Succession Planning: The Time Has Come

Trusteeship
September/October
2010
Number: 
5
Volume: 
18

The public holds college and university governing boards accountable for the selection and performance of institutions’ presidents, and the simple truth is that boards will not find the leaders they need in the coming years with- out changing how presidents are prepared and selected. Three factors account for this—the aging of current presidents will lead to unprecedented turnover in presidencies; there are not enough qualified presidential candidates in the pipeline to fill the anticipated openings; and the demand for top candidates will result in intense competition among institutions.

Boards can prepare for these problems by engaging now in succession planning. and a key part of such planning should include overcoming the bias against internal candidates. Offering professional-development opportunities for promising internal candidates in the ranks of both administrators and faculty members can be crucial to ensuring that institutions will not be disrupted by leadership transitions.

Many trustees are familiar with succession planning because they have been involved in the process -- and may even have benefited from it themselves -- in the corporate sector. With non-profit governing boards under growing pressure to be accountable for institutional leadership, such planning has become even more important and appropriate for higher education. yet most college and university boards have not yet adopted succession planning as a strategic necessity, sometimes out of concern for branding sitting presidents as lame ducks.

Just as the corporate sector began more succession planning about 15 years ago when the number of departing ceos increased, higher education now is facing its own unprecedented rate of turnover among sitting presidents, 49 percent of whom were 61 years of age or older in 2006, according to American Council on Education data. This problem is even more acute in the community-college sector, where one study has suggested that 84 percent of community-college presidents could retire within the next 10 years.

Many academic vice presidents, historically the greatest source of presidential appointments, are themselves either close to retirement or uninterested in the demands of the presidency. The pipeline of potential presidents is further limited by the fact that it contains too few women and members of minority groups, despite demographic changes in both the general public and student population reflecting increased numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. in 2006, 23 percent of presidencies were held by women and 14 percent were held by racial and ethnic minorities. These percentages reflect considerable progress but lag each group’s share of the general population.

In corporations, succession planning focuses on systematically identifying, training, evaluating, and mentoring promising internal candidates. In fact, the ceo’s heir-apparent may be identified by the board and CEO several years before the CEO retires. In colleges and universities, however, where faculty, alumni, and students all want to have a voice in who is named to the presidency, there may well be resistance to such a grooming process. Yet given the looming shortages of sitting presidents and academic vice presidents available to meet the projected presidential turnover, now is the time to begin to change the culture and work to identify possible serious internal candidates.

Internal candidates have the advantages of being well known and of understanding the culture of the institution. However, qualified internal candidates often are overlooked because institutions seek to appoint presidential candidates from other institutions to provide “a fresh vision.” The challenge is to educate all constituents about the benefits that can come from an internal appointment to the presidency. For the best result, the processes of succession planning and leadership development need the visible support of the board, president, administration, and faculty.

Defining Succession Planning

Comprehensive succession plans should cover both temporary presidential absences—due, for example, to illness or sabbatical—and presidential transitions following the announced departure of a sitting president. A comprehensive succession plan may include provisions for such things as selecting an interim president, enlisting a search consultant, appointing a search committee, developing an institutional profile and desired leadership traits, and creating an assimilation plan for the new president. Succession planning at its best also includes procedures for identifying and developing potential internal candidates. If there are no qualified candidates or more diversity is desired, the board needs to be open to candidates from other institutions.

Succession planning should not be a one-time event, however. Plans should be reviewed regularly, with special attention to institutional goals and leadership needs that may have changed. As part of the process, boards should ask their presidents to identify potential presidential candidates within their institutions and create development plans tailored for each of them. The progress of these potential candidates should be reviewed periodically in meetings of the board with the president.

Trustees should get to know these potential candidates through formal presentations and informal interactions. As further steps in good planning, presidents should require their top administrators to provide leadership and mentoring opportunities for possible successors for their own jobs, particularly because senior administrators often resign or are terminated during or just after a presidential transition. Although not yet a common practice, succession planning has been adopted by institutions as diverse as the university of central Florida and Elizabethtown college.

