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I’ve written about presidential transitions for nearly 20 years and helped many campuses with those important and fragile journeys. I predict that we’ll see far too many such transitions over the next five to 10 years—some expected and others not so much so, such as in the recent cases of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

In the wake of more presidential departures in the future, onboarding new leaders effectively will become one of the most important and strategic moves a campus makes. If the transition process isn’t designed well, the new leader could stumble early in the game and never fully recover. So for those of you about to start new leadership positions, as well as institutional officials who help in those transitions, I’d like to share the following two strategies, as they can help create a positive and informed passage into a new institution and build relational capital along the way.

Create a Leadership Diagnostic Report

Such a report is a powerful and informative protocol that can be adapted to meet the distinct needs of each new leader. It has a couple of purposes and outcomes. First, it can quickly provide you, as a new president or other senior leader, with strategic information that you rarely have access to. Second, it can give you a “diagnosis” about the way your new team operates and communicates before you come on board, allowing you to assess the level of candor, maturity and performance of that team early in the game.

To compile the report, you’ll start by asking members of your senior team a set of key questions before you arrive on the campus that can give you a rich snapshot of each team member’s areas of responsibility. Limit the answers to those questions to three pages at most. Smart people can communicate a lot with a little, and a handful of the right questions with succinct, to-the-point answers can provide a great deal of strategic information. If you let people go on too long in responding, it can quickly become an essay contest or, even worse, a Pollyannaish marketing ploy whereby team members attempt to sell how wonderful their areas of responsibility are and to hide any blemishes or problems.

The board chair should sanction the leadership diagnostic report in a letter to the senior team to give it legitimacy, and the institution’s human resources professionals should help organize the process. Your team members should complete their confidential responses to the questions, and human resources should gather them and deliver them to you, within a week of your initial request.

Some questions to ask each of your team might include:

  • How would you describe how the team currently functions?
  • What are the top five strengths of your area of responsibility? What are you most proud of? What do your people on your team do well?
  • What one or two aspects need improvement? (Pay attention to the answers, because they can be either fluff or quite honest, which will tell you a lot.) What resources are required to deal with them, including but also beyond money and people?
  • What are the two or three most important challenges that the entire institution faces? (Compare and contrast what different team members views as those challenges to determine if they are seeing the same things.)
  • What opportunity excites you the most that we should consider undertaking? Why? (Limit this to one opportunity, because the last thing you need upon taking a new leadership position is a long wish list from your team members that becomes overwhelming and ultimately meaningless.)
  • What one or two things about the institution should change? Please provide a brief rationale. (Pay attention to this one, as the response will be either direct and honest or evasive and sugarcoated.)
  • What one or two things about the institution should never change? Why?
  • What one piece of advice would you give me as the new leader?
  • What person in your area has the most credibility with their peers and is someone I should talk with?

The answers to those questions will inform you about how your future senior team sees things and operates, as well as how honest and forthright the members tend to be. At best, you will gain some insight into what you are walking into and some valuable information to reflect upon.

Then you should meet individually, at least by Zoom—face-to-face is preferable— with every person who filled out the report about their responses. I suggest that you take notes during the conversations to capture your thoughts and feelings about those responses, including their tone and honesty. This is a wonderful opportunity to further clarify and understand each person’s areas of responsibility. Most important, is a chance for you to build a relationship with your new team before you come on board.

This leadership diagnostic report will give you significant insights into the personal dynamics among the members of the team that you are about to inherit. Pay particular attending to the answers to questions about key challenges, what should or shouldn’t change, and the areas that need improvement.

Map the Influencers

Every higher education institution has a published chart that outlines organizational functions and the leadership and management positions within those functions. That chart helps various constituencies understand who does what on the campus.

But that chart does not capture the latent yet true organization of your specific institution—how things actually work and get done. That chart, if it existed, would identify the key formal and informal influencers across the campus. Some of those people are ethical politicians who understand how to play the game honorably, others have huge peer influence and credibility, and still others are the quiet go-to people whom others respect and trust and who make things happen. Those individuals may have a title—dean, vice president, chairperson—although often they do not. Yet everyone who works with them knows their reputation, their effectiveness and their degree of influence and political power.

In fact, you need to think outside the box when you are looking for real influencers. To cite just one example that I’ve seen, a new president of a large campus wondered why one person made most of the influencer lists of their team members. The individual’s name was Ralph, and he was the director of physical plant for the institution. He’d been an employee for more than 20 years, and it seemed that just about everyone knew him because he solved their problems. Both faculty and staff members loved him because he was a humble person, a servant leader and got stuff done. He was well respected by his people, which was a unit of nearly 900 employees.

The new president took a walk around the campus with Ralph early in her transition and learned a great deal, not only about maintenance issues but campus culture. She got the real word on the street that she wouldn’t have received from her senior staff simply because they didn’t have access to it.

One of the primary challenges you’ll face as a new leader will be to figure out who has real power and influence and how to get to know them quickly. So, as you transition to your new role, you should compile a list of these influencers and create a visual map of where they reside on the campus, as it will show the leader where power actually lives within the institution. You might discover some small pockets of influence—a specific department, work group or office—or a particular school. Or you may find that that influence is more evenly distributed throughout the institution. If it’s more concentrated in small pockets, that can present more of a challenge.

To create such an influence map, start by asking your team members to suggest no more than three people in their domain whom they’d consider to be influencers. You don’t need a laundry list, nor is this a popularity contest. It is a strategic sharing of the most important influencers they actually know. Depending on how you want to approach this, you can ask them to provide these names after completion of the leadership diagnostic report or as part of it. (In the previous section on the report, I recommended you ask each team member to list one influencer, but you can determine the timing and number of people you want listed based on your preferences as the leader.)

Also, work with the provost to identify key faculty leaders. You want to hear about those who contribute mightily to the mission of the campus and set the standard of academic excellence for it.

I should also note that a key influencer can be a positive and constructive person, but they can also be negative curmudgeons who have appointed themselves institutional critics. Often they are angry and spiteful, and most people know exactly who they are. You need to get to know them and learn how to manage their difficult personalities and complaints. This is where mentors, coaches and confidants can be especially helpful, because the curmudgeons are hard to handle. Ask for assistance when dealing with these characters. Don’t try to take them on alone.

Once you’ve compiled all the names that people have suggested, create a visual map on a whiteboard, PowerPoint or flip chart so that you can share it with trusted confidants and thought partners. The goal is to strategize on how to either connect and work with these influencers if they are positive or to neutralize their impact if they are negative.

In sum, I hope that these two strategies give you, as a new president or other senior leader, some effective practices and protocols to consider as you attempt to get to know and understand your inherited campus culture and its complexity.

Patrick Sanaghan is the president of the Sanaghan Group, a higher education consulting firm, and co-author of Onboarding the “Transitional” Presidency: A New Imperative for Interim Presidents.

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