Presidential Transitions

Patrick Sanaghan offers advice for incoming leaders, departing leaders and board members.
August 15, 2011

Bringing in a new leader for an institution of higher learning is a daunting responsibility for a board. During a presidential transition, campus stakeholders are both anxious and hopeful as they manage (or witness) the passage between the outgoing and incoming leaders. For our book Presidential Transitions: It’s Not Just the Position, It’s the Transition, Larry Goldstein, Kathleen D. Gaval, and I interviewed scores of presidents and trustees. In the process, we discovered some surprising elements that can either make or break a presidential transition.

The Selection Process: Avoiding Cultural Mismatch

Though it may seem strange to treat the selection process as part of a presidential transition, selecting the right person is one of the most important steps in ensuring a smooth transition. The board must take a wide view of not only the needs but also the culture of the institution. By becoming preoccupied with a narrow goal or fixated on a particular personality trait, the board risks creating a cultural mismatch that can set up unnecessary conflict.

In a case of cultural mismatch, the new president never really connects with the people on campus. Although the new leader might have all the right credentials, his (or her) leadership style simply doesn’t work for the institution. Stakeholders don’t like him, don’t trust him, don’t understand him, and don’t want to follow him. It is hard to build a bright future in such a setting.

Cultural conflict can occur when the board chooses the wrong leader for the time and the institution. By being aware of predictable traps that may cloud their collective judgment, board members can more successfully navigate the selection process. Three traps are particularly dangerous when it comes to selecting a new president.

Trap #1: The Pendulum Swing

A board anxious to jump-start change in an institution may choose a new president who is dramatically different from the outgoing one. For example, a long-serving, thoughtful, cautious leader might be replaced with a gung-ho entrepreneur who has big ideas and wants to run the campus like a "business." Such dramatic change rarely works because it is too much for institutional stakeholders to orient themselves around and to follow with any conviction. Clearly, the opposite type of change can also be problematic, if an institution that has been led by a hard-charging visionary suddenly finds itself with a thoughtful, yet plodding leader.

Different is not always better. A board must be cognizant of the potential negative impact a dramatic change can have. Board members must deeply understand the institutional culture — its context and complexity. Without such knowledge, it is all too easy to pick the wrong leader.

Trap #2: The "Change Agent"

Boards can sometimes be overly impressed by a potential new leader who promises to "stir things up" and move the institution to a "new level." Such change agents like to use words such as "stellar," "exceptional," and "preeminent." It is wise to be wary of such individuals, because they can also create "extraordinary" damage.

This warning is not meant to suggest that change leaders do not have their place in higher education. We are experiencing — and will continue to experience — enduring change throughout our institutions. We need the very best and brightest change leaders we can find. Principled leaders throughout the institution, not just the president, need to work together to manage the complexity and ambiguity that change presents.

I am currently observing a local university that has hired a "change agent" as its new president. Unfortunately, campus stakeholders don’t understand the rationale for all the suggested changes. To them, it feels like change for change's sake. The president talks about "pushing through the resistance" and is intolerant of anyone who asks tough questions about execution or the potential negative impact of all the change. He complains to the board that the people on campus "just don’t get it." The followers don’t believe the president is respectful of their mission, their values, or their history. As they see it, for all the consideration he has demonstrated, he could be applying his change policies in a can factory or a waste management plant.

Lone change agents are rarely successful. There are occasions when a truly visionary leader can inspire institutional stakeholders to reach for the stars, but that inspiration must grow out of the leader's efforts to build the relational capital necessary to create commitment toward a shared vision. And most of the time the leader must also have the financial resources to dream big.

Trap #3: Smartship vs. Leadership

Hiring a really smart president is not a difficult task in higher education because there are many highly intelligent candidates available. We all want smart leaders, but having a high IQ doesn’t necessarily equate with having what it takes to lead a campus.

I once interviewed a brilliant and famous president. After I introduced myself, he talked at me for over two hours — before I had a chance to ask even a single question. The experience was overwhelming. I later observed him with his cabinet, and the same behavior occurred. The president launched into an extended monologue and acted like he was the only one in the room who had any ideas. The cabinet members spent much of their time in pained silence, doodling away.

This brilliant individual couldn’t lead his people if his life depended on it. Great ideas are implemented through the hard work of people throughout an institution. Leaders must be able to build shared aspirations and institutional trust in order to execute their ideas. This takes time, patience, and perspiration — not just proclamations.

Boards would be well served if they would prioritize the leadership traits of humanity and humility; compassion and care; integrity and honesty. Smartness should be on the list, but not as the primary leadership quality that is sought.

The President–Board Chair Relationship

In bringing a new president into an institution, a board will naturally focus on how that individual will mesh with board members and with stakeholders within the institution. At the conclusion of a well-conducted search, both the board and the new president should feel a good degree of confidence in the abilities of the parties to form a productive working relationship. But what will happen if the relationship doesn’t develop as expected or if the composition of the board shifts?

In our interviews for Presidential Transitions, we were surprised at how many presidents talked openly about the difficult relationships they had with their board chairs. These important and fragile relationships often caused a great deal of stress for presidents, and for many of them ultimately became the deciding factor in influencing them to leave their institution for another campus. We discovered that these tension-filled relationships often emerged as a new board chair (who might have been waiting in the wings) set out to assert his or her individuality as a leader, and put his or her "stamp" on things.

