A Strategy for Onboarding New Campus Leaders

Patrick Sanaghan describes the importance of establishing a learning network to help new presidents and other top administrators get to know the institution and gain vital feedback.

May 20, 2022
 
 
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In my work as a consultant, I, along with my colleagues, have developed a strategic onboarding design—or, as we prefer to frame it, a highly effective integration design or learning network—for presidents and other senior leaders who are starting a new position. As we discuss in our book From Presidential Transition to Integration, it is a powerful notion and can really help a new leader accomplish several things during the first month on the job that are crucial to their success, notably:

  • To learn the real story of the institution, from some of the most credible, wisest and most trusted people on the campus.
  • To begin to build the relational capital that is vital to their success with key stakeholders and leaders.
  • To create an ongoing group that will provide them with honest feedback and a pulse for the campus throughout their first year and potentially beyond.

In this essay, I’ll share some of the key components of a learning network in hopes it provides some insights for people who are onboarding leaders as well as for those who are just beginning new leadership positions. (For simplicity, I’ll focus on the president in this article, but the lessons could be adapted to other types of leaders.)

Creating a Learning Network

The senior administrative team, led by the provost, should create a strategic list of about 10 to 12 of the most credible, trusted people on the campus, weighing heavily toward the faculty side of the house. Such people must have stellar reputations and deeply understand the culture and complexity of the institution, as well as its politics, history and governance processes. In addition, they should have real affection for the place and be willing to speak truth to power.

Selecting the right members for the network is key to the success of the entire process. If you are organizing such a network, make it clear that politicians or people with agendas or constant complainers need not apply. That does not mean you should select only the choir boys and girls. But you should recruit the people on the campus who have the most credibility and will be honest with the new president.

The good news is that most campuses have a bucketful of such people. It’s OK to add a curmudgeon or two (but no more) to add some flavor to the group. Curmudgeons have an edge to them, but they are almost always highly respected for their scholarship and teaching, as well as their love of the institution. Don’t add any deep cynics, however, because they will poison the process. Cynics have lost hope and are usually very angry people; they simply won’t add value.

A typical learning network consists of five or six highly respected faculty members, two seasoned senior administrators (vice presidents or deans, for example), and two experienced and trusted staff members. You should also include several thoughtful and credible adjuncts, as they have a distinct perspective about the institution. Look for individuals who care deeply about the college or university and want the right kind of leader who will continue living its values and guiding its principles. In short, you want people who are committed to serving the institution’s mission, not their own egos.

After your senior team identifies these individuals, you should schedule a one-to-one conversation between the new president and each person in the group in the first 21 days of the transition process—the earlier the better. Ideally, that might take the form of a series of breakfast or lunch meetings over the first month. Obviously, Zoom meetings are a possibility, although they are not preferable.

At the end of those conversations, the new president will have invaluable information that cannot be found in 500-plus-page briefing books or conversations with board members. They will have the real story about the place that would otherwise probably take them years to learn.

For the New President

Once the senior team does its job, it’s up to the new leader to build on its efforts. So after such a series of conversations, if you are a new president, we suggest that you convene the entire group on a quarterly basis.

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For the conversation to be constructive, it needs a little organization. The last thing you want to create is a grievance or complaint mechanism that quickly moves the discussion down a rabbit hole. Instead, we suggest that you raise the following three questions to frame the conversation so that you, in fact, get valuable information and so the participants feel that they are truly contributing to your onboarding and orientation.

  • What are some positive things that are happening on campus that I should be aware of?
  • What issues or challenges are emerging that need my attention?
  • Any specific advice for me to consider going forward?

Make sure that you hear from everyone, especially the staff members and administrators. It should be a whole-group discussion, not a faculty-only conversation. Keep it simple, and hold it over a lunch period somewhere quiet, not in a noisy restaurant or other distracting place.

It’s important that you demonstrate how you have listened to the network’s advice and feedback and how it has informed your thinking and actions. You should be ready to offer honest comments, like:

  • “You suggested that I have weekly lunches with specific community groups, which I have done. The goodwill out there for our campus is excellent.”
  • “You told me that the issue of adjunct compensation is an important one that has been largely ignored. I am putting together a task force to look examine the issue and come up with some important recommendations in 30 days. I want to act quickly on their recommendations as appropriate.”

You want to avoid the meetings being seen as perfunctory or just window dressing, or for the participants to feel manipulated in some way. Authentic feedback from others on the campus is a gift in any new leader’s transition, so you should not only seek it out but also show appreciation and make some effort to apply it.

Points to Consider

Establishing this kind of network is not without risk. If the new leader doesn’t connect well with its members, many other people will know it, because those members will tell them about such interactions. Remember, those selected to serve on the network will have huge peer credibility and influence, so what they communicate speaks volumes to many stakeholders.

The good news is that if the new leader does connect—which is usually the case—they will build authentic connections and relationships with key people throughout the institution. Those people will spread good news quickly, and the relational capital the new president needs will be built swiftly.

Another major benefit is that the new president will know what’s really happening on the campus and avoid the “seduction of the leader” dynamic whereby they only hear good news about everything. The learning-network members will speak truth to power, which is exactly what the new president needs.

Finally, the new president will get credit for learning from and listening to stakeholders, which conveys respect for the institution. And that will spread through the campus grapevine rather fast.

All these things can help significantly with the transition and onboarding process and build goodwill at the same time. If you are the new leader, just remember to take actions in response to the network’s recommendations when appropriate. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time, including your own.

Bio

Patrick Sanaghan is the president of the Sanaghan Group, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, senior leadership transitions and leadership development in higher education.

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