In 2006, the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) conducted a study of corporate boards that were highly involved in ceo succession planning and had achieved an orderly transition, identifying 10 best practices for board involvement in such planning. These steps are readily adaptable to higher- education presidential transitions and include such actions as planning three to five years in advance of an anticipated presidential transition, annually reviewing the succession plan to ensure that leadership training is actually taking place, and interacting with internal candidates to judge their capabilities and presidential demeanors. (Other steps, as well as additional resources, model programs, and key questions that boards should be asking, are included in a book I recently completed for AGB, Succession Planning for the Higher Education Presidency.)

Boards of independent institutions can undertake a confidential succession process to avoid jeopardizing the president’s credibility. A successful process does require, to the extent possible, that the president be forthcoming about his or her plans. public institutions and systems have a more difficult time conducting such planning with their presidents or chancellors, especially in states with “sunshine laws.” It is true that once information about a president’s time frame becomes public, the incumbent may be perceived as a lame duck and become less effective. But there are ways to deal with this. For example, to protect the sitting president, the board chair may engage in private discussions with her or him to which the entire board is not privy, to get a sense of the president’s personal time frame or, in the case of a long-serving president, to communicate a board’s desires for a time line.

As succession planning becomes accepted as good practice in higher education, however, it should be possible to develop and review succession plans as a customary practice without jeopardizing the president’s position. And, in any case, creating professional-development plans for other key administrators can be seen simply as appropriate management.

The Value of Internal Candidates

When faced with a presidential transition, boards, professors, and alumni often believe that they need to attract a charismatic change agent from a prestigious institution who will bring an exciting new vision and catapult their institution to national prominence. Familiarity often works against internal candidates, who might be too well known by their peers to be viewed as charismatic or visionary.

Yet boards that have seriously encouraged high-potential administrators to strengthen their leadership skills and that have developed relationships with these potential candidates should be able to view them objectively and give them the same consideration as other qualified candidates. Right now, even when there is an outstanding internal candidate, a board is likely to want to conduct a national search. This may be a rational and politically necessary process, but it is costly and might be avoided if the groundwork were laid for internal succession. If an internal candidate meets the leadership needs of the institution, a smart board might well dispense with a national search and make that appointment. Such a scenario is particularly attractive when an institution is facing significant financial or strategic challenges because, among other benefits, it is cost effective. However, it is vital that a board consult with the faculty before making an internal appointment and forgoing a search. If the faculty are not involved in such a decision, the new president is likely to fail for lack of support.

Despite the temptation to seek a charismatic outsider, there is a great deal of evidence that outside appointments can create problems for an enterprise. Researchers have reported that at least 50 percent of new corporate executives hired from outside leave voluntarily or involuntarily within three years. And surveys of sitting college and university presidents have confirmed that insiders serve longer terms than those hired from outside. Yet a recent survey by the American Council on Education found that just under 28 percent of new college presidents came from within their own institutions, about the same percentage as in 1986.

Preparation of Presidential Candidates

In a recent survey of sitting presidents by the Chronicle of Higher Education, just 41 percent said they were well prepared for their first presidential position. Indeed, we have a history of throwing young professors into classrooms without educating them about the art of teaching. As some move on to a series of administrative positions -- department chair, faculty president, dean, provost, president -- they do so often without the benefit of training in budgeting, management, decision-making, strategic thinking, or working with a governing body. Fortunately, despite this haphazard approach to leadership development, presidents often acquire many of the necessary skills as they progress through the administrative hierarchy, especially when they receive mentoring and a variety of challenging assignments along the way. Still, new presidents often come into their positions only partially prepared for the full scope of their responsibilities.

