Mon, June 24, 2024

The Right Person for the Right Time…Again

Last September, in this space, I wrote a column with a title very similar to this one. At that time, Dr. Brooks Keel had recently announced that he was retiring as President of Augusta University (AU) at the end of this month. In that column, I discussed why President Keel was the right choice when AU hired its new leader in the Summer of 2015. By most any measure, Dr. Keel has had a successful tenure as AU’s President, so when he announced his retirement, the Board of Regents (BoR) and the University System of Georgia (USG) were challenged to identify the best person to assume the mantel of leadership as the next AU President. At the end of last week, it was announced that the BoR had selected AU’s current Executive Vice President of Administration and Chief of Staff to President Keel, Dr. Russell Keen, as the sole finalist to be Dr. Keel’s successor. As a former AU colleague of mine and I joked shortly after the announcement, it should be pretty economical and easy to change the stationery from Keel to Keen; however, there are certainly many more important and beneficial reasons for selecting Dr. Keen as AU’s next President.

Dr. Brooks Keel was named AU President in 2015.

For the sake of transparency, before identifying the reasons that make Dr. Keen an excellent choice, I want you to know that he is not just a colleague, but a friend of mine. While I hope I am not biased in my assessment, I think it is important for you to know that as you read this.  However, I think that knowing Dr. Keen as more than just a colleague provides me with additional insight into the type of person he is, which is very important to assessing his ability to lead. In the rest of this column, I will identify Dr. Keen’s key personal leadership characteristics and why they fit well with the AU presidency, and address why choosing an internal candidate with Dr. Keen’s skill set is particularly astute.

I have written much about what characteristics are found in most good leaders. Those that I would like to highlight about Dr. Keen and which are critical to a leader of AU include: high integrity, trustworthy, effective communicator, empathetic, and respectful. As an academic institution, Augusta University’s most important strategic resource is its people. The primary ways in which an academic institution differentiates from its competitors are its ability to deliver outstanding education and services to its students, to conduct world-class research which advances knowledge, theory, and practice, and to better the community around it through interaction and service. All of these differentiators are primarily delivered by people, so how well a leader can motivate and inspire his or her people will be a key part of how well the institution can succeed.

Fortunately, I have been able to observe Dr. Keen closely in the past seven-plus years and have first-hand experience of the characteristics identified above. Dr. Keen helped start and still helps lead a Bible Study for men on the AU campus and off, including faculty, staff, medical professionals, and community members. Dr. Keen not only effectively communicates his message, but is clearly empathetic and respectful to all. He is a person of high integrity and earns trust through his consistency and follow-through. In an academic institution, it is critical that decisions are transparently presented and explained to highly knowledgeable constituencies. Dr. Keen has shown a strong ability to speak frankly and honestly, earning the respect of the many constituencies he has both on campus and off, and both locally and outside the area. While these characteristics are necessary for an AU President, they are not completely sufficient. The good news is that Dr. Keen also has a skill set that portends future success in that position.

There has been much discussion in business in recent years concerning the decision whether to hire an internal or external candidate to lead an organization. In AU’s case, it checks off many of the boxes for hiring an internal candidate. First, AU has a relatively new strategic plan and has been on a very successful trajectory in recent years. External candidates are more likely to try to put “their mark” on the organization and potentially abandon the current approach, so this points toward selecting an internal candidate to continue the current momentum. Second, the more complex the organization, the longer the learning curve for an external hire. Since its consolidation, AU has become a very complex institution, and an internal candidate already understands it. Also, it is a crucial time for AU as it is in the beginnings of its relationship with WellStar and it is preparing for a new AU Dental College campus in Statesboro, while also dealing with sharing the mission of medical doctor education with the new University of Georgia Medical School.

Dr. Keen has the important skill set of being able to deal with the multiple constituencies involved in all of the issues going on that I present above. Most importantly, Dr. Keen has demonstrated his ability to deal with the legislature, the Governor’s office, local community government, and the BoR/USG to lead to win-win outcomes for AU and those other entities. Much of this ability comes from his leadership characteristics such as ethics, trustworthiness, and ability to communicate, but is enhanced by his significant experience in dealing with the politics that impact higher education. In addition, Dr. Keen’s local roots demonstrate not only his concern for the well-being of AU, but the local area as a whole and the likelihood that he will be a long-term leader for the institution.

As Dr. Keen “takes the baton” from Dr. Keel in less than three weeks, I think we can all be confident that AU will continue to be in good hands. Dr. Keen not only brings the skill set and experience necessary, but the heart and mind of a leader we can follow.

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