Today’s college and university presidents must navigate significant challenges in the higher education landscape. Chief among them is the need to reimagine and craft a business model that maintains financial sustainability and supports a diverse campus culture in which everyone feels a genuine sense of belonging. Faced with fierce competition, declining enrollments, escalating costs, snowballing maintenance needs, cybersecurity threats, a student mental health epidemic, and insufficient resources, a new president’s job has never been more challenging. Moreover, as skepticism about the value of higher education grows, so, too, does the work of retaining and graduating students prepared for a rapidly changing workforce.
Given these realities, successful presidential transitions are essential. They not only profoundly impact a new leader’s success and satisfaction with a new college or university, but they also influence an institution’s mission, culture, stakeholders, goals, strategic priorities, and overall future sustainability. Indeed, AGB research and our own experience indicate that the first 90 days of a president’s tenure determine that individual’s ultimate success. Whether a president is assuming leadership through internal succession planning or as a result of a national search, purposeful preparation and planning by the board are required before a new president takes office.
Presidential Transition Planning:
Themes and Strategic Steps
So what exactly is transition planning? Loren Anderson, a senior executive search consultant at AGB Search and a former president of Pacific Lutheran University, has conducted numerous presidential searches over more than a decade in executive search. He describes an optimal transition as follows: “Successful presidential transitions are designed to prepare the new presidents to address the key issues they will face during the early months of their new presidency.” Anderson emphasizes three key themes that ideally shape all written transition plans: addressing governance issues, ensuring relationship-building on- and off-campus, and tending to basic hospitality for the new leader and, as appropriate, for that individual’s spouse, partner, and family.
Key Considerations for Long-Term Results
1. Early Planning & Preparation
New presidents do not have the luxury of learning on the job in today’s environment. In most cases, they are expected to begin effectively executing the board’s goals and strategic priorities and pursuing opportunities for the institution’s future immediately after arriving on campus. Acceptance as a leader who is positioned to “hit the ground running” requires early planning of a thorough onboarding process. Preparing for the new president’s arrival and drafting the transition plan often begin months before the new president’s official starting date.
Incoming presidents generally understand their new institution’s culture, mission, and history as a result of a thorough and informative search process. However, before addressing the institution’s needs and pursuing untapped opportunities, the president needs a greater understanding of the institution’s strengths, challenges, honored traditions, and strategic priorities. Equally important, the new leader needs to become acquainted with the institution’s internal and external stakeholders. In fact, a well-drafted transition plan becomes a reliable road map for embracing and building relationships with on- and off-campus communities early in the president’s tenure.
Dan Allen, Ph.D., assumed the presidency of La Salle University in April 2022. However, his “unofficial” onboarding to La Salle began months earlier, immediately after accepting the presidential position and approving a written transition plan that charted his first year. The plan began with extensive listening sessions with stakeholders across campus—faculty, staff, administrators, members of the Lasallian community, and students.
By any measure, Allen is a new president who got off to a fast and productive start. Since taking office in spring 2022, he has improved La Salle’s U.S. News & World Report ranking, launched a single-year $10 million fundraising initiative, created innovative program partnerships in nursing and education, and received a $3.5 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to apply toward campus reinvestment. During a recent conversation, Allen reflected on his listening sessions with La Salle’s stakeholders. He stated, “There is just so much nuance to organizations as complex as universities and context to the decisions that have been made that have brought these institutions to their current positions. It’s nearly impossible to understand all of that during the search and interview process. This is why detailed briefing documents, transition plans, and transition processes are essential to new presidents making informed conclusions and decisions about the paths forward for the schools they lead.”
And data are essential to this process. Said Allen, “It is in the very nature of a university to champion the use of data in the search for new knowledge. A transition plan or process for a new president should have the same commitment to data, and not just the quantitative data found in budget, enrollment, and fundraising reports. Also needed is the qualitative data that gives perspective on the people and decisions that have shaped the university that the new president now serves.
