Leadership Roles in a Presidential Search

Take Aways

1. It is the duty of the governing board to be prepared for the eventuality of a presidential succession, oversee an orderly search process, and help make the president’s transition as smooth as possible.

2. The governing board, the board chair, the search committee, the search committee chair, and any retained search consultant play the key roles in a presidential search.

3. Most boards retain executive search firms for guidance in a presidential search.

Key Questions

Are all parties aware of, and committed to avoiding, the common pitfalls in presidential searches, such as excessive haste, breach of confidentiality, and failure to perform due diligence ?

Learn More

AGB Search.

Presidential Search Toolkit. 

Ferrare, James P. and Theodore J. Marchese. “Increasing the Odds for Successful Presidential Searches.” Trusteeship, September/October 2010. 

Funk, R. William. “A Presidential Search Is Opportunity Knocking.” Trusteeship, September/October 2005.

Marchese, Theodore J. “Making the Most of Presidential Transitions.” Trusteeship, January/February 2012.

Johnston, Joseph S. Jr. and James P. Ferrare. A Complete Guide to Presidential Search for Universities and Colleges. AGB Press, 2013.

The selection of a president is a governing board’s most important responsibility, and the search process is the board’s best opportunity to help guide its institution into a successful new era. A clear understanding of the key leadership roles in a presidential search is necessary for the search to proceed smoothly with a successful outcome. These key leadership roles are summarized below.

Governing Board

In a well-run presidential search, an effective governing board will:

• Take stock of the institution’s recent history, its current strengths and  needs, and its future prospects;

• Decide whether the institution should conduct the search internally or hire an outside search firm Charge and empower a search committee to run the search ;

• Allot funds for the search;

• Draw a campus together and generate institutional consensus;

• Prepare the institution for a new president;

• Create a leadership group able to help guide the new president’s transition; and

• Establish expectations for the new president’s performance.

Board Chair

Board chairs should accept their leadership positions with the understanding that a presidential transition could very well occur during their tenure. Should the need for a search arise, the board chair – usually a member of the search committee – appoints the search committee chair and works closely with him or her to present a cohesive front to the campus and the public by speaking for the full board. Ideally, a board chair should remain in that office for at least a year following a new president’s appointment in order to provide stability and guidance to both the institution and the new president.

Search Committee

As the public face of the institution during the search, the search committee represents the institution, as well as the interests of the board and the campus community, to the candidates. It exercises discretion and professionalism in its recruitment efforts, applicant communications, and assessments of candidate fit. Members of the search committee are usually chosen by the board, but may also include staff or faculty members who were elected by peers.

Search Committee Chair

The search committee chair calls and runs committee meetings and provides timely status reports to keep the board, the candidates, the institutional community, and the news media informed of the search’s progress. The chair must be organized, articulate, discreet, and able to convey enthusiasm about the institution’s mission and possibilities. If the board has hired a search firm, the committee chair will work in close partnership with the consultant.

Search Consultant

Although some boards will undertake a presidential search on their own, most retain executive-search firms for guidance. The process of hiring a consultant is a “search” in and of itself. Usually, the board leadership will appoint an ad hoc transition committee to explore the capabilities of consultants at various firms, then make its recommendation to the full board. It also may delegate the task to the executive committee or to the search committee, once one is appointed.

The following steps are recommended when vetting search firms:

• Read prospective search firms’ literature and Web sites carefully;

• Compare the firms’ experience with the needs of the institution;

• Research individual consultants’ experience at similar institutions;

• Conduct phone interviews with, and request proposals from, three to five firms;

• Inquire about the experience, staffing, search model, suggested timeline, and final selection process;

• Obtain an estimate of the full cost, including fees and expenses, in writing; and

• Conduct in-person interviews with, and check the references of, a narrowed short list of two or three firms.

Boards must remain directly engaged throughout the process by keeping in close contact with the search chair. For their part, search firms can help organize the search process and the search committee, help develop a position profile, assist in developing a communications plan, manage nominations and applications, provide counsel to applicants, interview references, perform due-diligence checks, organize candidate interviews, and advise the search committee on developing its final recommendation to the board.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Despite best intentions, some presidential searches go badly awry. Several common missteps can lead to an unsuccessful presidential search:

• Inexperience with presidential searches;

• Inadequate planning and process;

• Excessive haste;

• Lack of clarity on institutional needs and required leader attributes;

• Poorly defined or misunderstood roles of the board and search committee;

• Insensitivity to constituents' needs and desires;

• Insensitivity to candidates' needs and desires;

• Disagreement among committee members;

• Outside interference;

• Loss of confidentiality;

• Incomplete or inadequate disclosure about institutional problems; and

• Failure to perform due diligence.

The manner in which a governing board conducts a presidential search is a reflection upon the entire institutional community. An organized, timely process that is respectful of both campus constituents and the candidates themselves is in itself a worthy goal to which all boards should aspire.

Need more help? AGB’s reference librarian (available to members only) is available to research specific governance questions, provide sample documents, or recommend resources. Contact her here.

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