Higher ed succession planning: Who will follow the leader?

Higher ed succession planning: Who will follow the leader?

How succession plans are being used to grow and promote in-house talent at all levels of the campus organization

Zero. Zip. Zilch.

That’s what college president Don Cameron found after searching the internet back in 1996 for colleges with succession plans. Surprisingly, not much has changed, since such programs are still not common within higher ed institutions.

As president at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, N.C., Cameron had just turned down a job offer from another college, which caught the attention of Guilford’s board chairman. After realizing there wasn’t a Plan B if Cameron had resigned, the chair asked Cameron to develop a succession plan for executive positions at the school.

Almost 20 years later, Allison Vaillancourt, vice president for HR and institutional effectiveness at the University of Arizona, recently attended a conference targeting human resources professionals in higher education. Although succession planning was on the agenda, she says very few people, if any, could address the topic.

“Succession planning strikes many people [in higher education] as slotting and favoritism. We just have a huge commitment to the competitive process for positions,” Vaillancourt says.

Encouraging employees

Many believe succession planning belongs in the corporate sector, where in-house promotions are more the norm than the exception. Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of senior and mid-level business, HR, and management professionals “rendered leadership succession more important than ever before,” according to results of a 2011 survey conducted by the American Management Association, “Organizational Bench Strength and Succession Plans.”

Resource box

Although 20 percent reported they were unprepared to replace key leaders, 83.5 percent reported that senior management teams are committed to promoting from within.

Officials at some institutions have challenged the idea that succession planning isn’t needed in higher education. They consider the high costs of employee turnover and lost productivity as new employees get up to speed on the organization’s culture, processes, and people. Why not offer staff and faculty opportunities to advance their own skills and knowledge to assume leadership positions across campus?

Still, not everyone is convinced that such programs have a home in academia. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at The George Washington University in D.C., says that a different protocol and culture exist on the academic side of the house versus in administration.

Say the philosophy department is looking for a new chair. Administrators will look internally, says Trachtenberg, also chair of the higher education practice at Korn/Ferry, a global executive recruitment firm. “But it is more traditional to see if the department can induce a philosopher to come from another institution that is considered more academically elite than its own, with the thought that that’s the way of enhancing its own department.”

Also, many professors prefer teaching and conducting research to performing administrative functions.

For staff positions, however, Trachtenberg tells a different story. In his experience, employees typically feel discouraged if there are no clear paths for promotions and will seek employment elsewhere.

“If they don’t have an opportunity to move within the organization, their loyalty to the institution isn’t as deep or robust as it would be otherwise,” he says. “You need to look at the future of the individuals in the organization and their continuing role … going forward.”

Promotion preparation

Some succession plans focus on senior staff. That’s a big mistake, according to Cameron at GTCC, who developed The President’s Leadership Seminar in 1997, which is still in place for the school’s 800 staff and faculty.

Although Cameron and department supervisors encourage those they see as potential leaders to apply for participation, any employee is eligible. Each year, roughly 25 are selected for the five-day program, which includes mock job interviews and guest speakers. For example, participants hear from a panel of college presidents and the finance director of the state’s community college system, who explains how colleges are funded.

One month into the program, participants are asked to commit to a second year. Most do, says Cameron, now a senior associate at National Search and Education Consulting. These employees are divided into teams of five to address a major goal, such as how the college can more effectively work with students in developmental studies. They spend the next eight months researching the goal, benchmarking it against other colleges with similar programs, and developing a budget for their recommendations. Then each team presents this information to the president’s council.

Cameron says the teams offer additional benefits, including solving administrative challenges. One team, for example, improved the registration process that led to a one-stop shop, while another set up a developmental math program, enabling students to progress at a faster pace.

Between 2006 and 2011, 75 percent of vice president, dean, or director positions were filled in-house. But what Cameron is most proud of, he says, is that 13 of the VPs who participated in the program moved on to became presidents at other colleges.

Such programs can also reveal hidden talent. The Leadership Academy at Rollins College in Florida, which consists of two, 12- to 16-week courses, helps identify future leaders for promotional opportunities, says Matt Hawks, human resources director at the liberal arts college. Rollins has offered a course called Leadership Foundations for the last 10 years. Participants attend a series of workshops to enhance their knowledge, skills, and ability to relate with others and work as a team.