2. Written Transition Plan
Successful presidential transitions start with a well-drafted, intentional, and comprehensive transition plan. Although the themes by Loren Anderson noted above can be found in all meaningful transition plans, no two plans are exactly alike. Just as each presidential transition is unique, so, too, is each presidential transition plan. Each is defined by the needs of the institution and the new president’s leadership style. A plan ideally should be reviewed and approved in advance by the incoming president and designed to reflect that individual’s personality and leadership style. It typically outlines initiatives and activities that chart the new president’s first year in office and is specifically designed to provide the new leader support, resources, and institutional mentors to ensure a successful start.
3. Ad Hoc Transition Committee
Managing a new president’s post-appointment transition on campus is often delegated to an ad hoc transition committee appointed by the board. It is charged with facilitating a smooth and efficient leadership change by overseeing and coordinating the president’s initial onboarding activities. The committee usually includes a mix of stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, and alumni, as well as members of the governing board. If a formal search was conducted, one or more search committee members often serve on the transition committee.
Whether such a panel includes a campus-wide group of stakeholders or a smaller group of several individuals, these committees can be an effective way to ensure a thorough transition process. Like all committees, several guiding principles should be considered to ensure its effectiveness.
A Departing President:
- Openly discuss the future leadership plans, including an external search, interim appointment, and/or direct appointment and the transition timeline
- Announce and manage communications about the president’s departure
- Publicly express gratitude for the president’s service
- Ask the departing president to complete an institutional Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis
- Determine the president’s key initiatives to address before departure
- Celebrate the departing president’s accomplishments and legacy
First, the committee’s charge should be clearly defined and communicated to its members. The charge should specify that the committee’s primary goal is to prepare the community to welcome and support the new president. Another significant objective is to serve as the president’s first line of resources. Committee members are the new president’s confidential “go-to” people—a “safe harbor” and the most reliable cheerleaders and advocates. Over time, it is not uncommon for some of these people to become trusted mentors.
Second, ensuring the committee is a manageable size is essential, generally five to seven members even when the panel has representatives from across the institution. Larger committees often lead to unreasonable delays due to difficulty coordinating meeting schedules.
Finally, including diverse members with varied backgrounds and areas of expertise at the institution adds value to the committee’s work.
Best Practices for a Meaningful Presidential Transition
Establish a Strong President and Board Chair Partnership
To be successful, the new president and board chair must establish a strong relationship built on trust. This partnership requires a shared understanding of mutual expectations and time dedicated to their shared responsibility in governance. To accomplish this goal, the two leaders typically commit to weekly meetings that begin shortly after the president is hired. Initially, these meetings are designed so that the two leaders can simply become better acquainted. Once the president takes office, these meetings also allow the president to keep the board chair informed about major developments, issues confronting the institution, and strategic initiatives. Collaborating on strategic planning and working together to align the institution’s mission and goals with the board’s vision for the institution are essential.
The meetings also provide the president an intentional means to solicit the board chair’s guidance and advice. Open, transparent, and honest conversations between the two leaders build trust. Over time, this trusting professional relationship allows each of them to better understand their respective roles and responsibilities and work more effectively together. Establishing a strong relationship with the board chair also helps the new president build a strong relationship with the governing board and its individual members.
Build Board Support and Trust
It is critical that the new president begin building trust with the governing board immediately. To facilitate this objective, most transition plans include scheduled events with the board and president during the president’s first month of onboarding. In fact, to demonstrate excitement and support for a new president, board chairs often host a welcome reception with trustees for the president and the president’s spouse, partner, and/or family.
