When Should a President Step Down? Leadership Transition Planning for Higher Education

By Mark Heckler, Valparaiso University June 30, 2021 July 26th, 2021 Blog Post

This blog post is part of the New President Toolkit, a resource to help you hit the ground running and chart a course for your institution that ensures well-being and sustainability.

Leadership transitions occur regularly in higher education. Chairs change with some predictability and planning on most, but not all boards. President and provost positions turn over with increasing frequency, but with decreasing predictability and planning.

Leadership transitions disrupt institutional trajectory, even in the best of circumstances. A new board chair brings new priorities and ways of working that can require negotiation and recalibration for the president and the senior team. President and provost transitions lead to changes among vice presidents and deans, as teams reform and reorient around a new senior leader focused on aligning and balancing skill sets with the institution’s evolving strategic direction. Given the organizational consequences of any significant leadership transition, boards and presidents need to think carefully and strategically about these transitions and their implications.

Transition and succession thinking/planning should be a transparent part of the ongoing work of the president and the board.  Perhaps the best time to undertake transition planning is immediately after the start of a new president. The board has fresh insight gleaned from a recent transition and its conversation, whether through an ad hoc or standing committee, can focus on theoretical scenario planning and transition processes that cannot be mistakenly linked to the performance of the current president. The former and current presidents can add additional insight from their transition experience to aid the board in its analysis and planning.

Transition planning can work hand-in-glove with succession planning as the new president evaluates and evolves the senior team to align with the president’s skill set and the evolving direction and needs of the institution. Board members gain insight into the strength and depth of the leadership bench in strategically important areas at a time when the president is keenly focused on building the senior team. The board can also establish expectations for ongoing succession discussions with the president aimed at minimizing disruption when the next leadership transition occurs.

When did you know it was time to transition from the presidency? Many former presidents enjoy recalling the moment when they “knew” it was time for a transition. Some recall the physical sensation of utter exhaustion after spring commencement; others point to experiencing a level of internal frustration, impatience, or pessimism that stood in stark contrast to the spirit of optimism and possibility pervading the early years of the presidency. For these presidents, intuitive knowledge led them to decide that it was time. For other presidents, the decision resulted from a carefully considered calculus of board and campus politics, career opportunity or trajectory, economic conditions, partner/family dynamics, or a host of other factors unique to each president’s professional and personal circumstances.

Conversely, some presidents find it difficult to entertain thinking about a transition. Whether from a deeply held belief that the institution’s survival depends upon their leadership, a fear of post-presidency ennui, or an attachment to the privilege and prestige that come with the office, some presidents choose not to engage in transition thinking. In some situations, this attitude drives transition conversations underground in ways that can be challenging for the board, the senior team, and, ultimately, the president.

Perhaps the best advice I received on this topic came from a session at the Council of Independent Colleges’ Presidents Institute with Judith Block McLaughlin, the faculty chair of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents. Professor McLaughlin warned presidents about staying too long in the office, encouraging each president to set aside time annually for some unvarnished soul searching. She suggested that presidents consider weighing what strengths and gifts they bring to the institution against what the institution may most need from its leader in the coming two to three years. Taking stock annually like this enables a president to begin to see where one’s gifts and the university’s needs begin to diverge, opening within the mind of the president the possibility of a transition.

Once a president begins thinking seriously about a transition, a host of questions arises. Many of these questions relate to matters of timing and transparency, while others relate to transition strategy. When, for example, does the president open the conversation with the board chair? The senior team? What is the best amount of transition time between a public announcement and the start date of the succeeding president? How can the outgoing president remain effective during a lengthy transition period? Is there any advantage to planning for an intentional interim president? These and many other related questions deserve consideration and will be part of a series of topics I’ll cover in future blogs.

AGB offers resources to presidents and boards on these topics; these resources can be accessed by AGB members through the Knowledge Center at www.agb.org. In particular, I commend these two AGB publications for further reading: A Complete Guide to Presidential Search for Colleges and Universities, 2nd Edition, 2018 (https://agb.org/product/a-complete-guide-to-presidential-search-for-universities-and-colleges-2nd-edition/) and Presidential Search: An Overview for Board Members, 2012. In addition, a wide range of experienced AGB consultants can assist presidents and board members confidentially as they engage in transition and succession planning and implementation. You can connect with a consultant through the staff of AGB’s consulting practice at www.agb.org.

Mark A. Heckler, PhD is the president emeritus of Valparaiso University and the interim CEO of the College and University Sustainability Project (CUSP). He serves as an AGB senior consultant.

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