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Congratulations, board members, you’ve named your new president. Now, after a long and protracted process, how do you ensure that person and the senior leadership team don’t all end up dead on the presidential inauguration stage after a long power struggle?

A presidential transition should prepare the way for the new president to gain traction and be successful. That means the usual things: introducing the new president to key constituencies, transferring important trustee and donor relationships, planning the inauguration, creating a media plan, and so forth.

But it also means -- and this is often overlooked -- tuning in to the political dynamics of the senior staff that the president will inherit. The president must have a loyal team to be successful. Vice presidents must be good soldiers who will support the new leader by providing thoughtful and candid advice while also maintaining a unified front in public.

Yet many members of the senior staff will have long-standing connections with other people at the institution, particularly with trustees and faculty members. They will have connections to those who often want to shield them from a new president’s natural inclination to establish their own team. And they will have connections that can also result in their subtle and not-so-subtle undermining of the president.

Such potential conflicts are where the board’s role and political/corporate acumen can be particularly important. Board members should ask themselves: Who are the entrenched players with whom the new president will have to interact, particularly those on their executive team? Will this president encounter a competent and supportive team to help them succeed? And perhaps most important, were any of the senior leadership team unsuccessful rivals to the new president in the search?

Preparing for a successful presidency, then, begins early in the presidential search process. As part of the preparation, the trustees and search committee leaders should define the agenda for the new president, based on conversations with various constituencies, and design a transition plan. They should also take an in-depth look at the senior team members and determine how to ensure each of them contributes to -- and doesn’t detract from -- the transition to new leadership. To do that, the board and search committee should consider a number of issues:

  • Before the presidential search, assess the senior team to understand its culture, how the members interact and their readiness for change in leadership. Everyone, including the senior team, has gotten used to the leadership style of the former president and views it as the norm. When faced with a new approach, some people will find it difficult to adjust and may question the new president’s leadership abilities. Indeed, a new president can rock the world of the senior team and university community.
  • Consider what power bases and constituencies that senior administrators have at their command and how they will wield them. Do they have long-standing and personal relationships with certain trustees, for instance? Might they be tempted to leverage those relationships should they clash with the new president or wish to undermine that person?
  • Assess who may want to contend for the presidency as an internal candidate. Given the political complexities should they not be chosen, decide whether you will even take this risk by accepting internal candidates. Assess internal candidates’ ability to take the high road -- and to support a new president who defeated them in the competition.
  • Decide if and when the new president will have the prerogative to make changes in the senior team. While bringing in a team is quite common in the corporate world, it almost never is in academe. If the president wants to make changes, will senior staff invoke board or faculty relationships to protect their territory?
  • Figure out who the good soldiers are on the senior team. They will be the foundation for a successful transition.

Again, unlike the corporate world, successful presidential candidates in academe usually come from outside the institution. That makes them more vulnerable to the internal politics of longtime insiders. And that is why it is vital in presidential transitions that the board and search committee begin with a careful survey of the senior staff -- its competence and its politics. The board must deploy its expertise in governance and leadership to cannily support the new president in gaining the allegiance and trust of the lieutenants -- or in making the changes that need to be made.