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Office of the President

The ‘What’s Surprised You?’ Trap

May 25, 2011

Presidents, CEOs and the like often get asked this question. There’s no good answer. 



“What has surprised you?”

If I had a thousand dollars for every time I’ve been asked that question in the seven months I’ve been in my new position as a college president, I could buy a well-equipped Lexus. Maybe even an entry-level Maybach.

Those posing the question have every good intention. I’m sure they’re just being conversational, or perhaps they’re sincerely curious about how the organization I lead looks through the eyes of a newcomer. But even though my interlocutors mean well, I’m starting to think it’s the ultimate “gotcha” question for the executive in his or her first year in a new position.

Every answer is perilous. The most candid is especially off-putting: Who wants to hear that I’ve had few surprises, and none that anyone would find terribly important or interesting?

I’m sure it’s much the same for other college presidents, first-year CEOs and nonprofit directors—at least those who did due diligence before taking the job. Yet to say this to a well-meaning conversation partner is liable to disappoint, insult or, worse yet, suggest I’m either too smug or too unaware to be surprised. Not the impression that any leader wants to make.

I’m coming to conclude that it’s next to impossible to conjure an answer that will reflect the truth, serve the CEO’s institution, keep the listener’s interest, and avoid making anyone look bad.

Consider the unpromising possibilities:

To answer with something negative or disappointing can be damaging to the institution and would be directly contrary to my commitment as president to promote the college I’m proud to serve. A negative remark would also suggest that I’m a pessimist or naysayer, qualities no one wants in a leader and untrue to my actual perceptions, which are overwhelmingly positive.

On the flip side, replying with only positives can sound Pollyannish. Moreover, in offering one set of shining examples, the executive will inevitably leave out a host of other impressive people and projects. Thus, the attempt to give credit and boost spirits runs the paradoxical risk of insulting one or another constituency hoping to hear praise.

What has actually surprised me is the nature of the information that surprises others when we have conversations about the college. For example, a public official recently told me he was disappointed that our students weren’t more involved in the city. When I cited evidence to the contrary—the more than 300,000 service hours contributed by our students last year, for example—there was definitely surprise. All his.

At a party, when a lawyer and a doctor complained about colleges and universities being “the only parts of our society that dare increase their prices more than the rate of inflation,” I replied with some statistics from the newly published book “Why Does College Cost So Much,” by economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman. Their finding? That the rise in college costs mirrors the fee increases of lawyers, dentists and physicians over the past 50 years. Again, I was surprised that my companions were surprised by this data.

To be clear, I greatly appreciate the warmth and sincere interest of those who ask what has surprised me. My wife and I have received nothing but hospitality on campus and in our new city. Not that we’re surprised. Having done our homework, we knew that both Lewis & Clark College and Portland are friendly places.

What surprises me? One of these days the real answer might escape my lips: I’m surprised that people keep asking me this question.


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