Magazine article University Business

Next in Line: 5 Strategies for a Smooth Presidential Transition

Magazine article University Business

Next in Line: 5 Strategies for a Smooth Presidential Transition

Article excerpt

Talk about awkward. It was July 1, and the moving vans had just rolled onto campus with the new president and his family. There was just one problem: the outgoing CEO had not yet moved out of the presidential residence.

Although this really happened to one incoming president, who prefers not to reveal his name or institution, it's obviously not the norm. Still, plenty can go wrong during a presidential turnover--imagine the new leader earning a faculty vote of no confidence early on, or not recognizing a million-dollar donor at a reception.

At the same time, the entire college community benefits when a new president gets off to a great start. With that goal in mind, here are five strategies for a smooth transition.

1. Establish a transition committee ASAP.

Shortly after a president announces plans to leave and a search committee is established, experts recommend forming a team to pave the way for efficient change. Typically created by the board chair and a key senior administrator, this group can guide the institution in celebrating an outgoing president--when the situation lends itself to that--and in assisting that person in the transition to a new role (whether on campus as part of the faculty or elsewhere). These moves help ensure a successful transition for the incoming leader. The committee members can share insights on culture, traditions, community sensitivities, academic programs and public relations.

"An inclusive and representative transition team can be successful in launching a new presidency and providing wise counsel throughout the transition period, often well into the first year of a new presidents tenure," says James Ferrare, managing principal of AGB Search, a Washington, D.C.-based higher ed executive search firm.

To keep itself on track, the transition team should develop a detailed playbook for both the search process and the transition, says Terry Franke, a Northfield, Illinois-based consultant specializing in presidential transitions and board governance. Contents should include month-by-month lists of all the steps to take, including who is responsible and the timing for each action.

"This should be a living document. It should be very detailed for the first couple of months, but can be less detailed later, with specifics to be filled in as they emerge," Franke says. Examples include developing initial goals, planning introductions to the local community and scheduling meetings with faculty governance committees.

An effective transition team can also serve as a sign to presidential candidates that the institution has outlined a comprehensive transition process. "Astute candidates will want to know what you will do to make them successful," Franke says. "They will want to know not only if you have formed a transition committee, but what you've done for the last president."

Franke tells of a recently appointed president who, prior to accepting his current role, turned down two other offers even though he was the No. 1 candidate. The main reason? The institutions hadn't given enough thought to transition planning and how to assure the incoming president's success.

2. Foster transparency.

An open transition process and frequent communications with faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and community leaders will help ease concerns of the various constituencies affected by change in leadership.

"Communication and transparency are the most important elements for a smooth transition, as there is a lot of anxiety associated with change," says Thomas McGovern, who, since 2007, has been president of Fisher College in Boston. "Key stakeholders want to know that a process is moving forward, the criteria and expectations for a new president, and the anticipated timeline for new leadership."

He advises targeting communications to various campus groups and keeping the broader community informed. …

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