A Question For Shannon McCambridge

What is Key to a New President's Success?

By Cristin Toutsi Grigos    //    Volume 30,  Number 3   //    May/June 2022

Shannon McCambridge, JD, LLM, is an Executive Consultant for AGB and AGB Search. Her consulting focuses on effective board governance and leading presidential searches in Catholic higher education. McCambridge is a co-facilitator of the AGB Search Institute for New Presidents and Board Chairs, and a recognized leader in executive search processes and transitions. Her work is informed by practicing employment law, teaching in the business schools of three universities, and serving on Gonzaga University’s Board of Trustees where she is now trustee emerita.

What are a few tips for starting a successful presidential search?

First, a successful search starts with an accurate, well-drafted leadership profile designed to attract a diverse pool of qualified candidates. It includes gender-neutral/ balanced language and features an attractive institutional overview (i.e., mission, history, awards, etc.), a description of the opportunity (i.e., board’s strategic priorities), and the leadership qualifications needed for success (i.e., mission-driven, strategic planner, team builder, emotionally intelligent, etc.).

In addition, a successful search starts with a diverse search committee representing a cross section of stakeholders who are committed to knowing the candidates, maintaining confidentiality, and acting in the whole institution’s best interest. Before the preliminary interviews, knowing the candidates’ breadth and depth of leader- ship experience is crucial. Unfortunately, interviews are the most relied upon form of candidate assessment. However, studies show they are not dependable in predicting a candidate’s future success. Interviews also present the greatest risk of implicit bias.

Finally, a successful search starts by adopting intentional efforts to keep implicit bias in check. Raising awareness of implicit bias and how it operates is important. Of equal importance, however, is adopting “selection safeguards” to prevent the influence of bias. One safeguard is adopting a bias awareness statement that the search committee chair shares with committee members before reviewing or discussing candidates.

What is key to a new president’s success?

Based on AGB research and search colleagues’ experiences throughout the country, the first 90 days are key to a new president’s ultimate success. Therefore, thoughtful transition planning is needed to intentionally position the new president to successfully “hit the ground running.” This includes onboarding quickly, understanding institutional strengths and challenges, and being accepted as the next leader. It also includes positioning the president to execute the board’s strategic priorities and begin imagining a unified vision for the institution. The role of the governing board chair is essential in a successful transition. The two leaders should meet weekly, share a trusted and transparent relationship, commit to shared goals, and adopt a one-year transition plan. The plan typically includes addressing unresolved administrative matters before the president’s start date, reviewing institutional traditions and governance practices, understanding risk management concerns, selecting mentors, and building internal and external relationships. The plan may also address basic relocation needs.

What are some ways the pandemic has influenced how presidential searches are conducted?

One unexpected gift is using Zoom for preliminary interviews. Although this changed a long-time industry standard, Zoom offers a more cost-effective and time-efficient alternative for candidates, clients, and consultants. It is also a great “equalizer.” During search committee deliberations, committee members share the same visibility in their uniform “Hollywood Squares” box regardless of whether they are a trustee, faculty member, or student. This optic makes clear that everyone’s opinion matters. It helps create an atmosphere of mutual trust where all voices are equal and respectful dissent is welcome. It may also help mitigate authority bias, which arises when one committee member is unreasonably influenced by the opinion of another member whom they perceive as an authority figure on the committee.

Spark Hire is another gift of the pandemic. This computer-based platform allows semi-finalists to submit one-minute video responses to a search committee question before preliminary interviews begin. Spark Hire helps committee members get to know candidates better. In addition, by briefly meeting candidates before the start of Zoom interviews, the committee may be better positioned to listen attentively to candidates during interviews. Arguably, they will not be distracted by the “noise” that occurs in our brains when we first meet someone new. Spark Hire may also help to keep “first impression” bias in check during preliminary interviews.

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