Building support from the board is enhanced by the new president demonstrating a genuine commitment to the institution’s mission, vision, and future goals. As fiduciaries, the governing board members are guardians of the institution’s mission. Although true for all governing boards, this duty is especially compelling for boards of religiously affiliated institutions. For example, Catholic institutions are required to maintain a deep devotion to the institution’s Catholic identity and an intentional mission-driven focus. A conscious commitment to the charism of the founding order (i.e., the Society of Jesus, Congregation of Holy Cross, Sisters of Saint Joseph, Benedictines, Dominicans, etc.) is also common. When faith-based institutions transition from a leader of the founding order to a lay leader, it can be a profound change that can create anxiety among board members, members of the campus community, and alumni. Hiring a mission-driven lay leader who genuinely embraces the institution’s identity and is inspired by the institution’s charism helps alleviate this uncertainty. Therefore, drafting a meaningful transition plan that illustrates the new leader’s commitment to the mission early in the new president’s first year of leadership can be helpful.
For example, Sandra Cassady, Ph.D., was appointed as the first female, lay president of Rockhurst University in July 2022. Rockhurst is a Catholic, Jesuit university. Although Cassady is a practicing Catholic and understands the Catholic intellectual tradition from her prior service at other Catholic institutions, she was admittedly less familiar with the Jesuit tradition when hired. Therefore, she asked that her transition plan intentionally include learning more about Jesuit identity and the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. She also led by example and initiated mission-focused activities for the board of trustees. These activities included early planning of potential mission-centered board retreat topics such as “Living Our Mission—What it Means Today.” Cassady also met with the Bishop of Kansas City/St. Joseph and the Jesuit Provincial for her region.
Noted Cassady, “I was fortunate to participate in a Magis Retreat that is a part of the Ignatian Colleagues Program just before beginning at Rockhurst. The time spent with spiritual directors, faculty, and staff from Jesuit schools around the nation provided an opportunity to learn how others were working to advance the Jesuit and Catholic mission of their campuses.” A new president also strengthens board support and trust by building relationships with individual trustees. The first step in doing this important work is to take time to learn about their backgrounds, interests, and perspectives. This helps the new president determine which members of the board can best provide special counsel or guidance on issues that may arise for the president and the institution. With this knowledge, the president can readily partner with the board chair to determine committee assignments for board members. To build trust, new presidents should also establish a practice of open, honest, and transparent communication with the board. Such communication ensures alignment between the president’s and board’s vision, strategic goals, and objectives. It also allows board members to be well-informed about the institution and prepared to focus on its most critical issues.
Forge Relationships with Shared Governance Colleagues: Faculty, Administration, Staff
Ultimately, every president must unify a diverse group of people around an institution’s vision for the future. This alignment can only occur after taking intentional steps to understand and appreciate campus colleagues and establish trust through relationship-building. To succeed, a new president must work immediately to be viewed as a competent leader by the campus community. Given the challenges facing higher education, every new president must begin addressing institutional concerns, making informed decisions, and moving the institution forward soon after being appointed. To do this effectively, the president must genuinely understand and appreciate the perspectives, priorities, and concerns of faculty, administration, and staff.
As the new leader, the president must also collaborate in an environment of shared governance to find effective solutions to campus concerns and make data-informed decisions in the whole institution’s best interest. Undoubtedly, this requires new leaders to make courageous decisions that may not be supported by all community members. However, even if stakeholders disagree with the president’s decisions, accepting them may be easier for a community that trusts the president and believes that the president has heard their concerns and understands them.
Active listening is a first and crucial step in every president’s tenure. Institution-wide listening sessions are typically outlined in the transition plan for each stakeholder group. These first sessions often occur weeks in advance of a newly appointed leader’s first day on campus. Meetings may include everything from informal coffees and luncheons with groups of faculty members to formal meetings with the faculty senate. These introductory conversations are often followed by more in-depth, one-on-one discussions with deans, department chairs, and faculty senate leaders.
New presidents also typically meet with direct reports, administrators, and staff members. In fact, direct reports are often asked to complete a SWOT analysis of their respective areas. Follow-up discussions not only help the president learn more about the institution but also assist the president in assessing the professional strengths of the leadership team. Successfully executed listening sessions are an early step a new president can take to build trust with the community. This trust is further strengthened by establishing a pattern of open, transparent, and regular communication in a variety of formats.
