As a new chief executive begins their tenure, their first 100 days are crucial to launching a process of listening to and engaging with their new community, establishing their leadership priorities and expectations, building an effective team, and shaping their vision for the institution’s future.
A governing board has an important role to play in supporting its chief executive officer’s success in these first 100 days and beyond.
The governing board must nurture, empower, and champion the new chief executive officer, helping to set the tone for the executive’s growth and authority in a new role.
Why it matters: According to the American Council on Education’s 2023 American College President Survey, the average presidential tenure fell from 8.5 years in 2006 to 5.9 years in 2022. Further, 55 percent of presidents are expected to step down within the next five years. Presidential transitions can be difficult, and the governing board must work hard to help ease and streamline the process with as little friction as possible.
Consider these recommendations.
Discuss the value of an executive coach. The chief executive role is a unique, and sometimes lonely, position. Further, in some cases, the new senior leader is working closely with a governing board for the first time which brings its own set of challenges. The new chief executive and board should discuss the value of an executive coach to help the new leader transition effectively.
- Executive coaches are not only valuable during transitions. Just as coaches can be extremely helpful for new board chairs and committee chairs, they can be effective confidants, advisors, and subject matter experts for presidents.
- Go Deeper: Reflect on the value of an executive coach for senior leaders in transition, or anytime throughout their terms. To find an experienced coach for your current or new chief executive, contact AGB Consulting at consulting@AGB.org.
Initiate succession planning as soon as the new leader is hired. The best time for a governing board to start succession planning for the chief executive role is the first day a new leader is hired. This is not a signal of concern with the new leader, but rather an acknowledgment of the critical role the president plays in managing their institution.
- Understanding the transition process in the moment offers the chance to learn what works and what doesn’t, confirm who needs to be involved, and understand the potential pitfalls and missed opportunities.
Engage the transition committee and assign leadership of this committee to a seasoned member of the governing board. Ideally, the transition committee will be established through the succession planning process and will help guide the new president prior to their first day, through the first 100 days, and potentially throughout the first year. Ensure the composition of the transition committee covers the essential responsibilities of the new president.
- For example, which member of the transition committee will help introduce the new president to the full board? First impressions, from both the governing board and the new executive, will inform priorities and expectations to influence a long-term, successful board-president partnership.
- What transition committee members have institutional knowledge that can help the new president hit the ground running with community leaders, key donors, and other constituents?
- Which members of the administration, faculty, or campus community should join trustees on the transition committee?
- The transition committee’s work is not unidirectional. To be successful, the new chief executive officer must play a role in asking pertinent questions, developing new relationships, and identifying and prioritizing constituents.
Ensure that only one chief executive is leading. While some outgoing presidents can be a font of knowledge and wisdom, and may join the faculty after their presidencies end, the governing board must ensure that the former president affords the new leader the opportunity to establish tone, priorities, and style.
- Without providing such an opportunity, outgoing presidents may inadvertently impose their experience and informal authority in ways that confuse or muddle the new president’s work. Board members should not invite the opinion of an outgoing president after the new president begins.
- Instead, the outgoing chief executive may share critical information with the new leader prior to the transition and make it clear that they may be available, as requested, to provide additional information as time goes on.
Avoid stepping into management. Colleges and universities that have operated without a permanent chief executive officer for extended periods, either due to a sudden departure or a longer search process, may have had some governing board members step in to fill critical needs. Governing board members must give the new chief executive their full support and allow the new leader to establish their preferred operating methods.
- Sometimes transitions can be rocky despite best intentions. During the normal course of events, the governing board should express its support for the chief executive, when appropriate, to demonstrate solidarity.
- Although there are exceptions for negligent or improper behavior, the governing board should usually be the staunchest advocate of the chief executive while holding them responsible for managing the institution.
- Boards and presidents can use AGB’s New Presidents Toolkit to help chart a course for their institutions.
- Review my June 2022 CEO Update, “Planning for Success(ion).”
- Attend the upcoming webinar “Presidential Transitions: Leadership Succession Planning for Long-Term Sustainability.”
- For aspiring presidents, develop your skills and competencies by enrolling in the AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education.
Questions for Governing Board and Committee Chairs
- What is the cadence of communication that you establish with your new president?
- If there is an ad hoc transition committee, what should its charge be, who should lead it, and who should be members? When should it sunset?
- What opportunities from a presidential transition should the board consider?
Questions for Governing Board Members
- What advice can you share with your new chief executive, and when is it appropriate to do so?
- What is the role of the governing board in maintaining focus on strategic priorities and outcomes, and how can it do so without overstepping into management?
Questions for Chief Executive Officers and Leadership Team Members
- For current chief executives, what is your role in succession planning and presidential transitions?
- For new chief executive officers, how will you develop your plan for laying out your vision to the board, the faculty, the staff, students, and the rest of the college or university?
- For leadership team members, how can you support transitions in a way that supports continuity of operations?
The first 100 days are not the end of a new chief executive officer’s transition. They are the beginning. With these recommendations in mind, I hope your board, in collaboration with its new leader, will plan for the first 100 days, and then the next 100 and beyond. Discuss key outcomes and expectations of the new chief executive’s first year, and do not be afraid to adapt to changing conditions.
As summer approaches, I trust you will find an appropriate balance to stay both energized and relaxed in your work. Take advantage of these next few months by perusing a book you find during our pre-summer sale. Then share what you learned with your fellow board members!