Even though the presidents and boards of public institutions that operate in the sunshine may be reluctant to publicly identify promising candidates for the presidency, they still can promote and support leadership programs at their own institutions and systems, as well as in the higher-education associations. Then they can ensure that these programs are available to interested faculty and administrators. Public boards and presidents, without singling out particular individuals, can identify skill sets and attributes needed in the public-sector presidency and encourage individuals to participate in the programs designed to assist them. Independent institutions, either on their own or through their consortia, should mount leadership-development programs. In this sector, the process begins with the board asking the president to prepare a list of potential successors, along with individualized leadership-development plans.

A well-prepared human-resources department can assist the board and president in identifying the qualities and potential of each administrator and in preparing a development plan to provide the necessary experiences and education for professional advancement. Human-resources personnel can also offer programs and materials that improve institutional capacity for preparing, securing, and retaining the best presidents and other administrators.

A number of excellent leadership programs exist in the national associations that serve higher education. The American Council on Education (ACE) offers the Fellows Program, which places interested administrators and professors in intern- ships, often with presidents, and provides education and mentoring in higher-education leadership. By 2009, this program had assisted 1,652 fellows, of whom 300 had become ceos and 1,100 had secured other administrative positions. The Association of Governing Boards offers a seminar for the president and board chair as a team when one or the other is new in the position. This program helps the pair learn to work together and establish a productive relationship. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) conducts The New Presidents Academy for those who have served fewer than two years and also the Millennium Leadership Initiative that provides individuals from underrepresented groups with the skills and experiences to advance in senior administration. In the community-college sector, institutions, states, and associations have established leadership-training programs. For example, the state of Massachusetts has a Community College Leadership Academy.

Enhancing the Pipeline

According to a 2009 study by the American Council on Education, just one-fifth of chief academic officers actually move on to a presidency. While presidents average 8.4 years in office, caos generally average 4.7 years and then tend to return to the faculty or retire. The survey found that two-thirds of CAOs consider the work of the president unappealing, and many consider it too time consuming and too visible. Yet not infrequently, CAOs are appointed to the presidency of their institutions when the sitting president is forced to leave or a search fails, and most of them do very well because they understand their institutions and constituents.

Women and minorities are underrepresented among CAOs, and those in the position often are uninterested in or underprepared for the presidency. The ACE report found that while women constitute 48 percent of tenure-track faculty members, they make up just 40 percent of CAOs.

Although this position is the traditional stepping-stone to a presidency for women, a study by Diane Dean, assistant professor of higher-education administration and policy at Illinois State University, found that 63 percent of women chief academic officers do not wish to be presidents. The three major reasons they cited were the belief that the presidency would distance them from “the academic heart” of the institution, they do not want to engage in the fund raising and socializing required of a president, and they want more balance in their lives than the all-consuming presidential schedule allows. It is entirely possible, however, that more consistent and supportive leadership training, mentoring, and the opportunity to “shadow” a sitting president for a time would convince some reluctant women that they would enjoy a presidency.

ACE’s survey of chief academic officers also found that minority respondents were disproportionately located at minority serving institutions. To better prepare minorities for the presidency, we need to encourage doctoral completion in an academic discipline, increase access to the traditional career ladder (department chair, dean, provost), and provide mentoring and leadership training.

Another, often-overlooked constriction in the pipeline to the presidency is that at a great many colleges, there simply are fewer tenure-track faculty members available these days to move through the traditional route of dean, provost, and president, due to the growing proportion of adjunct and part-time faculty members. Higher education will need to review the traditional path to the presidency and help promising individuals move along more quickly.

It is time for boards and presidents to become much more aggressive about broadening the pipeline to the presidency before there simply are not enough strong candidates to lead our institutions. A good place to begin is with the identification and development of high-potential academic vice presidents and deans; a focus on hiring, training, and promoting more minority and female faculty and staff; and efforts to move interested tenured faculty more quickly through the leadership track. Succession planning and the early identification of potential leaders is crucial. Boards may have no greater responsibility in the next several decades then to identify and prepare the next generation of leaders.