Miss Part I? //
Study up: Read the first half of our exclusive Q&A with Furman University president Elizabeth Davis.
How important is it for a top-level leader of a large organization to be accessible to everyone within it, and how can you balance that with the other work responsibilities and your life?
At the beginning, you just have to know that life takes a backseat a little bit to what needs to happen.
I am trying to hear from as many people as I can, because people will bring their own perspectives. If everyone had to filter it in through their department chair, department manager or vice president — well, that filter takes away some of the nuances. So I want to hear directly from as many people as I can right away.
After a while, I do think it makes more sense to let the vice presidents be the vice presidents, so I don’t always need to be the go-to person. Structures are set up so that the university, or any organization, can operate a particular way. I’ve always had the practice, I suppose, that I will listen to anybody — but I’m not going to undermine the managers who are in place.
So if it’s a matter of me needing to make a decision because the vice president wouldn’t, then I have the wrong vice president; but otherwise, I need to let the structures work like they’re designed.
How important is it to make the distinction between micromanagement and delegation/trusting others? How hard is it to maintain that approach, especially when you have a clear vision as a leader?
Well, micromanaging will wear you out, so eventually you just have to give it up [laughs], or the institution just can’t be effective! I think delegating works well when trust is established and the common objectives are [too]. So the more you can establish goals to be met — and I mean, they don’t have to be perfect or tied down, but at least the direction is agreed upon… Then hire the greatest people, and give them the flexibility.
But then you have to circle back and say, “OK, are we moving in the direction that we need to be?”
When you have to engage in a lot of strategic thought and planning, in your day-to-day, how do you manage tasks versus critical and strategic problem-solving?
Not as well today as I would like to, but what we’re doing with the cabinet meetings — I have cabinet meetings and then just vice president meetings — we’re setting aside time to talk about that and not be so consumed with what has to be accomplished. I’ve found that we tend to take that task mentality into our board meetings, into our department meetings; and then we forget to explain why. Why is Furman a residential liberal arts college? That always needs to be up front first, because then the what will follow after that. But when we lose sight of our strategy, the tasks just dominate. Tasks are easier than strategy. So I am trying to set aside time every week to think about those things in addition to the meetings with the vice presidents and the cabinet.
How do management styles change when dealing with adversity like bad press, a student death, or even internal adversity in an organization, such as rumors of impending layoffs?
Well I think there’s an even greater need to be out and about. I think during those times, the more a leader can be available to say — and to say again, and to say again, and to have that very constant message so people understand (the message may not be a good one, right?) — but still have that consistency so that people know what to expect. Because when people don’t know what to expect, the fear or the imagination can sometimes make things worse than they really are going to be; so availability and constant, clear communication.
On the other hand, whenever it’s something that’s some kind of crisis that can’t be discussed — so for whatever reason something’s happened, and typically it would be a personnel issue — those are the times that as information can be shared, it needs to be shared. Really, a lot of this all comes back to communication: The timing, the clarity and the frequency are probably more important than anything else.
Of course you hope that over time, trust between the leadership and the people in the organization has grown and developed such that people can believe what they’re hearing.
Is it hard for you to balance having a family with being a leader, and how do you work that out for yourself?
It is hard, especially right here at the beginning where I want to meet everybody. There are people who want to be on my calendar, there are in-town events, out-of-town events… So I’m not nearly as involved with my daughter’s school as I was when we lived in Waco, but she’s a senior, and she pretty much has that handled. She’ll let me know when I need to jump in.
If there isn’t a work thing on the calendar, I try to create some real space for downtime, because that’s how I re-invigorate myself. So we don’t look to create actitivies for ourselves, if that makes sense. Some things just have to be let go. If you walked into my kitchen right now, I’d be mortified, because it’s just not as put together as I wish it could be. But at the end of the day — if that’s something I need to let go to spend more time with Claire and Charles — then that’s what needs to happen.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed, and if so, how do you cope?
Well, right now, I feel overwhelmed frequently, but I think right now it’s because I’m being impatient with myself. It’s been four months. I can’t have figured out everything about Furman in four months. I was at Baylor for almost 23 years, so it would’ve been different… Just the not knowing is really what’s creating what feels like overwhelmed, so I have to stop and give myself a reality check, and be sure I’m setting reasonable expectations for myself. If the being overwhelmed is because I feel like I’m taking on too much, then I have to stop and say, “OK, whose job am I doing?” If I’m doing someone else’s job, then I need to let that go and make sure I have a conversation with them — but [I cope by] not trying to take on too many roles that don’t belong to me.
Historically, did you ever see yourself as a future university president?
No, really not until the past couple of years. When I got into academia I just figured I would teach forever. Then different opportunities opened up, and I’ve always liked change, which is unusual for somebody in academia. I just tried new things, so when a department chair position came up, I thought, “Huh, I’ll try that!”
So as I worked up the academic ladder, I suppose–still even as provost, I didn’t have any real aspiration to be a president until the last couple of years people told me I ought to consider it, probably because being executive vice president and provost at Baylor was such a big job, and I led the strategic planning process there. People just made the leap that, well, I bet she could be a president somewhere, so…
Can you identify any leaders you most admire?
Probably the most influential person who got me to where I am today is the current CFO at Baylor University [Reagan Ramsower]. The reason is because when I was brought into the provost’s office, I needed to understand his world; and he could’ve made it very hard for me. But he actually modeled for me real collaboration across the campus, so I was in on all the financial meetings and all the HR meetings — all the enrollment management. Well, all of that was outside of my area, but he showed me that by all of us working together, listening to each other and setting objectives together, that we were actually going to make Baylor a much stronger place.
In fact, I remember a conversation in which someone else was talking to him who wanted to — it was either having a different title or being over another area — and he said, “Look, you have to learn how to be a leader by influence and not title.” And it just made it really clear to me to bring others along, and celebrate other people’s successes. He was so supportive of me as I advanced in the organization. He really modeled some good, practical internal organization behaviors.
How important is creating and fostering a solid organizational identity and culture?
It’s important to me because especially here, I believe we’re asking people to — certainly everybody has a role — but we’re asking everybody to buy into a bigger view of what Furman is about, and sometimes that means stepping out of your role and pitching in somewhere else. And as long as we can all feel like we’re valued in our roles — that we understand what it is we’re supposed to do, and that we’re moving in the same direction — then it makes it not just an effective place to work, but a great place to work.
One of the first things I told the cabinet when we met was that I want this to be the most fun job they’ve ever had. I mean, I think we should be having a great time here while we’re doing great and really important work.