View from the Board Chair: Choosing Wisely When the Stakes Are High

By Mary Kane    //    Volume 24,  Number 6   //    November/December 2016

A board’s greatest responsibility is selecting and hiring presidents to lead our institutions, seeking core competencies and leadership skills while balancing the needs and wants of a broad range of constituencies. This challenge becomes exponentially greater when the search for new leadership is occasioned by a high-profile departure.

Earlier this year, my institution, Mount St. Mary’s University, was in such a position. Our president had stepped down after a great deal of negative public attention, and shortly thereafter, the board chair and several other trustees stepped aside, as well. It was my great honor to be selected as the first woman chair of the board of my alma mater and to be asked to serve at such an inflection point for the university, but the task of selecting new leadership seemed daunting, and the stakes were high.

Working together, my board colleagues and I, along with members of the faculty and administration, moved rapidly into a search process with the goal of identifying an interim president. It was important that we find someone who appreciated the rich history and strong values of the Mount—a small, Catholic, liberal-arts institution—someone who could continue to drive the change agenda necessary to position the university for future success, and who could help rebuild relationships both on- and off-campus in the wake of a sudden leadership transition.

Looking back, it’s possible to pinpoint some keys to our success in identifying and attracting a highly qualified, deeply passionate leader for our university. We could not be more pleased with the results. The Mount welcomed Dr. Timothy Trainor, former dean and chief academic officer at West Point, to our community over the summer. He has already made a real mark on the university.

These tips may be of some assistance to other boards as they face similar circumstances in the lives of their institutions.

  • Engage your alumni. When changes happen in leadership, alumni are often vocal in their support or opposition. Even when alumni are critical, they still love the institution deeply and are its best ambassadors. Hear them out, consider their perspectives, and communicate regularly about the search for new leadership, the qualities being sought in a new president or chancellor, and opportunities to share input.
  • Take the opportunity as a board to reaffirm the centrality of shared governance. In addition to providing a refresher on the roles and responsibilities of the board, the president, and the faculty in relation to one another, this will send a strong signal to candidates for the presidency that the institution is committed to living good governance.
  • Don’t denigrate past leaders. All candidates considering your institution will be looking carefully at how their potential predecessors are treated and spoken of by the board. They’ll have read about the departure of your most recent leadership and will draw conclusions from board statements that will influence whether or not they believe they will be supported as president.
  • Be ready for tough questions. Candidates who express interest in your institution will have tough questions about prior leadership, reasons for the transition, priorities for the board, and what she or he can expect from the board and the larger community in this role. Be as transparent as possible to ensure that no one has buyer’s remorse weeks or months down the road.
  • Don’t forget the positive. Even after a difficult leadership transition, your institution has a proud history and bright future. At the Mount, our students were still attending classes taught by dedicated and committed faculty, competing in athletic events, and graduating to a future full of great personal and professional success.

By being open and engaged, committed to core values, and focused on the long-term health of our institutions, boards can weather difficult transitions and move forward with pride and excitement. That’s exactly what we are doing at Mount St. Mary’s.

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