The second course, Advanced Leadership Program, is eight years old. It incorporates leadership coaching, 360-degree surveys involving their staff and peers, problem solving, and community building.

The academy is open to all 730 staff and faculty. More than half of the participants who complete the first course enroll in the advanced program. More than 80 percent of the school’s key managers have completed one or both programs.

“HR has a good sense of how capable they are of demonstrating the skills we’re teaching and how effective they are in their relationships with others,” says Hawks.

That department, along with the school’s deans, is exploring the need for a similar program exclusively for faculty interested in administrative roles. “Their participation in the program gives us a context to identify who our more effective performers are in the leadership area,” he says.

Encouraging faculty to pursue high-level administrative jobs across campus is the main intent of the Leadership Whittier program at Whittier College in California. Aimed at helping them understand the various roles on a campus, the program has a current enrollment of three-quarters faculty and the rest administrators.

The program was launched two years ago by the college’s president, Sharon D. Herzberger. Kristin Wiberg, executive assistant to the president, says Herzberger was “horrified by the statistics that showed few people aspired to higher education administration and even fewer aspired to the presidency.”

Like other programs, participation is by invitation from senior administrators. So far, 20 people have completed Leadership Whittier, which takes place at the president’s home. A different division head speaks at each of the five sessions, followed by a banquet. After the program, the president and other school leaders continue to mentor participants interested in administrative careers.

“It’s a small initial effort, but we’re pleased with how it’s going so far,” says Wiberg, adding that some participants have accepted faculty leadership roles. “It’s an important issue for places even as small as Whittier to consider.”

Program partners

Succession planning doesn’t have to be a solitary effort by a college or university. Consider Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, which joined forces last September with nearby Bucknell University and Dickinson College to create the Higher Education Leadership Institute of Central Pennsylvania.

“The overview of the program was a multi-institutional initiative designed to help prepare administrative leaders from these three schools in addressing the complex challenges facing higher education,” says Jennifer Lucas, codirector of HR at Gettysburg College. “Each school identified as many as five participants, essentially key administrators, and each college offered a different program.”

Gettysburg, for instance, hired a consultant who was an expert in Civil War leadership. Lucas says participants toured the Gettysburg battlefield and discussed the competencies of war leaders. The 14 participants were also required to read leadership books throughout the year. They received three coaching sessions and developed career action plans.

“This is our first step,” says Lucas. “There are certainly some challenges to doing this from a resource perspective, but there are ways to deal with challenges that are doable even for small institutions.”

Future leaders stepping up

Participants in leadership programs should have opportunities to demonstrate their leadership abilities, although that aspect of succession planning doesn’t always exist.

Lucas says Gettysburg, Bucknell, and Dickinson officials are exploring various applications and may invite past participants to mentor those in future programs.

Likewise, those who complete the Academic Leadership Institute at the University of Arizona are routinely tapped to serve on project teams or committees where they have opportunities to apply their leadership skills, says Vaillancourt.

In its fourth year, the year-long institute is highly competitive and attracts department heads and other execs. Up to 25 people are selected by the institute’s advisory board and then participate in workshops involving 360 evaluations and other assessments, and address topics such as cultivating allies, expanding influence, and achieving agreements.

Through a similar Management in Action program at University of Arizona, managers (as opposed executive-level administrators) attend monthly workshops throughout the year as well as receive four coaching sessions. And the university’s College of Medicine offers a year-long program, Learning to Lead, for physician faculty who may be interested in a leadership position.

Vaillancourt says that some departments or colleges within the institution have requested leadership programs just for their staff.

“We really don’t like to do that because we think it’s important for different perspectives to be expressed,” she says, adding that 35 percent of the University of Arizona’s 15,000 employees have been promoted. “That’s one of the values of the program—spending time with people who have very different perspectives and experiences.”

But the real takeaway is that these programs provide an internal pathway for talented employees, adds Ann Weaver Hart, president of the University of Arizona.

These programs “open opportunities for career advancement within the university, helping us retain these key employees,” she says. “Excellent leaders also attract top talent to the university and help create a culture of high performance, which helps the university more quickly and effectively reach its goals.”

Carol Patton, a Las Vegas-based writer, is UB’s Human Resources columnist.


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