Dozens of college presidents have announced they’ll leave their roles by the end of the academic year, a trend driven by the increasing age of college presidents and exacerbated by the unrelenting demands that the pandemic has placed on them. While fall is often the traditional time for such decisions to be made public, we may see another wave of presidential departures announced this spring. With so many institutions on the cusp of presidential transitions, we are reminded of the sheer importance of succession planning.
Long recognized by corporations and the military as the key to sustainable and successful leadership transitions, succession planning is seen by many people in higher education as running counter to the ideals of shared governance. In addition, such planning may currently seem like a luxury that institutions can’t afford when the pandemic has hastened the calendar and choked resources.
Yet boards can -- and should -- try to plan accordingly by regularly having open and honest conversations around a sitting president’s goals and time horizon. They can create a foundation for success that offers professional development opportunities throughout a presidency. And they can invest in a search process when the inevitable transition in leadership arrives.
Start discussions early and have them often. Strategic and reflective boards and board leaders are regularly engaged throughout a president’s term of leadership, from the first year to the last. Every college or university president should be asked during each year of service where they lie in the arc of their presidency. How much time do they see left in their tenure? What do they still wish to accomplish? What continues to satisfy and motivate them?
Ideally, boards will be involved in generative discussions well before public announcements of presidential departures are made. And although COVID-19 may have abbreviated the timeline for some presidential transitions, they still have time to have these conversations.
One long-term president of a Northeast private institution with which we recently worked began discussing with the board his plans to retire 18 months before his projected departure, giving trustees plenty of time to prepare for the launch of a thoughtful and intentional search for his successor. About a month prior to the public announcement, we facilitated a rich, four-hour conversation with the board to help maximize the outgoing president’s final contributions. What could he do that a newcomer could not? What social capital did he have to spend, and where should he invest it? We were also able to use that time to help the board members begin to wrestle with what the institution needed next and what kind of leader they hoped to recruit.
Invest in a search process that thoughtfully engages the board and the campus community. Despite being sophisticated and powerful people, board members can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by a presidential transition and the search for a new leader. They often lack familiarity with the process, and often little or no institutional memory remains from the last presidential search.
As a result, we often see boards get started late, without enough conversation, and then feel they need to rush the search process. Even though the pandemic has complicated the exit for many institutional leaders, it is vital that boards take the time to have a thoughtful, inclusive presearch assessment period and then stay involved as the process unfolds. Board engagement in the various phases of the search, as well as the presidential transition and onboarding, provides stability during the trying times each campus now faces.
We hear regularly that the tyranny of the calendar and the pressure to produce a successful candidate causes shortcuts in governance that can damage relationships. But the push to move quickly unnecessarily complicates the traditional search process. In too many instances, the board is left to weigh in after a presearch assessment visit with campus constituents has already painted a picture. While that community voice is vitally important to shared governance and to substantively informing the process, the board shouldn’t be the last in the boat. By creating a more deliberative process, the opportunity arises for not only the board to be more invested in the search but also greater numbers of other internal and external stakeholders -- including faculty, staff, students, alumni and local community members.
Two years ago at a liberal arts college, we had an opportunity to be present the day after the longtime president had confidentially shared plans to leave the presidency several weeks ahead of the public announcement. Our presence allowed us to provide an overview of the presidential search to the entire Board of Trustees, as well as to conduct an initial assessment of the board’s collective sense of the leadership agenda and identify the desired qualities of the next president. It also prepared us well to probe for areas of congruence and tension with other stakeholders as the presearch assessment moved beyond the board. Having more time before launching the search also enabled us to reach out to some of the institution’s most important supporters and donors.
We are learning through the pandemic that much can be accomplished virtually. Today, more than ever, avenues exist for the board to be actively engaged in the search process from start to finish. Working through the search committee, the board should be appropriately involved from the initial conversations that help to frame the criteria by which candidates will be recruited to taking part in conversations with the final candidates.
Remember that the search itself is only 30 percent of the job. Too often, a presidential search is seen as transactional: there’s a vacancy, there’s a search and the position is filled. However, boards must think beyond the search and the appointment of a new president to the transition and onboarding of the new leader.
We have found in working with several partner institutions the fruitfulness of sustained board engagement in the transition process, during which time the board and new president are able to begin to build a trusting relationship. Board members can reflect deeply on the current challenges the institution faces while also working with the new president to lay the groundwork for expectations and goals. The new leader can then walk into their new role with a clearer understanding of their priorities for their earliest days, their first year and the following few years. One recently placed president regarded the compiled advice from trustees we produced through a workshop as an “amazing gift.” It provided not only good counsel but also critical cues about the institution’s organizational culture.
In addition, one of the most beneficial resources a board can offer a new president is an executive coach to walk alongside them in their first year of service. Providing this additional support system is an invaluable investment in institutional vitality and well-being as much as it is an investment in the leader. That can be especially true in instances when a person outside higher education or someone who came up through a less traditional pathway is hired. When the new president represents some new personal dimension of diversity in the life of the leadership of the institution, such as a first president of color or a first lay president at a religious institution, the need to support such new leaders is particularly acute, but an executive coach can be valuable for all new presidents. One new president recently remarked on the exceptional value of having a trusted, knowledgeable coach during the phase of “drinking from the fire hose” while settling in and getting established in a new institutional home.
The realities of today make college and university leadership more challenging, more vexing and more uncertain than perhaps ever before. In this COVID-19 era, when institutions may be only one leader away from shutting their doors forever, boards can no longer afford to create or compound their institutional leadership problems through poor succession planning. Honest and candid conversations, paired with a thoughtful and intentional search process and onboarding plan, are needed to find and nurture strong leaders and position them and their institutions for success in the future.