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Five Winning Strategies for Community College Presidents

Dr. Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College, discusses workforce development strategies with state and college leaders. (Photo by: Benjamin Rickert, July 2022) 

By: Dr. Laura B. Leatherwood, President of Blue Ridge Community College and 2022 President of the Year for the North Carolina Community College System

Education is a pillar of our society, bringing innovation and knowledge to every area of need. This means that those who lead our educational institutions are not only setting the tone and pace for our campuses, students, and educators, but every community in our state. In North Carolina, we are driving success forward towards our long-term myFutureNC goals of a stronger workforce through higher postsecondary attainment.

As leaders, the past two years of challenges have reminded us of the importance of maintaining a clear head and path towards the future. We faced questions that we had not been asked in our lifetimes. It is a tall order to be a strong leader during trying times, but it is equally as important to emerge from these challenging times in a position of strength fortified with the deep reflection of what we’ve endured and important lessons learned. It is what will empower us to approach what’s yet to come.

Five strategies for success for today’s Community College President

Community college presidents wear many hats, requiring a great deal of organization and a team on whom you can rely. As presidents, we have to understand the big picture and entrust the daily ins and outs of running the college to our capable and well-qualified staff and faculty.

Additionally, we must play an integral role in solving workforce challenges through education and leadership, welcoming the opportunity to take the lead in bringing partners together to find solutions. We’re advocates, mediators, administrators, fundraisers, and the list goes on. So, how do we meet so many needs without dropping the ball? In my time as president, I’ve come to rely on five key strategies that allow me to maintain balance in pursuing multiple goals.

  1. Foster an entrepreneurial mindset: Empower your team to believe in the ability to learn, grow, and adapt. This mindset reduces doubt and drives innovation. When a new idea doesn’t work out, be ready to encourage and cheer your team on to the next potential solution. Be open and generous with your knowledge, and understand that you get what you give.
  2. Manage both the human side and business side of work: Without exception, you must take care of the business side of the College so that your employees can do the valuable work that impacts people’s lives without distraction. In turn, recognize that people spend more time at work than any other place, ultimately influencing not only job satisfaction, but the customer experience.
  3. Foster a heightened level of flexibility: While flexibility and nimbleness have been at the core of the community college mission for decades, you may still find evidence of the “we have always done it this way” culture. You must confidently do away with methods you have outgrown or that no longer work. Some may have trouble getting out of their own way and will need your assurance that you will have their back during a much needed push towards a more innovative – and flexible – culture.
  4. Think, locally, regionally and statewide: Your service area is your top priority, but community colleges are part of something bigger. Weigh every decision on the impact it will have on the organizations across the state that work together to create the nationally recognized business environment that we enjoy in North Carolina. Keeping this in the forefront also positions you to build partnerships throughout the region and across the state so you never have to go it alone.
  5. Adopt a “why not” attitude: Embrace and promote “why not” over “we can’t” and watch it spread throughout your college. Always be looking for a way to say “yes.”

We are fortunate to have a diverse and robust community college system in North Carolina. Together, we know that we are responsible for educating tomorrow’s leaders, while also responding to our communities with innovative solutions to meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs – and we’re honored to do it.