Dismantling the Senior Team: A Troubling Trend

It's rarely a good idea and can severely damage the institution and create unnecessary turmoil, argues Pat Sanaghan.

June 6, 2019
 
 
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I have had the opportunity to work on more than 250 college campuses over the past 30 years and have closely witnessed about 100 presidential transitions. I have written extensively about these transitions because I find them to be fascinating and fragile journeys, full of hope and anxiety and fraught with danger.

Over the past five years, I have witnessed a troubling trend emerging: too often the new president comes in and begins to disassemble the current senior team and bring in their own people. That is rarely a good idea and can severely damage the institution and create unnecessary turmoil.

In research for a book I co-authored with Larry Goldstein and Kathleen D. Gaval on presidential transitions, we interviewed 50 sitting and former presidents. I was amazed by how open and deeply honest they were about their own leadership transitions, many of which were unpleasant experiences. They were gracious enough to tell it like it is so that their colleagues might avoid the pitfalls, problems and potholes they had unfortunately encountered. From these conversations and stories, two themes emerged.

First, we found that the chief business officer is often in an especially vulnerable position with a new president. We probed this notion deeply and found that an unusual dynamic frequently exists between that person and the new leader. It seems that many new presidents are unfamiliar with the financial side of the house, especially if they have spent their careers in academe. They may be brilliant scholars in their disciplines, but with the financials, not so much. That sets up a "student-teacher" dynamic between the business officer and president, and many new presidents find that uncomfortable.

In addition, if the campus has serious financial challenges that the new president will inherit, the business is already on thin ice. If there isn't a close personality fit between the two leaders, the business officer is often encouraged to leave.

I worked with the National Association of College and University Business Officers for more than a decade teaching their strategic-planning and leadership programs. I came to respect the complexity of the chief business officer role and the integrity of the individuals who hold the position. You don't grow a top-notch business officer overnight -- it takes years of tough experience, hard work, creative thinking and difficult decisions.

I’ve heard many times an urban legend of sorts from the chief business officers with whom I have worked: when a new president comes in, the business officer had better have their résumé ready in a back pocket.

The second fragile relationship is with the advancement vice president or leader. Once again, the personality fit is important, as this person and the president usually spend a lot of time together on the road. If the relational fit isn’t there, or the new president doesn’t capture some major gifts early in the game, say goodbye.

A Case in Point

I am currently witnessing the arrival of new president, with a brand-new Ph.D. and little higher education experience, who is quickly dismantling an inherited senior team and bringing in their own people. It isn’t going well, but they are oblivious to what's going on and the negative impact it is having throughout the campus.

Two big mistakes happened fast. The new president let go the chief business officer -- someone who was well respected by campus stakeholders and the board. He was a smart, high-integrity leader who had the temerity to speak honestly to the new president about their “bold vision” for the future of the institution. In an initial cabinet meeting, the business officer suggested that the president hold off talking about their vision until they had a better understanding of the institution.

That sounds like good advice to me and for any presidents who see themselves as visionary. In this case, the president was deeply affronted by the advice, and the train to nowhere started to move out of the station, with the business officer in an economy-class seat.

This sudden exit of a valued leader sent shivers throughout the institution and the administrative ranks. People were stunned that this respected senior leader was dismissed so quickly. People now fear being honest with the president, and this is the most dangerous place for any leader to be, especially a new president. At this stage of a transition, a new leader needs access to all the advice, feedback and honesty they can get. Now the new leader doesn't have a reality check and is flying blind -- but doesn’t know it.

The new president’s second mistake is a whopper: they decided to bring in their own chief of staff from their previous institution. The current chief was immediately demoted and quietly asked to leave. This senior leader was, again, trusted and well respected and knew the lay of the land politically, relationally and operationally. People were upset, and the rumor mill shifted into high gear.

On paper, bringing in a trusted adviser to help with the transition can make sense to some people. In reality, however, it is rarely a good idea, and here's why: the new chief of staff knows very little about the institution, and it will take at least a year for them to begin to learn about the complexity and culture of the campus. (The same is true for the president.) Now you have two "students” trying to learn everything as they attempt to lead the campus. This is not a good situation.

In addition, the new chief of staff has a great deal of unearned power and influence due to a personal relationship with the president. People tend to resent this (even really nice people). Besides, they may wonder if the two new leaders have already made all the important decisions without them. This negatively impacts the climate of the senior team. Who is in, and who is out? Do they have any real influence going forward?

Moreover, other members of the administration are unsure if they should be open and honest with the new chief of staff given the person’s close relationship with the president. That leaves the two senior leaders isolated and uninformed. Remember, the new president just got rid of two respected leaders. Who is going to be forthright with that person? Anybody?

How to Prevent This Mess

The university’s board chair and the executive team need to meet with the incoming president before that individual comes onboard and talk about how they view any senior team changes. Unless there are real personnel challenges or issues of incompetence or integrity, which are rare, they should strongly recommend that no senior team changes be made in the first year.

If problems exist, then the board needs to move on them fast, before the new president arrives. The last thing you need is a new president having to remove an incompetent senior leader that everyone knew was a problem for years.

If the president wants to replace a senior team member, they should present a strong rationale and evidence for the important decision. “Personality fit” is not a good reason. The senior team is there to serve the vision, mission and values of the institution, not the personality of the president.

If the president’s case for removal or dismissal is solid, then the board needs to support the decision visibly and strongly, so that campus stakeholders can be assured that this was a thoughtful decision and not one based on personality or patronage.

To finish my story, the new president now has set their sights on the vice president for student affairs and wants to bring in their own person. Once again, the campus community sees the loss of a dedicated professional who loves the students. Anyone who has worked in higher education understands that this is a very important role for the students and the campus culture.

And once again, you don’t grow a great student affairs leader overnight. It requires years of experience and lots of tough lessons learned to deal with the ambiguity and complexity of this role. Now the new vice president will inherit a demoralized staff, a deep learning curve and no relational capital. That’s not a good combination for success.

Some people might argue that new college presidents have every right to build their own teams. I disagree. I believe that presidents have three main responsibilities in the first year of their tenure:

  1. To develop the relational capital with campus stakeholders that will enable the president to lead the campus effectively. That’s difficult to do when the senior team has been decimated and these important relationships have no connection with the new president.
  2. To deeply understand the complexity and culture of the campus so that they understand the politics, values, traditions and history of the place they are charged with leading. How are they going to do that when most of the people with institutional knowledge have left?
  3. To build a great team that will leverage the talents of the sitting senior leaders. Unfortunately, in my experience, they often don’t have this skill because they may have never been part of a high-functioning leadership team. It takes time, attention and patience to develop a cohesive team, not just shuffling people in and out of the cabinet. That’s a lazy approach that hurts the institution. Don’t do this, please.

Now, back to my case study. We have a dismantling process underway that resembles a slow, inevitable train wreck with a lot of casualties ahead. Where is the board with this situation? How many other senior leaders will need to leave until they realize that there’s real trouble going forward? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess.

Bio

Pat Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, an organizational development firm specializing in leadership transitions, strategic planning, executive coaching, high-performing teams and meeting design and facilitation. He is a board member of the College of Saint Benedict.

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