Presidential Transition Teams: Fostering a Collaborative Transition Process

Trusteeship
July/August
2009
Number: 
4
Volume: 
17
By 
Richard B. Artman and Mark Franz

So you've hired a new president, now what? Whether hiring a sitting president or one beginning a first presidency, the board of trustees should be keenly interested in ensuring that the new president's first months in office flow as smoothly as possible. Increasing attention has been paid in recent years to the idea of using a transition team to assist the new president, and our experience--as a newly hired president and as the leader of his presidential transition team--leads us to strongly endorse this approach.

It's reported that, at any given time, about 20 percent of presidential posts in higher education are vacant, and a significant number of new presidents are appointed each year. Hence, presidential searches are a thriving business for many firms, and several excellent books outlining best practices for presidential transitions offer practical tips for boards and campuses anticipating a new president, including Presidential Transitions in Higher Education by Martin and Samels and Presidential Transitions in Private Colleges by Andringa and Splete. The formation of a presidential transition team is often recommended, and yet very little guidance is available as to how it should be created, how it should operate, and what a successful process achieves. (In the following description of our experience, to avoid confusion, we'll refer to ourselves in the third person.)

At Viterbo University, after the announcement of his appointment as president a few years ago, Richard Artman asked the chair of the board of trustees (who also chaired the presidential search committee) to establish a presidential transition team. Having been a sitting president for the 12 previous years, at Siena Heights University in Michigan, Artman understood the need for a smooth transition between him and his predecessor.

After articulating the expectations of a transition team, which included helping the incoming president become familiar with important contacts and relationships, the university culture, and the greater community, the board chair became a strong proponent for its creation. Together with President Artman, she invited Mark Franz, director of instructional and information technology, to chair the team. Franz had gained wide respect for his interpersonal skills during a 20-year career at the university.

Team Composition and Meetings

A list of potential members of the transition team was carefully drafted and reviewed by senior administrators. The 17 people ultimately named represented a wide range of skills, experiences, and campus and community networks. The team was composed of:

  • One member of the board of trustees (vital to keeping board leadership informed about the progress of the transition and any concerns);
  • One member of the university's sponsoring religious community;
  • Two students;
  • Two alumni;
  • One member of the board of advisors (a community-based volunteer organization);
  • The administrative assistant to the president;
  • Four faculty members (including two academic deans); and
  • Five administrators (including three vice presidents).

Each person invited to serve accepted enthusiastically, recognizing the importance of a successful presidential transition for the university, the local community, and the president and his family. The purpose and composition of the transition team were publicized in the weekly campus newsletter, and the broad membership of the team allowed communication with many different constituents on campus and in the surrounding community.

It is important that the transition team meet as a group with the new president in advance of his or her arrival to discuss the team's responsibilities. It would be best for the new president to attend in person, but if that is not possible, audio or video conference calls can substitute. With the new president scheduled to arrive on campus in June, the chair of the team began convening meetings in April. The new president participated via conference call until he arrived on campus. Ultimately, the team met regularly through December. Members joined various subteams, which each had a leader who communicated the subgroup's progress to the chair of the team. One team member noted that even though some of the tasks could have been accomplished by fewer people, "There was great benefit from the involvement of the community (internal and external) and the interaction with the new president throughout the process."

Team Responsibilities

Each campus or system will have different needs and circumstances that affect the presidential transition, the duties of the transition team, and the duration of the transition process. The following represent the core responsibilities of the team at Viterbo and the timeline followed.

Prior to the new president's arrival, team members:

  • Assisted in the compilation and distribution of a questionnaire from the new president that was sent to the 250 employees of the university. Ques tions covered a range of topics, seeking respondents' input on areas needing improvement and plans for the future.
  • Assisted in developing a six- to 12-month schedule of introductory and welcoming events on and off campus, designed to put the new president and his spouse into contact with diverse members of the campus and local community.

During the first weeks and months of the president's tenure, the team:

  • Created and scheduled focus groups to give briefings to the transition team and/or president on faculty, staff, and student concerns.
  • Arranged for visits to each member of the board of trustees, preferably at the trustees' businesses or homes.
  • Assisted the president and family with introductions to the community. Prepared a resource list including churches, doctors, dentists, plumbers, barbers, dog sitters, and other merchants who support the university. (The list has subsequently proved valuable for other new employees.)
  • Created student-led teams of "ambassadors" to introduce the president to student life, organizations, and culture.
  • Counseled the president on issues related to the effectiveness of the institution in fulfilling its mission and introduced him to the traditions and culture of the sponsoring religious community and other campus groups.
  • Organized tours of each academic and non-academic facility with key stakeholders present to discuss strengths, weaknesses, and potential.
  • Planned a transition ceremony for the new president and chancellor to formally accept their new roles.

