Change is Inevitable: Preparing for a Leadership Transition

Council Insights: Council of Board Professionals

By Denise Nelson Nash March 1, 2023 March 29th, 2024 Blog Post, Council of Board Professionals

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Presidential tenures are getting shorter. “According to the American Council on Education’s American College President Study, the frequency of presidential turnover is increasing, with more than half of presidents or chancellors intending to leave their positions within five years.” (Fitzgerald and McCormick, 2023)

“The success of higher education institutions depends on presidential leadership, and one of the governing board’s most important duties is hiring, supporting, and retaining dynamic presidents.” (AGB, 2020)

An effective higher education president successfully operates within a dynamic environment. (Teece and Falconi, 2018)

At the February 2023 Council of Board Professions convening, AGB Search senior executive consultants Janice Fitzgerald and Jim McCormick, EdD, engaged the council in a discussion on the process of presidential transitions and the role of the board professional. The discussion centered around five of the most common questions asked about leadership transition planning:

  1. When should a transition plan be created?
  2. Who should be involved in developing the plan?
  3. What factors should we consider when establishing a transition plan?
  4. Should we appoint an interim president during a transition?
  5. What is the role, if any, of the outgoing president?

Transition planning is not an event, it’s an ongoing process

Recognizing that leadership change can be destabilizing for a campus community, the council discussed the imperative of creating institutional stability and developing a comprehensive transition plan. The planning process begins as soon as a sitting president has communicated their plan to depart the institution. The process includes expectations for and the role of the outgoing president, the decision and timeline to appoint an interim president, how and when decisions are made during the transition time period, the presidential search process, clearly defined goals for the new leader, and a comprehensive communications strategy during the transition and introducing the new president to the campus community, graduates, donors, and supporters of the institution.

Transitions don’t end with “a sigh of relief and crossing of fingers”

A great start for a new leader begins with tapping into the cultural, operational, and business knowledge and expertise of the board professional who can advise the board on a customized onboarding plan. Having a carefully curated group of individuals serving as ongoing resources to a new president will help the new leader acculturate more quickly and avoid pitfalls that come with being new to a community and the role. The board should be very detailed and precise about their performance expectations for the new president. Setting clear expectations supports assembling the best resources to advise and buttress the new president and fosters good communication practices.

Outgoing and incoming presidents: a delicate balance

The plan for the transition of an outgoing president is as important as planning to welcome a new leader. The pending departure can be emotional, as well as procedural, for the outgoing president and the senior leadership team. The board professional is well-positioned to understand the outgoing president’s goals and to liaise with the board on assessing any challenges and developing clarity on what will be accomplished in the last months of the outgoing president and what will be left to new leadership. Managing multiple transitions is one of the greatest challenges and finding productive ways to extend opportunities for the former president to remain engaged requires delicate balance.

It’s all new

Whether an institution is welcoming a first-time president or one with previous experience leading an institution, an essential first step is learning the culture of the institution. First-time presidents and experienced ones need a transition team and formalized onboarding plan. Knowing who to engage with, when, and how is something all presidents need advice on. The board professional, working with the senior leadership team, participates in the development a 60-, 90-, and 120-day plan that includes deepening the new president’s knowledge and understanding of the institution and board, including the creation of a robust communications plan.

Key takeaways:

  • Leadership change is inevitable as presidential tenures get shorter.
  • Transition planning is a way to prepare for change with success.
  • Comprehensive plans are needed for the outgoing and incoming presidents.
  • Set clear expectations for both the outgoing and incoming president will enhance transition logistics effectiveness.
  • There is no one way to approach leadership transitions, each institution will need to assess their needs and determine the most effective way to move forward.
  • Develop a team of internal and external resource partners maximizes transition effectiveness.
  • Engage the campus community in the change process; acknowledge that there may be pain points and adjustments needed.
  • The board professional occupies a pivotal role in the transition process.

Denise Nelson Nash, EdD is vice president, secretary of the board of trustees, and convener of the IDEA Initiative, Scripps College and has spent more than 25 years in administrative and academic roles in private and public institutions.


Teece, D.J, & Falconi, S. (2018). What the ‘American College President’ Needs Today’ [Article]. Inside Higher Ed.

AGB (2020). Board Fundamentals: The Presidency.

Fitzgerald, J.S., & McCormick, J.H. (2023). Change is Inevitable: Preparing for a Leadership Transition. AGB Search Newsletter.