In the spring of 2021, I made an unusual choice. I was advancing nicely in two presidential searches when I made the decision to withdraw my candidacy. Believe it or not, that in itself is not uncommon in presidential searches. Presidential candidates may decide to bow out of the process as they learn more about the role, or the institution, and determine that the “fit” doesn’t fit.
Sometimes, that fit feeling goes beyond the personal warm and fuzzies. I have been in searches where I have had to discern what the knot in the pit of my gut was about, and other searches where I have had a presidential mentor come right out and say “the board is a mess and the college is insolvent so run quickly in the other direction.” In other instances, I have had to read through the cryptic comments of search consultants who walk the fine line of client loyalty and professionalism, balanced with maintaining their ethics and reputation with applicants to continue drawing top talent their way. Experience has taught me, (mine and others’) that when one makes the decision that it’s time to shoot for the moon, we don’t often let little things like crazy bosses, structural deficits, or unexplainable raised hairs on the back of our necks stop us from launching forward to reach the coveted goal of being a college president, provost, vice president, dean, and the promotional opportunity list goes on; warnings or not.
None of these however were the reasons for my departure from the process. My reasons were more intrinsic. The institutions could have been the ivy-est of ivies, the pinnacles of publics, or the community-est of colleges, but I would not have changed my choice to exit stage left. Full disclosure, when I began to progress in the presidential process and the reality hit me that I might actually get an offer, this was no longer an existential activity to “test the market.” I had to stop, reflect, and develop a plan for how I was going to navigate either a family move or a mommy move out of town to go from Dr. Shai to President Shai. I have a great husband (who I’d miss) and pretty amazing children, all of whom I not only love but actually like, so the choice was causing me great angst.
A few years ago, when my youngest children were in elementary and middle school, I was a finalist in a presidential search but life was much less complicated because my spouse and my children were more relocatable. I didn’t get the offer, so we canceled the U-Haul and plans to drive across the country. Our circumstances were different this time around. My husband’s career was peaking and my children were well adjusted in their hometown high school so I had some hard choices to make. I was very happy about how my candidacy was progressing but had no peace about leaving my husband and children behind to lead an institution, should I be afforded the opportunity. After long nights of self-reflection, long talks with my best friend and spouse, I decided to make a lateral career move instead and wait it out for my youngest to finish high school. With not a shred of regret, but a strong sense of relief that the decision had finally been made, I called up the consultants and said ‘thank you but I am pulling myself from the search.’ That night, I experienced the best night’s sleep that I had in months.
When it comes to the presidency, however, once the presidential die is cast, the deed must be done or we, the hopefuls, will die climbing the Everest of career aspiration. I highly recommend that one engages the services of a good sherpa if committed to the journey. In the quest to the presidency, your sherpa would be your mentor and preferably a sitting, or recently retired, president who can provide informed insights from their own lived experiences. Besides, it may be nice to have company for the climb because I have heard more than one campus leader say, ‘the presidency is a lonely job.’ Undoubtedly, this is something that probably holds true across a range of top industry professions. I mean think about it, do you ever wonder who the close confidants are of the Supreme Court Justices? I’ve wondered who do they actually sit around with and dish the tea, or unload on about their terrible day at work without violating all types of confidentiality agreements and privacy laws? I am not saying that presidents and justices are the same. I am simply pointing out the fact that sometimes, the path towards upward career mobility is fraught with unexpected challenges. When one arrives at the top to find themselves in agreement with Gertrude Stein’s saying that “there’s no there; there” then the next thing one realizes is that they’ve arrived, but at what cost, and to what end?
I find value in my work but I also love being present for my adult daughter virtually and in person. I even love chauffeuring my two teenage boys around from city to city for basketball, soccer, and karate. I love giving them driving lessons, dropping them off at science camps, attending musical recitals, and watching them practice building their Japanese language skills over the dinner table so that their father and I can’t understand their conversation. Like many, I have taken stock of my life these past eighteen months of pandemicmania and have come to some conclusions about what’s important to me at this stage of life. Don’t get me wrong, I work hard and absolutely love my job. I have been able to challenge myself in this new role, while still being able to be the spouse and parent that I want to be in this season of life. Will I get back out there one day and apply for another presidency? Probably. The one thing that I do know is that any institution that takes a chance on me three, five, or eight years down the road will get a committed, experienced president who will know that she is exactly where she wants to be, doing work that she finds most meaningful.
What about you? What decisions are you currently agonizing over because of life/career misalignment at this stage of life? Pay attention to the signals, the persistence, and the frequency of indecisiveness or anxiety about whether to pursue, or not pursue, change at this moment. Create pros and cons lists, do cost-benefit analyses, consult your pastor, priest, imam, rabbi, or the universe, talk to your partner, your kids, your best friend, your dog, anyone who will listen. Do all of that, but know, at the end of the day, it’s your choice to make. Women marched, immigrants came, BIPOC ancestors bled and died to give you more than a job or a career. They sacrificed to give you an unapologetic choice. Choose wisely.