College and university presidents are serving shorter and shorter terms—which means institutions are dealing with transitions in leadership frequently.
These types of high-stakes transitions aren't always easy. Schools face ongoing and complex issues, and it takes time for a new president to get up to speed. University Business' Mark Rowh spoke with a number of experts about the best strategies to ensure smooth presidential transitions.
1. Set up an A+ transition team
Rowh says transition teams usually include the board chair and a senior administrator. Team members can help a new leader transition into a new role by sharing their own insights, regarding:
- School culture;
- Public relations;
- Academic programs; and
- Community sensitivities.
Terry Franke, a consultant specializing in presidential transitions and board governance, encourages the transition team to create a "detailed playbook for both the search process and the transition."
Franke says these playbooks should list specific steps organized by month and assigned to specific individuals responsible for completing them.
2. Be transparent
"Key stakeholders want to know... the expectations for a new president, and the anticipated timeline for new leadership," says Thomas McGovern, president of Fisher College.
McGovern strongly advises being open and transparent when laying out plans, particularly in terms of the board's vision and priorities.
Transparency is also vital when it comes to adjusting to a new type of leader—recently, colleges and universities have been hiring presidents from the business world.
"More presidents are now coming from non-traditional experiences rather than a linear academic career," says Franke. "Planning well in advance and communicating such plans helps ensure change won't be such a big shock and will make it more acceptable," he adds.
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3. Be sure the previous leader passes along advice
Though this isn't always a possibility, it's extremely valuable to foster communication between the former president and the new president.
"The outgoing president can be a fantastic resource," says Jessica Kozloff, president of Academic Search.
Kozloff suggests inviting the incoming president to attend meetings before the outgoing president departs, and adds that it could be nice to host a reception for introductions.
The new president should engage with senior staff as well as the outgoing president, experts told Rowh. Senior leaders can offer context on everything from routine administrative practices to past projects and initiatives.
4. Don't expect transitions to occur overnight
Kozloff suggests taking it slow at first. "There should be a realization by the appointee, the board, senior staff and everyone concerned that the new president needs a honeymoon period of learning the culture," she says, adding,"Expecting the new president to quickly make decisions, even in periods of crisis, is asking for failure."
Franke suggests that boards and HR should create a comprehensive development plan for the new president. Schools can encourage incoming presidents to attend summer academies focusing on key skills like financial management and fundraising, too.
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5. Evaluate your legal situation
Scott Schneider, a partner with the firm Fisher Phillips, encourages schools to fill their new president in immediately regarding any regulatory or legal matters.
"It's absolutely essential for the outgoing president and in-house counsel to brief the incoming president on all pending legal matters... and substantial risk management concerns," says Phillips (Rowh, University Business, 2/20).
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