In addition to listening sessions and one-on-one meetings, new presidents can make a point of being visible on campus. The transition plan typically maps out attendance at various campus events during the president’s first year, which can include athletic events, concerts, plays, art exhibitions, and cultural events, as well as meals in student dining spaces. A new president also should take advantage of any opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni by attending award ceremonies and campus celebrations.
Understand the Institution’s Students
New presidents should engage with students as soon as they take office. Approaches could include a “Pizza with the President” event or an open forum to hear what is working well and what could be improved in academic or co-curricular programs. Being visible at campus events and for traditions such as new student orientation, parent/family weekends, and homecoming is equally important. Opportunities for students to take photos with the president can be provided at these events and readily posted across social media. Regular meetings with student government leaders and other student representatives signal that the president has a genuine interest in partnering with students. By developing an understanding of current students’ needs and aspirations, the new president will be positioned to represent their views to the board and other constituents and to take a student-centric approach to decision-making.
Embrace Institutional Vision and Advance Strategic Thinking and Planning
New presidents need to be prepared to clearly communicate the institution’s mission, vision, and values and inspire and empower others around them. Therefore, early in the president’s tenure, they will benefit from multiple opportunities to articulate these important points to a wide array of audiences, both internal and external. These opportunities to speak and write on behalf of the institution build credibility and trust, particularly for new presidents who are appointed from outside the institution.
As Michele Minter, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity and co-chair of a presidential search at Princeton Theological Seminary, explains, “There are infinite demands on a president’s time. Therefore a new leader and the board need to be firmly grounded in a shared understanding of strategy and vision so that they can jointly set priorities.”
The financial model also needs to align with the strategic priorities and goals of the institution. It is important to determine if the financial plan can respond nimbly and adjust to changes in the unpredictable higher education marketplace. For example, when institutions were forced to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, sudden reductions in housing and auxiliary revenues resulted in budget shortfalls at many institutions. As a result, the creation of board ad hoc cash flow committees were often included in new presidents’ transition plans. An understanding of strategic budgeting and the allocation of immediate cash reserves can assist new leaders in addressing unexpected budget issues.
Finally, a strong partnership with the institution’s chief financial officer is imperative in today’s challenging market, so an effective transition plan will ensure that this professional relationship is established from the outset. We anticipate that retreats and institutes that ensure alignment between the president and CFO will become increasingly important and valuable.
Meaningful Engagement with Key Off-Campus Stakeholders
All new presidents should engage in meaningful community outreach by participating in local events and initiatives and building relationships with community organizations and leaders. Actively networking and engaging with these key stakeholders—alumni, donors, government officials, business leaders, and members of the local community—is essential. Opportunities for collaboration and mutually beneficial partnerships should be on every new president’s radar. For example, many presidents appointed through AGB Search have pursued appointments on local or regional Chambers of Commerce, boards of healthcare or non-profit organizations, and community service initiatives. These efforts build important connections between the campus and the external community and foster collaborations that can benefit students, faculty, and other stakeholders through philanthropy, student internships, co-op arrangement, permanent employment opportunities for students, collaborative research, and service projects.
While other higher education institutions in the city, town, or region may historically have been viewed as competitors, presidents are increasingly finding value in developing rapport and strong working relationships with other college and university presidents. In some cases, shared services agreements can be developed that provide mutual benefit to each institution.
Higher education institutions are also assuming an increasingly vital role in shaping the community culture where they are located. Today, more and more colleges and universities identify themselves as “anchor institutions.” Many cities across the United States are experiencing unprecedented challenges involving crime, homelessness, addiction, and unemployment or underemployment of their citizens. This is true of the city of Portland, Oregon. Like many West Coast cities, it is facing well-publicized challenges.
