to be basically senior presidents and extremely competent, oh my gosh, far more intellect than I could ever imagine, brilliant administrators, many of the tools and skills required. But they don’t look like a president. Their attire is not presidential. You can have on a suit but it’s just not a president’s suit. So you have to remember when you walk into that interview room with the Board or when you walk onto that campus for your campus visit people are going to see you before they hear anything from you.
The role relationships play in being successful was frequently mentioned by participants. “I think it’s about being very competent, being known as a man, a woman, of integrity, getting to know folks,” shared one trustee member. A president stated, “...they need to build relationships with other people in HBCUs. I think that going to conferences, and meetings, I don’t know that necessarily the topics discussed are worth a bucket of warm spit. But the relationships you make, the serious conversation you have over a beer with a colleague after supper that can be where the real critical stuff happens.” Having relationships and understanding the HBCU context, or that “You need to understand the flavor of what an HBCU is,” proved to be an important quality to possess.
Participants did give advice that did not pertain to specific skill sets but to personality and perspective. The sentiment shared was that attitude played as important of a role as aptitude. Humility was shared as advice. One president stated, “Then last but not least, keep working on yourself because presidents aren’t departmentalized. The type of person you are is going to impact the type of leadership you bring to an institution.” The fact that many sitting presidents uttered this as advice speaks contrary to the historical narrative of prideful, pompous HBCU presidents. It appears that most presidents view humility as a trait that assists in their success. Aspirants are encouraged to have passion and to make sure that passion generates from an authentic place. Sentiments were shared that one must choose and remain in this career because they want to make a difference in the lives of the young people attending their institutions. If this is not the case, they will undoubtedly lose their passion and their focus. Other advice given was to demonstrate excellence, demonstrate pragmatic leadership, and have flexible, broad vision. Overall, participants advised those in hope of one day reaching the HBCU presidential seat that although there is no one path to the presidency, to take and make the most of all opportunities that arise.