Best Practices for Leadership Transition

For colleges in the midst of presidential transition, this is often the time of year when search committees are reviewing candidates, selecting finalists and preparing to announce a new leader. It is an historic, forward-looking milestone in the life of an institution, and among the most important responsibilities trustees and university leaders undertake.

The day a new president or chancellor is announced is not the culmination of a process, though. It is just the beginning. Presidential transitions require careful planning and coordination by boards and executive teams. Our work includes supporting institutions in the midst of leadership change, helping in-house teams plan and implement effective transitions. Here are some insights gleaned from client experiences and our regular scan of higher education trends:

Appoint a transition committee with a clear charge. The board chair or vice chair often drives the transition team, charging the group with detailed onboarding tasks and introduction activities including orientation and well-organized briefing materials, meeting and events, and support related to the physical move if necessary. As an example, Oregon State University mapped out a thorough transition plan and framework which divided the committee’s work into three stages: planning, pre-arrival and Year One.

Those appointed to the transition team must bring excellent judgment, keen discernment and a focus on what is in the best interest of the institution and the new leader — not individual agendas or window dressing. Just as a new president needs to listen before dictating, the committee needs to listen to the new president in determining what she or he most needs.

Prioritize communication. Transitions are uncertain times for campuses, requiring robust and transparent communication: about the new leader, the process and the transition itself. In our practice, we work closely with in-house teams to design comprehensive transition communications plans that span from the announcement and introduction of a new leader throughout the first year on the job, marking important milestones along the way.

To begin, we often facilitate a discussion with leadership to suss out the goals of the plan: At such an important inflection point for the institution, what do we want achieve with this communication and outreach? These have been especially enlightening, and clarifying, planning moments.

Early communications from the new president are not about laying out an agenda — it’s too soon for that. But they should be about values, a life story and building the foundations of a relationship.

Honestly assess current challenges and opportunities. The board and senior leadership team should take this opportunity to conduct a thorough assessment of “where things stand” with the college. Institutional issues and challenges can only be handled effectively if addressed frankly and thoroughly. You would be surprised how often we hear new leaders tell us they were not informed about a brewing issue or were not apprised about the magnitude of the challenge. Just as importantly, highlighting emerging strengths and innovation that will be building blocks for institutional success moving forward gives the new leader a sound foundation on which to build.

Use the moment to celebrate history and legacy as well as forward momentum. Whether or not there is an interim in between, institutions often have the chance to celebrate the institution’s history and the legacy of the outgoing president as well as the excitement of fresh leadership. Highlighting a successful tenure of the soon-to-be-former president is not about self-aggrandizement; instead, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the college’s strengths and distinction as well as energizing the campus community and donors. When University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman announced her retirement in 2013, the university celebrated her remarkable breadth of accomplishments, leaving the institution in a strong position for future momentum. The bottom line: Use the transition as a way to demonstrate current institutional distinction as well as future vision.

Reimagine introduction approach and content. Are you sick of the “we’re in a year like no other” reference yet? Same here, but in the context of leadership announcements and beginning new tenures, we have to throw some of traditional playbook out the window. That gives us an opportunity to think differently and imaginatively about presidential introductions. No big auditorium-style announcement event in Spring 2021, no cookies-and-punch receptions with long receiving lines. Instead, we need to explore how Zoom announcements can be leveraged to provide more access to the new leader, and generate announcement-day excitement. And, in addition to an introduction video (we like this recent example from Elon University’s President Connie Ledoux Book), we encourage our clients to develop many different kinds of multi-media opportunities for stakeholders to “get to know” the new leader in smaller and easily digestible bits of content, such as this terrific video snippet of Simmons University President Lynn Perry Wooten on the importance of her African American identity.

 In today’s video-conferenced reality, it feels even more important to us to tell the new leader’s personal story. A more human touch, and an authentic and empathic tone, can help bridge our current too-distanced divide, but also speaks more broadly to the experiences we have traveled collectively this past year. Here’s another good video introduction: Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier tells of his experience of growing up in Berlin as a first-generation college student.

Finally — have some fun. President Wooten enjoys sharing playlists and book club picks with campus, and went all-out for the holidays.  And, when it is possible to gather safely on campus, the transition might include some socially distanced, lighter-hearted events, especially with students. Hopefully, presidents keep this up through their tenures. Check out Oberlin President Carmen Ambar — who is passionate about fitness — as she hosted the first annual Tire Flipping Competition with students. Oberlin’s student publication, The Oberlin Review, called it “Flippin’ Awesome.”

Begin relationship-building now. A presidential transition team can support the new leader in developing a relationship-building strategy that should begin at the time of the appointment. One leader we spoke with, president of a small college, described meeting with each faculty member over the course of her transition and throughout her first year, with the intent of listening, learning and getting to know the campus culture. She still counts it as the most important time she invested early in her presidency. Time and care also must be taken in developing strong relationships with board members, and the in-house team should tier individual and small group outreach to students, faculty and staff, alumni, donors and important external stakeholders. Oregon State University’s transition framework called this “building a relationship map.”

Encourage time and space for listening well, and across multiple dimensions. The presidents we interviewed for this piece cautioned about the balance necessary between early leadership vision and the need to listen carefully to stakeholders. It is important to take the time necessary to seek real honesty and gain understanding. New leaders get an enormous amount of input without the benefit of context, and it takes a while to develop their own points of view on issues. One president reflected on her approach: Early on, she asked everyone she consulted a very similar set of questions. The various answers to the question set helped her see issues more dimensionally and with different lenses. She could then develop her own perspective with greater confidence.

Know this: Higher ed leadership transitions aren’t complete in the “first 100 days,” but rather take the first year or more. Colleges and universities are highly complex, and highly matrixed, institutions. Boards, executive teams and new leaders all need to realize that a smooth and full transition — even as everyone is moving at break-neck speed with day-to-day work — is likely to take a full year. New presidents need the time to listen, learn and calibrate. As a client put it, seeing transition as a year-long process gives new leaders the chance to say “not quite yet. I need time to think about that.”

Many thanks to the college presidents in our PRG network who agreed to be interviewed for this piece, and who shared their “lessons learned” with both frankness and grace.

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