I’ve overseen three university presidential transitions, and now in our consulting roles Julie and I have advised several in-house teams as they plan for a new president or chancellor.
It’s an important time in the life of an institution, and strategic communications planning is critical – both to ensure a smooth transition and to create a solid foundation for a new leader’s future direction. The most effective communications efforts happen with careful pre-planning and coordination among several college units. When this works well, everyone comes together to craft strategies that celebrate the legacy of where the institution has been, and excitement about the next chapter.
After facilitating quite a few in-house planning sessions with colleagues and clients, I offer some guideposts for making the most of leadership transition:
Develop a comprehensive communications plan with shared ownership.
Given the wide variety of internal and external audiences who have a real stake in the transition, several institutional areas have skin in the game. Often the communications leader will spearhead the effort, but this should be a collaborative and highly inclusive planning table: In addition to the communications team, representatives from the President’s and Provost’s offices, development, student affairs, alumni relations and government relations will be important drivers and contributors.
Together, the planning team can:
- Identify a comprehensive list of stakeholders.
- Establish clear goals for the transition. (Spend some time talking together about what needs and opportunities are present at this time. Our discussions with stakeholders have been very robust as we help them think this through.)
- Assess any institutional risk or challenges that need to be taken into consideration.
- Shape the most effective strategies, tactics and outreach to position the institution with strength and forward momentum.
The time to start planning: As soon as a leadership transition is determined. Many institutions do not start planning until shortly before or after a new leader is announced, but by then some milestone opportunities have already passed – and a new leader will soon be in place, perhaps without enough time to develop a multi-dimensional array of communications activities.
Balance legacy and future.
There are two parts to a leadership transition story, both where you’ve been and where you’re going. The impending announcement of a new leader can occupy a great deal of mind share, no doubt about it. But now’s the time to develop a compelling narrative about the institution’s strengths at this moment, illustrating growth and successes under the leadership of the president or chancellor who will soon depart.
Plan for announcement through inaugural (and beyond).
A presidential introduction isn’t just the press conference or campus event announcing the new leader. A multi-pronged strategy will include a substantial announcement plan, for sure, but also will carefully map out the first weeks and months of her or his tenure with many integrated communications activities. The mission: give stakeholders a chance to “get to know” the new leader, signal more about the path ahead, and lay the groundwork for future engagement and relationship-building:
- Media opportunities
- Self-generated multi-media content (photos, video, graphics)
- Campus and community special events
- Individual outreach to key internal and external stakeholders
- Web presentation(s)
- Social media
- Inauguration activities (a visual feast, an institutional milestone, and an opportunity for the new leader to more fully flesh out vision and future direction)
Recognize the importance of presidential voice.
Julie and I scan media trends in higher education on a daily and weekly basis (we invite you to subscribe on our website), and we track presidents and chancellors who are using the bully pulpit of their roles to establish a compelling leadership voice. Whether it is writing op-eds or developing social media platforms to engage with stakeholders, there is an ever-growing opportunity to establish thought leadership that advances institutional goals and engages with challenging issues at the intersection of higher education and societal need.
Working with a new leader to develop that voice, ensure its resonance with the community, identify strategic and timely topics, and build a platform on which to use the leaders’ voice over time, should begin early in the tenure of a new president.
In our practice, Julie and I work closely with new presidents and in-house teams to support effective transitions, and we know first-hand that careful and coordinated advance planning builds a strong foundation for an institution’s future direction.
Note: If your next leader will be a first-time president or chancellor, this blog post might be of additional interest.