Clear leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008
Janet L. Holmgren often likes to think of herself as a crab.

It has nothing to do with her demeanor — the students at Mills College, where Holmgren has been president since 1991, can attest to the fact that she’s actually quite pleasant. Rather, it’s something a friend once told her about progress.

“He said to me, ‘Remember, Jan, all progress is crablike; you take one step forward, one step to the side and then, hopefully, another step forward,’” she says.

Holmgren thinks of that often at Mills, an independent liberal arts college for women that also offers graduate programs for both women and men. With students, faculty and community members constantly at her door trying to get the college to take on different causes with its $74 million budget, Holmgren’s role is to act as the driving force to make the decisions that will allow Mills to take its next forward step.

Smart Business spoke with Holmgren about how to clear up confusion about who is in charge and why you have to lead communications.

Pick a direction and articulate it. First of all, you make sure that you have gotten a full picture; you have to inform yourself first.

Picking a strategic direction and sticking to that direction is a process for the leader, and you have to know your community that you’re working with, you have to know your budget, you have to know your market. Then you have to have the opportunity to really talk and talk and talk and reiterate and point out the advantages for the whole community to moving forward in a single direction — or at least a direction that everyone understands or is a part of.

So it bears complex analysis and straightforward and repeated explanation. And sometimes I get a little mixed up there, sometimes any leader sees so clearly where an institution or an organization should go that you don’t necessarily take the time to articulate why that is and get people behind you.

One of the things that I often say as president of Mills is it’s as important for the public safety officer at the front gate to know the college’s mission and its goals as it is for me as president.

Create clear lines of leadership. There also has to be honesty in interaction and no confusion about who takes responsibility and who has authority because sometimes trust is based on a false assumption of democratic leadership, and that’s not true.

A leader must be willing not only to, in the end, have listened and attended to the concerns of everyone but also be willing to make the decision and take responsibility for it.

Sometimes, you have to use different modes in different contexts. So early on in my presidency, occasionally, I would find myself in a situation where I would have groups of people — whether they were students or faculty or alumnae — saying to me that such and such a decision had to be overturned or changed, and I would say, ‘You know, I’ve listened, and I understand your concerns, and I have reconsidered, but the fact is, this is a good decision, and we’re going to go forward with it.’

I have yet in my career at Mills to find one of those that I wasn’t successful in addressing that way. But sometimes, you have to be pretty tough; you may have to be even stronger than you anticipated in order to simply make the lines clear so no one steps over the line, either.

It’s like being the mayor of a town. You’re listening to everyone’s concerns, and you want to meet them if you possibly can, but you have to think about where the resources are best put.

Understand that you lead the communications. In terms of the leadership at the top, there has to be a real appreciation and respect for everyone who is part of the community and, again, it’s very important for the president to appreciate and talk to the cashier in the bookstore and to talk to the professor of mathematics.

And, to the best of one’s ability, also know yourself and know that you’re one of that team and people look to you to set an example and also to have the opportunity to be recognized by the leader, as well.

I honestly believe that one’s capacity to reflect civil and respectful behavior is a key element for everyone in every context, but certainly for a leader.

Find out about the desire of potential employees. What I’m looking for often is a real desire to be in the position that I’m interviewing for — that is the person who has done her or his homework and has really clearly projected him or herself into that role and has an interest in it and an engagement with it.

You can do it very straightforwardly by saying, ‘What interests you about this work, and what will be some of the challenges? What will make it exciting for you to come to work every day; what will be the difficulties?’ Some people tend to be a little more reserved than others, and often, if I sense that there’s an issue about how enthusiastic they seem, I tend to talk about why I like being in the role that I’m in and what inspires me to go to work every day and that that’s a quality I’m looking for in members of my senior team.

If I don’t get a response on that one, it’s probably not as good a fit.

HOW TO REACH: Mills College, (510) 430-2255 or