I am currently witnessing the stress growing in a highly successful, visionary president who has helped lift his institution to another level, as he worries about an incoming new board chair. The current board chair has been very supportive of the president’s visionary style and has been a real thought partner. The new board chair is a highly successful, assertive businessperson who is also a world-class micromanager. He loves the details — all the details — and is chock-full of advice about almost everything. His rigid approach and his constant questions make the president think that his wings will soon be clipped. He is concerned that he will spend countless hours answering pointless questions and attending to details that don’t matter.

If these two leaders cannot manage their very different approaches, the president will leave for a place that appreciates his gifts. The new board chair will be recognized the reason the president left and will have failed at an important aspect of his new job.

The importance of the strategic relationship between a president and board chair cannot be overstated. If the chair and the president cannot develop a common vision about where the institution should go and how it should get there, what the campus priorities should be, how institutional values should be lived throughout the campus, and how decisions will be made, there will be difficult times ahead. Departures and transitions on good terms are hard enough. Picking up the pieces after a protracted conflict can be a huge obstacle to overcome.

Therefore, when such relational and leadership challenges emerge and tensions mount, it is important to intervene quickly, because the problems won’t magically disappear on their own. Bringing in a former president, a former board chair, or a highly credible external consultant to help mediate the differences is essential. This will not be a one-shot intervention. The relationship will need consistent care and attention over time by all involved parties.

The Departure Process: Leaving Well

In a presidential transition there is a tendency to be more thoughtful and disciplined about the arrival of the new president than about the departure of the sitting president. Both transitions need care and attention by senior leadership and the board. The following advice can help a leader avoid a sloppy exit.

Establish Ground Rules

The board chair needs to meet with the incoming and outgoing presidents to negotiate a set of ground rules or working agreements that will help set the stage for a positive transition:

Will the incoming president be making any campus visits before the official arrival? If so, what will those visits entail, and will the two leaders interact with each other during the visits?

If the new president needs information (e.g., board minutes, accreditation reports, cabinet reviews), how should the materials be requested?

How will the two leaders communicate with each other? How often? Will they meet face to face? Where and when?

Will there be interaction and communication with the new president and the board chair, before the official transition? If so, how will the current president be informed about this?

These might sound like relatively trivial matters, but having a clear plan for routine communication will save time for all concerned and will build a good foundation for dealing with the less clear-cut issues that will arise during any transition.

Lead Until the End

One of the most common pieces of advice arising out of our presidential interviews was this: the outgoing president needs to be seen leading until the day he or she leaves. The last thing an institution needs is a president who simply fades away. The outgoing president needs to attend important campus events, faculty lectures, award ceremonies, and celebrations. Stakeholders need to see and interact with the departing president during the outward transition.

If the outgoing and incoming president can attend some of these campus events together, all the better. This will meaningfully symbolize the historic transition between the two leaders. Such joint appearances will demonstrate to campus stakeholders that the incoming and outgoing leaders have professional respect for each other and a shared commitment to a smooth and amicable transition.

Get Rid of Any "Sticky" Problems

Before the new president arrives, any difficult personnel issues at the leadership level should be addressed effectively. The last thing a new president needs early in his or her tenure is to face tough and visible decisions that have been left hanging for a long time. Such personnel issues could involve sensitive tenure decisions, disciplinary actions, and any financial "fuzziness" that might exist. The key here is to set the table for the new president so that his or her first year is as smooth as possible, without locking the new leader into commitments or courses of action that might not fit into his or her agenda. Clearly, a degree of communication between the two leaders is required on large issues.

Negotiate the "Culminating Agenda"

The board chair and departing president need to agree on the top one or two priorities for the departing president in his or her final 6 to 12 months. It is essential that the list of priorities be kept short — because there is a strong tendency for an outgoing president to try to leave with some "big wins" to burnish a legacy. A departing president might be tempted to try to finish off a “to do” list that has lingered for years — reviving a long-dormant program, creating a new and complex strategic partnership with a multinational company, or raising millions for a new building on campus.

All leaders want to be remembered for accomplishing important — even great — things, but a mad scramble in the waning months of a leader’s tenure is not the way to achieve that desired impact. The culminating agenda should be meaningful and doable — not an expansive dream or ego booster for the outgoing leader. One of the best gifts a departing president can give an institution is to ensure a smooth and successful transition for the incoming leader.

"Don’t Come Back for at Least a Year"

One of the presidents we interviewed for Presidential Transitions recounted an unusually wise piece of advice he received during his departure. This particular individual had enjoyed a great and long run as president. He had helped shape the institution in many ways and was well-respected, even loved, as a leader.

At the final dinner celebrating of his presidency, he sat next to his long-serving board chair. They had worked together for more than 15 years and had developed a warm and strong friendship. At the end of a wonderful evening, the board chair leaned over and whispered, "You have done a wonderful job for this institution. We are all grateful for this and I admire you a great deal." It was a touching moment.

The board chair continued, "Please don’t come back here for at least a year because your shadow is too big for this new president to succeed."

The president was taken aback by the sharpness of the comment and a little hurt. Upon reflection, however, he realized the board chair was right. The new president deserved every opportunity to be successful, and if a "legend" was around for constant comparison it would be a difficult journey.

Presidential transitions are critically important and delicate periods. It is important to choose the new leader wisely to avoid the negative impact of a potential cultural mismatch, to pay careful attention to the relationship between the president and board chair, and to make sure the outward transition of the departing leader gets the attention it needs.


Patrick Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, a consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning and leadership development.


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