Presidential turnover calls for more sophisticated onboarding of new presidents

By: | September 3, 2019
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Katherine Haley is the founder of Haley Associates, a higher education executive search firm, and the former president of Gettysburg College and Whittier College.

With so many abrupt presidential departures lately, the need for intentional and effective transition processes for new presidents has become imperative. Yet, few colleges and universities have a thoughtful and thorough plan to onboard their new president and assure his or her success.

The new president is usually appointed with universal fanfare… and then is left on their own.

A change in executive leadership is a turning point at a critical time in the life of any institution. Leadership transitions present extraordinary risks—and extraordinary opportunities. Assuring that a new president is successful should be a priority.

Yet, colleges and universities have been slow to embrace other sectors’ proactive approach to formal leadership “on-boarding”. What makes the transition period all the more challenging is the lag between when the new president is named and when she or he officially takes office—a lag that can be as long as 6 months.

One would think this would allow for a more comprehensive transition plan, but no: the outgoing president is usually still in place; the university must continue business as usual—and a balance must be found between honoring the outgoing president while onboarding the new one.

The lag time can engender rampant uncertainty and hesitancy, with fissures and factions and new coalitions beginning to emerge that may make the president’s first year even more of a challenge. There is a leadership vacuum.

Once they take office, new presidents are at additional risk because they are often expected to solve chronic problems that no one else has been able to solve—and to do so quickly. But, results like higher enrollment, a lower discount rate and significant donor gifts are not reasonable first-year outcomes. The first two items are on an unbreakable four-year cycle—and substantial fundraising requires the new president to develop relationships with donors, which takes time and travel away from campus.

Gaining traction

Given the myriad of challenges and risks facing the new president, it is important to assure that the transition period–from appointment through at least the first full year—is thoughtfully and comprehensively organized and executed. In other words, a presidential transition is not successful or complete until the new president has “gained traction.”

So, what makes for a successful presidential transition?

  • Form a Presidential Transition Committee to plan and oversee the transfer of power from the previous president to the new: The committee should be composed of some members of the search committee, one or two board leaders, an administrator, and a faculty leader.
  • Relationships. The board transition committee must intentionally help the president to develop key relationships with donors, alumni, and faculty. Relationships are important to the success of any leader, providing political capital—and they cannot develop overnight. Follow-through is critical. A prioritized list of the key people the president must meet must be developed—supported by proactive support and follow through to assure key relationships are established and developed. For instance, there will probably be at least one major donor who will be miffed if the president does not approach them early enough in the presidency.
  • Culture. Every academic institution has its own culture and norms. Be intentional in assisting the president in understanding those norms—and explicitly identify for him or her where the landmines are located.
  • Support. The board of trustees should be explicit and public in its support of the new president and her or his agenda. Such signals from board members can be quite influential and will buffer the new president from those resistant to change. If culture wars and free speech issues arise, board leadership should work closely with the president and make clear to all that the president has the support of the board. That support and input must be carefully balanced with allowing the new president to take the lead and have autonomy—a delicate business. It is also the duty of search committee members to be vocal advocates for the president and serve as a reminder that the presidential appointment was the result of a long, transparent and carefully vetted process.
  • Expectations. Don’t expect the new president to fix all your problems in one or two years. Witness the troubling trend in higher education presidencies: the average term is now under 5 years—and some presidents’ terms end after 2-3 years. This is not nearly enough time to gain the traction and political capital needed to effectively address tough issues in a complex and very political environment. Think of the first two years as the true transition time where the new president should spend time learning the culture, building relationships and consolidating power. Sure there are pressing problems that must be addressed immediately, but there should also be recognition that tough issues cannot be solved all in a day. In concert with the new leader, the board should develop a set of short and long-term goals, so that it is clear what the priorities and focus are for the new president whose every minute must be strategically scheduled to meet all expectations and address all challenges.

A “failed” presidency is destructive and demoralizing to any institution. It should be prevented at all costs. A successful presidential search process and transition can galvanize the university, lift up its values, enhance visibility, and renew a shared sense of purpose and vision for the future.

A strong transition plan, the support of the board, the transition committee and the presidential search committee—along with clear and reasonable expectations—will yield the momentum and renewal that is the goal of any transition in presidential leadership.

Katherine Haley is the founder of Haley Associates, a higher education executive search firm, and the former president of Gettysburg College and Whittier College. She has conducted more than 47 presidential searches.