John E Neal EdD, President
I’m frequently contacted by university presidents and provosts asking for my recommendation or help in finding a Chief Online (or Digital) Officer. While I’m always happy to help (and it’s an integral part of the work we do at JenEd Consulting), I’m also reminded that while this type of position is increasingly common (even at medium to smaller institutions), most universities struggle in finding the right kind of candidate. Let me offer three particular challenges I observe:
Presidents and provosts typically bring a wide range of professional experiences to their senior role. Even if they aren’t an expert, they can discuss and assess activities in academics, operations, finance, and advancement, among others. Online programs, conversely, represent not only a new way of offering courses and programs, it represents an entirely new operational structure and approach. In their haste to find someone to lead this emerging area, they often oversimplify the required skill set for a senior online leader, or simply promote their existing internal online “person” who has adequately performed the necessary tasks to date without an assessment of capacity and competence for a drastically broader role. The oversimplification of the Chief Online Officer role is often expressed by phrases such as, “we need someone to drive our online programs”, where they actually mean that this new hire will be a one-person operation, rather than the leader of a strategically-focused team, which may include external (third-party) assets. The resulting lack of vision, strategy, context, structure, funding, and outcomes guarantees frustration both from the cabinet and from the new hire.
Great search firms listen carefully to their clients and produce candidates that reflect the skill sets and professional abilities outlined by the institution and search committee. But if the institution doesn’t know what it needs, the search firm usually is not well prepared to outline a scope of competence aligned with the strategic needs and vision of the client in finding the right prospective candidates. In addition, online program development and management is not a one-size-fits-all scenario, requiring deep and complex insights about the skills and past accomplishments of candidates, while assessing areas where a candidate will exceed current institutional needs, as well as areas that will necessitate professional growth for the candidate. Simply having “online” or “digital” on a resume will not suffice.
It’s simply human nature to think that our current area of focus is the key dimension for success in a broader, more strategic senior position. I regularly hear online staff members say that one specific factor spells success or failure in online programming, and you can guess which silo of the enterprise they have previously worked in when they say “lead-generation”, “sales”, “faculty development”, “student support”, or “credit pathways”, among others. These are all essential components in online success, but advancement to the Chief Online Officer position necessitates movement to a broader and more comprehensive perspective–especially in the reality of becoming a revenue source rather than a cost center. Unfortunately, most universities are unprepared to help aspiring candidates prepare for a senior role by providing customized coaching and support. And aspiring leaders often push back on coaching and support, lest they be seen as unprepared or inadequate for the job.
In response to these three challenges, let me offer three brief suggestions: 1) find advisors who can help assess the current online context, outline a broader strategic vision for an online leader, and manage expectations both about institutional needs and candidate expertise; 2) tap into the professional networks of your advisors to identify broadly experienced colleagues, as well as junior professionals ready for the next step of their advancement, based on the clear expectations previously articulated; and 3) prepare in advance for coaching and support services for the new Chief Online Officer, not as an admission of their inadequacy, but as an investment in their timely traction and success in the new role.
I hope you will let us know at JenEd Consulting how we may be of help in these important discussions and decisions.