The University of Portland’s new president, Robert D. Kelly, Ph.D., provides an excellent example of how to approach early-term engagement successfully. After a national search, Kelly became the 21st president of the university on July 1, 2022, and is the first layperson to serve in the role. With more than 30 years of higher education experience, he knew the importance of being an inspiring team and community builder early in his tenure. Therefore, immediately upon arriving at the university, he embraced the institution by attending hundreds of events, creating new opportunities for community gatherings (including a campus wide First Day of Classes celebration), and launching an extremely popular Instagram account. Embracing the university early in President Kelly’s tenure not only provided him a better sense of the institution’s needs and aspirations, but it also resulted in major accomplishments. This includes unveiling a new and transformational strategic plan, increasing philanthropy, and creating community partnerships with the NBA and Portland Trail Blazers.
In Kelly’s words, “In the early days of my presidency, I made it a priority to meet constituents where they were, in both formal and informal settings. By getting out of the office, showing up for lectures, performances, and athletics events, and documenting it all on social media, you convey so much about your priorities and leadership style. I’m so heartened when people approach me and say, ‘Gosh, Dr. Kelly, you’re everywhere!’ That means that I’m joyfully engaged in the life of our community.”
John Kotter’s Theory of Successful Change
- Create Urgency
- Form a Guiding Coalition
- Create a Vision and Motivation for Change
- Communicate the Vision
- Empower Others
- Create Short Term Wins
- Produce More Change
- Institutionalize and Support the Change
Creating Community and Healing
Early in Sally Mason’s presidency at the University of Iowa, historic flooding devastated many parts of the campus. The university’s power plant flooded, and the water plant was almost lost, as well. Because of Mason’s strong working relationship with her board chair, who had a direct connection to the governor, a National Guard unit was called in right away to help with flood protection and infrastructure management. Mason worked closely with the official leading the unit, and her senior staff worked directly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Day-to-day operations included twice daily meetings, daily press briefings, and continual internal communication, which continued for the entire eight years of her presidency.
Mason, who is now a senior executive search consultant at AGB Search, notes that when a natural disaster happens, “there are some key relationships that need to be brought to bear immediately.”
A transition plan that includes timely introductions to local alumni, government officials, business leaders, benefactors, and other key community members can build the connections and social capital that are instrumental when a crisis such as the one at Iowa occurs.
Initiating Change: Special Considerations
Futurist Bob Johansson has written about the importance of reimagining the traditional role of leadership in an increasingly uncertain world. He suggests that universities should move away from a model focused on teaching and towards one focused more on learning. He believes that as the world becomes increasingly complex and as change accelerates, students will have a greater need to learn quickly and effectively. As a futurist, Johansson’s work involves studying current trends, identifying emerging issues and opportunities, and using this information to make predictions about what the future will need. Not surprisingly, futurists emphasize that the leaders of tomorrow will need to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to address the needs of a rapidly changing world. He recommends that they adopt a mindset for innovation.
Although change is generally believed to be necessary in higher education, and innovation can lead to new and exciting opportunities, initiating change is challenging. It is especially challenging for a new leader. If significant change is on a new leader’s agenda, the vision for transformation and anticipated initiatives should be included in the transition plan after being fully discussed and approved by the board. It is also essential that the new president have a clear understanding of the culture of the institution (i.e., history, traditions, etc.), its readiness for the change proposed, and the attitudes and expectations of faculty, staff, students, and other key stakeholders about the anticipated changes. If possible, the written transition plan should include a thoughtful strategy for making the change successful.
John Kotter, a retired Harvard Business School professor and highly regarded thought leader, has developed what are considered eight credible steps for promoting successful change. Although each of Kotter’s steps is essential, and he believes that eliminating any one of them may be detrimental to successfully implementing change, we will highlight his second step here, which is to form “a powerful guiding coalition of influential people” to successfully champion the change. Having at least a small group of advocates who believe change is necessary, possible, and would result in a benefit to the institution is a key component of implementing change successfully. This second step underscores the need for new presidents to focus on building trust early in their tenure with the board chair, the governing board, and internal stakeholders.
