6 Strategies for Navigating Leadership Transitions

Bethany Zecher Sutton provides advice for successfully coping with such changes -- whether they happen above, below or around you.

July 5, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Erhui1979

In 1997, fresh out of graduate school, I joined the staff in the provost’s office at the University of Pennsylvania. At the end of three and a half years, I had worked for four supervisors, including the provost who hired me, an interim provost, a new provost and an associate provost. Then, in my tenure at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, I experienced an entirely different scenario of leadership transition: the carefully executed retirement of a long-standing leader (18 years as president) and the strategic onboarding of the next association president.

Over the past few years, I also have had conversations with several hundred women at the HERS Institute on the topic of leadership transitions in higher education. I’ve worked with colleagues from institutions across the country, including faculty, professional staff and senior leaders.

Based on my own experience, reading about the topic and what I have learned from others, I’ve become conscious of the ever-present swirl in leadership at colleges and universities. It’s sometimes constant, sometimes smooth, sometimes disruptive, sometimes welcome, sometimes lamentable. In this essay, I have framed the following strategies for navigating leadership transitions in higher education -- including those happening above, below and around you.

No. 1. Identify and affirm your values and core commitments. Before, during and after a leadership transition are all good moments to reflect on your values and core commitments, as well as to keep them at the forefront of your mind as opportunities and challenges emerge. Some strategies you might employ include:

  • Articulating your values in a visible way -- on your bulletin board, computer screen, bathroom mirror -- so that they serve as a constant reminder of why you engage in your work, what you care about and what motivates you.
  • Taking some time to journal about or otherwise reflect on how things that are emerging in your work life due to the transition may be challenging or affirming your values.
  • Examining, on your own or in concert with others, how your values and core commitments might be redefined or manifested in new ways under new leadership at your institution, school, department, office or the like.

No. 2. Recognize that to move forward, we have to let go. In workshop settings, I like to work through different ways to recognize when we are embracing change and when we are holding on to the past in ways that may inhibit a successful transition. Absent that opportunity for dialogue here, I recommend “The Real Reason People Won’t Change,” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, which examines how competing commitments and underlying assumptions might unintentionally make you resistant to change. (I also suggest a short video featuring Kegan that expresses some provocative thoughts about immunity to change.)

In the spirit of that work, you might simply ask yourself several questions when you're up against change to which you feel resistant: What would happen if I say yes? What really matters right now? What is the opportunity in this situation? Can I feel grateful for what has happened and ready for what is to come?

Also, at times, navigating leadership transitions can be less about letting go and moving on and more about finding comfort with the pace of change. In fact, in some instances, we have eagerly awaited change and then found it’s slower to arrive than we’d hoped. It can be helpful to recognize and discuss whether the change itself is a problem or whether the pace of change is the challenge.

No. 3. Distinguish fear from fact. An email arrives at 4:45 p.m. on a Friday, just two months into the tenure of the new leader. (Insert, as appropriate, a department head, director, dean, vice president or whoever.) A colleague is reporting that funding for a beloved program may be on the chopping block. Many of us instinctively spring into action to save the situation or, at least, to begin troubleshooting. After all, with new leadership coming on board, hasn’t this been our worst fear all along?

During times of transition, the rumor mill is generally in high gear. One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, and those around us, is to continually pause and reflect on: 1) what information is fact and 2) what information may have originally been based on fact but has been quickly overblown, manipulated or even just tweaked due to people’s fears.

Indeed, the clouds of uncertainty that often surround searches for key leadership positions inspire some people to try to read pictures in those clouds: images that are there one moment and gone the next -- shifting, amorphous and often factless. The best campus citizens are those who resist the temptation to paint pictures in the clouds.

No. 4. Bring your best professional self to your job. In some instances, the norms that guide our work lives are clear, and we easily can find our path. But other times, the twists and turns make it more difficult to know how to act and in which direction to go as we navigate change.

Here is a self-reflective exercise that might prove helpful as a guide: think about three different colleagues with whom you regularly interact. Grab a piece of paper or pull up a blank document and write down five words that express how each one of those people would describe you. From those lists of words, answer the question “Who do I show up as most of the time?” Then, as you begin your workday, and for as long as you need or would like, ask yourself, “How do I want to show up today?”

No. 5. Deal with your emotions. To do well with what I’ve outlined above requires being in a good place emotionally. It can be difficult to keep your values at the forefront, embrace change, focus on the facts and bring your best professional self to work every day if you are not also working through the emotional impact of the leadership transition. How that happens is distinct to each person; you know best what will work for you. I will simply offer that two activities can truly create positivity: breathing and expressing appreciation.

There is a reason why we so often hear the suggestion “take a deep breath.” If you look at the research, you’ll find much of it supports the power of breathing in defusing difficult situations, conversations and emotions. Simply google the phrase “power of breathing,” and a wealth of results appears. The same goes for gratitude. Randy Kamen’s 2015 piece on “The Transformative Power of Gratitude” is an excellent resource, with recommendations for gratitude exercises.

Keep in mind that we have both breathing and appreciation available to us all the time -- for free. All we have to do is use them.

No. 6. Assess your career. Times of transition can be a source of career opportunities. Are you positioned to advance to the next level? Are you clear about your aspirations yet flexible about adapting as opportunities begin to take shape under new leadership? Might the transition result in a big decision: to leave your institution, to transition from one kind of role to another, to return to work that you previously enjoyed?

If making a career change is not something that you have done for some time, you might consider some initial steps to assess your career. For example, consider what brings you the most fulfillment in your work and identify whether your current position provides that fulfillment or if there is something else you would rather be doing. Pull out your CV or résumé and determine whether it reflects your current role, contributions and accomplishments. Take a look at your social media presence -- your website, e-portfolio, LinkedIn profile and so forth -- with an eye toward how they portray you as a professional in the higher education landscape. You might also practice how you will introduce yourself and describe your contributions to new leadership.

Taking career assessment to the next level might include:1) identifying areas for professional skill development, 2) working with a mentor or coach, 3) participating in internal or external professional development programs, 4) engaging in intentional networking to expand your horizon of professional contacts and/or job possibilities, and 5) expanding your presence in your field via conferences, publications or online networks.

In closing, the strategies I’ve described are designed to provide a practical framework for navigating leadership transitions. Any change process has a beginning, an end and a messy middle -- with many uncertainties along the way. With some intentionality, however, you can navigate the terrain with confidence in your values, professionalism, emotional maturity and the ability to move forward.

Bio

Bethany Zecher Sutton is a consultant with Academic Search Inc. and a leadership coach. Her background includes serving on the senior leadership team for the Association of American Colleges and Universities and on the staff of the provost’s office at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a 2013 graduate of HERS Denver and has served as a faculty fellow for the HERS Institute since 2015.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top