5 ways to create an inclusive environment for new leaders

Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion is one step, but establishing a culture consistent with it is more important

Institutions work hard to recruit and hire diverse leaders. But a successful search does not end there.

The hard work of recruiting a diverse pool of candidates and ensuring their equitable consideration in the search process can be undone when institutions don’t then set appointees up for success.

A well-structured transition and onboarding plan is imperative to ensuring a smooth, successful change of leadership—particularly when transitioning and onboarding candidates from traditionally underserved populations and those who are serving as pioneers in the institutions they now lead.

That onboarding period is when candidates that institutions worked hard to recruit and hire first interact with the existing culture on campus and in the surrounding community.

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If there is a disconnect between the new leaders’ prior experiences and the realities of institutional culture or procedures, additional challenges will complicate the leadership transition.

The following suggestions ensure that search committees and hiring authorities keep diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of any transition and on-boarding plan.

  • Clearly articulate the institution’s philosophy: Make sure the institution has a clear understanding of what diversity, equity and inclusion mean to campus constituents and how these important terms relate to the overall mission of the institution. This definition must be lived by the campus community and reflected in all areas of operation.
  • Build a diverse transition committee: As with a search committee, a diverse transition committee can steer a new leader through a more balanced and broadly-informed onboarding process and help new leadership adapt quickly to campus culture, complexities and traditions. Consider inviting other pioneers to speak with the committee members to help shed light on the challenges and opportunities a traditionally underrepresented leader will face.
  • Involve the community: A stable support system is critical for retaining new employees generally, and perhaps especially for new leaders from underserved populations who may have unique challenges. Encourage those already on campus and in the community to create an open dialogue and to host welcoming events for the new appointee. Even in these times when in-person gatherings are challenging, if not impossible, networking events, happy hours or brown-bag lunches virtually or in a socially-distanced context can be a starting point for building this support system.
  • Create a welcoming climate: Creating an environment that is truly inclusive means reexamining campus policies and procedures, from marketing materials, buildings and grounds, and employee benefits to your course curriculum and dining hall offerings. It’s important for new leaders to feel empowered and have a sense of belonging when walking across campus, not feel alienated or excluded from the community they now represent.
  • Hire an executive coach to walk alongside them their first year: Executive coaching is a valuable investment in the vitality and wel-being of both the institution and the new leader. Especially in the case of leaders who are pioneers on their campuses, executive coaches can serve as trusted confidants and companions who help leaders freely examine their particular concerns and challenges.

Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion is one step, but establishing a culture consistent with it is more important. Institutions must work not only to recruit diverse pools of candidates and ensure their equitable consideration in the search process, but also retain those appointees and set them up for success once they are on campus.

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Many people are involved in this support: board members, the hiring authority, search committee, faculty, staff, other internal and external community members and the candidates themselves.

Although it has become popular in recent years to focus on the first 100 days or some variation, artificial timelines hurt new leaders as often as they help them. As much as institutions want their new leaders to “hit the ground running,” it is almost always the case that there are external events or an accumulation of issues that await new leaders.

Boards, cabinet members, faculty leaders and others need to be patient with new leaders. Inevitably, there will be unforeseen challenges, but building a thoughtful plan for welcoming and getting to know a new leader can provide the necessary energy to preserve when times are tough. This is especially so for leaders who may look, act and sound different from their predecessors.

Jay Lemons is president and senior consultant, and Shirley Robinson Pippins is a senior consultant at Academic Search, an executive search and leadership development firm serving higher education.

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