Sustaining Success: Tips and Insights
Staying the course set out in a president’s first months is key. Several common themes often cited by presidents who have been in their positions for less than 12 months include:
Regular, Transparent, and Meaningful Communication
Continuing a pattern of open, transparent, and regular communication with campus stakeholders is important. New presidents often use a variety of communication channels to keep internal and external stakeholders informed about the life, mission, activities, and initiatives of the institution. These channels may include regular campus updates sent via email, periodic e-newsletters, and posts on appropriate social media. These communications should be transparent and openly share appropriate information. Depending upon the audience, these messages may include data about the institution’s operations, finances, and goals.
Regular communication is especially important if a new president is instituting change. According to Kotter, the vision and strategy for change should be communicated clearly and regularly across the campus and in a way that inspires people to be part of the change. One compelling example of promoting a change is Benedictine University’s adoption of its “Red Thread Theme.” Although not a new president, President Charles Gregory created this theme to symbolize the unity of the university across its two distinct campuses, one located in Lisle, Illinois and the other in Mesa, Arizona. Although the campuses are separated by thousands of miles, the president and the governing board wanted to make clear that Benedictine is “one university.” Drawing from the institution’s Benedictine mission, traditions, and school colors, Benedictine created a red threaded bracelet woven with a small medal of St. Benedict. The bracelet was given to all community members and is a tangible reminder that the two campuses are stitched together by their common mission, vision, values, and goals.
Effective team building is especially important for new presidents. This is accomplished by creating a culture of collaboration, encouraging open and transparent communication, and authentically engaging members of the institution to work together toward a common purpose. Using effective listening skills and setting achievable goals aligned with strategic plan objectives are also key.
Agility and Innovation
Agility and innovation are no longer simply preferred leadership qualities in higher education; they are required. New presidents should engage in continual learning and development to stay informed about new trends, innovations, and best practices. They should be willing to adjust their strategies and approaches in response to changes in the higher education landscape and seek regular input and feedback from others to inform decision making. Presidential leaders should encourage new ideas and approaches to higher education issues and use data-informed metrics to help chart strategies and decisions. Taking a calculated risk to drive progress may actually mitigate more significant institutional risk created by maintaining the status quo.
Leadership experts often assert that true leadership is about being humble enough to serve others and strong enough to do what is right. Such assertions have never been more relevant for leadership in higher education. The most impactful college and university presidents, governing board members, and other senior campus leaders today are true servant-leaders who act with a sense of humility. Humility is not a lack of confidence; rather, it is centered on others and puts others’ leadership interests first. True servant-leaders focus on the well-being of others and especially on the well-being and success of students.
Presidents, governing boards, and other internal and external stakeholders should recognize that a successful presidential transition takes time. Engaging with stakeholders, building relationships, and generating the trust needed to make effective change does not happen overnight. An appropriate balance of persistence and patience is necessary to effectively execute the institution’s strategic priorities and move them forward. As Princeton’s Michele Minter says, “A presidential transition is an investment that needs time to fully mature. Nothing important happens overnight, and managing expectations will be critical to success.”
The public’s perception of the value of a college or university degree has been in sharp decline in recent years, and for a variety of reasons, college and university presidencies are more challenging than ever. Many presidents with whom we work say the presidency can be isolating and that they have needed to find trusted confidantes to help sustain them through the difficult circumstances they can face as the leaders of complex enterprises.
Given these challenges, an intentional focus on transition planning has never been more important. In the words of Judith Marlowe, the board chair at Thomas More University, “planning is the golden opportunity to prepare for a successful leadership transition at any college or university.” Her partnership with TMU’s current president, Joseph Chillo, was from its earliest days based on “no surprises, only complete candor,” she adds.
A thoughtful, intentional, and comprehensive transition plan can build the foundation of trust that positions a new president and the institution for success both in the short-term and well into the future.
Shannon McCambridge, J.D., LL.M, is an executive governance consultant with AGB and an executive search consultant for AGB Search. firstname.lastname@example.org
Melissa K. Trotta, Ed.D., is associate managing principal of AGB Search. Melissa.email@example.com