Presidential First Steps - I

Patrick Sanaghan and Kimberly Eberbach suggest the questions a new campus leader should ask, and offer advice on listening skills.

May 21, 2012

Leadership transitions are interfaces between the past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Because they represent a break from the past, these transitions provide great opportunities for innovation and transformation. We have witnessed many presidential and executive transitions over the past two decades. A few have gone exceedingly well and a few very poorly, but most have been mediocre. This is unfortunate, because these periods are so ripe for substantive change in an institution and they may provide momentum for a long and productive tenure for a new president.

What it takes to enhance the success of a presidential transition is not terribly complex but, judging from the frequency of weak transitions, the pathway to success is not always immediately apparent. Based on our years of internal and external experience in working with leaders in institutions of higher learning (one of us having co-authored a book on presidential transitions), we have practical advice to share that can greatly improve the transition process, producing better outcomes and experiences for a new president.

Getting Started

As a new president steps into the role, developing a clear understanding of the institution’s priorities is essential. This can only be accomplished through a thorough assessment of the recent and distant past of the institution and an analysis of the previous leader’s vision (or lack thereof) for the future. This assessment — an on-boarding diagnostic — if done well will provide the new president with a firm foundation that will help minimize missteps. Every leader should understand that while he will most often get second chances to recover from later mistakes, there is only one chance to begin. The new leader needs to leverage that moment to its fullest.

The on-boarding diagnostic should be conducted primarily by the new president. However, we recommend also enlisting the support of a trusted adviser, perhaps a past president, a former board member, or a skilled consultant. Because many people are reticent in speaking truth to power, particularly to an individual as unknown as a new campus president, the adviser can serve as a buffer in difficult communications. In addition, the adviser can often provide a wealth of background information and can serve as a sounding board for the incoming leader. Ideally, the diagnostic should begin as soon as the ink is dry on the employment contract and should continue into the first weeks of the new leader's tenure.

Involving a broad and deep cross section of key stakeholders in the diagnostic is key to the new leader’s ability to shape a holistic point of view. Such a broad perspective should then naturally guide where most of the president’s time, effort, and resources will be spent. In addition, it will reveal what constituencies need to be built and what competing agendas need to be balanced. Most of the interviews for the diagnostic should be conducted by the president on a one-to-one basis. Some can be done in small groups if appropriate, and others may be conducted by the trusted adviser. The interviews may also be supplemented with a brief, anonymous, electronic survey of key individuals among the stakeholder groups. The importance of consulting the full range of constituencies within the institution cannot be overstated.

Before suggesting questions to drive the diagnostic, we must emphasize the importance to the end product of the leader entering the project intentionally placing assumptions, opinions, and preconceived ideas aside. This is an effort that requires curiosity and a tenacious dedication to listening and learning but not solving. Resisting the urge to jump in with an immediate solution to a problem may prove to be the most challenging aspect of the diagnostic, especially for an eager and ambitious new president.

Given these caveats, let us now explore some foundational questions for the on-boarding diagnostic. (To ensure thoughtful responses and an efficient interview process, it is always a good idea to send the questions ahead of the interviews to give respondents time to reflect on their answers.)

  • What are people most proud of when it comes to the institution?
  • Please tell a story that exemplifies what is best about the institution, its community, its mission, etc.
  • How would you describe the institution to a good friend?
  • What shape are the institution’s finances in?
  • How long have key leaders been in place?
  • How well does the senior team operate together?
  • What succession plans exist for key players? What critical roles have potential vacancies in the next 12 to 18 months?
  • To what extent is the student body connected to the institution? Please provide some examples that would help me understand the level of engagement and connection among the students.
  • What is the student pipeline? What pipelines need to be built?
  • What controversies exist on campus or within the local community?
  • Have there been crises in the recent past, or are there emerging crises?
  • What did my predecessor do well, adequately, poorly?
  • What is the make-up of the board? What are members’ passions, political agendas, and personal ties to the institution?
  • What does not get discussed across and within stakeholder groups?
  • What role does or should the community play? What ties exist between the institution and the community? What ties need to exist?

Building meaningful connections with campus stakeholders is a critical early task for a new leader and one we will discuss in a future essay. The on-boarding diagnostic can serve as first step in the relationship-building process because it reflects the commitment of the incoming leader to learning about his new institution and excelling in his new role. In light of this important collateral impact of the diagnostic process, the new president must take care to communicate how the diagnostic will shape her agenda in the first year, to express appreciation for people’s time and openness as investigations are proceeding, and to follow up by sharing what was learned. If the new president demonstrates her engagement in this way, chances are high that stakeholders will feel respected and valued, and working relationships will be off to a good start.

Conducting interviews and evaluating the information gained is no small task. The transitioning president must carve out time to invest in this critical investigation, perhaps even negotiating time up front with the board if necessary. In addition, we recommend that the new president involve the trusted adviser in synthesizing and making meaning of the data collected during the diagnostic.

Listening: An Underappreciated Skill

It has been our experience that many leaders do not listen very well. Leaders often moan when we suggest they dedicate time to honing this skill because most think they are already excellent listeners. Unfortunately, this is rarely true. Listening is a skill that needs attention and practice, and too few presidents have the patience to develop it.

Surely, they say, there must be more important abilities or traits to focus on — such as creativity, decision making, or strategic thinking. Certainly those are all great assets to acquire and refine, but if one cannot listen to others, the additional abilities will matter much less in the long run, especially when it comes to building connections. Effective listening will provide two important benefits from day one:

  • Good listening makes new leaders smarter faster. When individuals sense that the new leader is listening to them deeply, they will be more likely to tell him about their fears and their concerns, about potential problems, and even about impending crises. Without such openness, it could take months for the new leader to uncover crucial information on his own. By soliciting — and actually listening to — diverse perspectives and contrary opinions, the leader will have the benefit of new ideas that will help him round out his own thinking.
  • Good listening conveys respect. A new leader must quickly make his place among many who already have a long history with the institution. These individuals understand the official hierarchy, but they will appreciate the leader’s demonstration of respect for his new institution and staff. When stakeholders know that their new leader respects the past and the present of the institution, they will more readily join him in influencing its future. When they feel respected and trusted, they will return that respect and trust. Without such personal and institutional trust, the new leader will hindered in what he can accomplish, regardless of other resources.

For those leaders who are “challenged” listeners, one technique is to have the person take notes as they listen to other people. This will slow them down , and communicate that they are paying attention to the speaker. You have to be judicious with this and not get caught taking furious notes. It is almost always a good idea to capture the headlines of the conversation and reflect back what you have written down with the person you are talking with.

Another one is practice. It is a skill that can be developed over time. Working with a close colleague in private , the leader can practice "active" listening with them, then try it with others.

Part II of this essay will deal with other steps for presidents to take in the first year in office.


Patrick Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, a consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning and leadership development. Kimberly Eberbach is vice president of human resources at Independence Blue Cross.

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