Until the end of the calendar year, other activities of the transition team included:

  • Assessing campus mood, morale, and concerns and communicating the information to the new president during monthly briefings.
  • Providing feedback on the internal and external communities' perceptions of the new president and how he was being received.
  • Serving as a sounding board for proposed new initiatives, anticipating reactions, providing historical perspectives, and contributing ideas to gain greater inclusiveness and acceptance.
  • Assisting in the interpretation and summary of the results of the new president's questionnaire.

Team members were encouraged to talk with their constituencies regularly so that university stakeholders would know the process was open and that their input was welcomed. At every team meeting, time was set aside for members to share their observations and the comments they had received from others about the new president's performance. One alumni representative noted that the transition period "allowed the gift of time--time to share with Dr. Artman the oral history of campus and community relationships and time for Dr. Artman to reveal his vision and views to a broader audience."

The President's Questionnaire

Unquestionably, one of the most important steps taken by the new president was the distribution of the online "New President's Questionnaire," designed to collect information from multiple sources within the university. The trantransition team and the senior management team reviewed a draft of the questionnaire and made suggestions pertinent to the campus culture. The team debated the level of confidentiality that an online process could provide. It was determined that only the new president and a subcommittee of the team would see the comments, and this decision was communicated to the university community.

Online responses were invited, although recipients could also submit their responses on paper if they did not have access to campus email. The majority of respondents completed the questionnaire online, which greatly facilitated compiling results and sorting the responses. Responses were anonymous unless the employees chose to identify themselves. About 170 questionnaires were returned within three weeks. The high response rate and the quality of the comments suggested that the faculty and staff devoted considerable thought and time to answering the questionnaire's seven lines of inquiry, which were:

  1. Points of Pride: Please list three to five points about your unit/department in which you take great pride.
  2. Points of Progress: Please list three to five points that describe special efforts in the past few years that have advanced the quality, service, and/or reputation of your unit/department.
  3. Improvement: In your area of responsibility, work unit, or sphere of influence, what single improvement is most needed to enhance quality and excellence?
  4. Planning for the future: What opportunities do you see for your unit or for the university as a whole that are ripe for cultivation and implementation and will add to university distinctiveness and excellence? Please be specific.
  5. Outreach: Please indicate one person in the community you think the president should definitely meet during the first year.
  6. Partnerships: Please list any community organizations that offer untapped opportunities for partnershipor collaboration that should be explored within the next two years.
  7. Advice/Insights: Please offer any advice or insights that would be helpful in the president's transition and success in leading and serving the university.

The president asked four members of the transition team to read the responses, provide historical context for various statements, and identify key themes in the responses. He also read each returned questionnaire, unedited.

The distribution of the questionnaire expressed the new president's willingness to hear from many different people and contributed to a successful transition. Many respondents expressed appreciation for the opportunity to provide the new president with unvarnished feedback on the strengths and challenges facing departments and the university as a whole. At a university forum in August, the new president summarized the responses for the faculty and staff. In October, at the first board of trustees meeting after his arrival, the president presented the same summary and invited comment.

The use of the questionnaire and the president's communication of the responses signaled that members of the campus community would have a voice in future planning for Viterbo. The president assured the transition team that many initiatives would be based on foundations already in place, thus affirming the quality of the work accomplished over the previous decades.

The Board's Role

The board of trustees has a huge investment in the presidential search and a significant responsibility to ensure that a successful presidential transition takes place. Although the work of the transition team itself does not require great involvement of the board, based on our experience we would encourage boards to:

  1. Insist that a presidential transition team be established prior to the arrival of the new president;
  2. A ppoint a representative of the board to serve on the team;
  3. Invite the board's representative to provide interim reports to the board's leadership;
  4. Encourage the new president to meet with as many individual board members as possible before the first board meeting;
  5. Encourage board members to introduce the new president to constituents (government officials, business leaders, donors, etc.) beyond the campus; and
  6. Invite the president and the president's family to social events and create opportunities for them to expand their networks.

Sr. Mary Ann Gschwind, chair of Viterbo's board, noted that the board believes the presidential transition went more smoothly than anyone anticipated and that the transition team "was a real gift to the Artmans and an invaluable part of their orientation process."

As one member of the transition team concluded, "The use of a transition team at the beginning of his presidency allowed Dr. Artman a 'soft landing.' It allowed for observation, inquiry, input, feedback, understanding, honoring, revelation, verification, visioning, and perhaps most important, building a trusting relationship."