How Presidential Evaluations Must Change

By Terrence MacTaggart    //    Volume 20,  Number 1   //    January/February 2012
How Presidential Evaluations Must Change, January/February 2012

Most board of trustees’ evaluations of a president’s performance look backward, assuming that the challenges of the future will be pretty much the same as they’ve always been. But as every alert trustee now realizes, colleges and universities face problems more daunting than the familiar conundrums of the past. As a result, each presidential evaluation—whether an annual or more-comprehensive periodic assessment—should focus on the leader’s capacity to enable the institution to adapt to a continually changing environment.

Institutions confront increased competition for students and financial support, rising public expectations for educational quality and effectiveness, and significant constraints on increasing revenue from tuition and—in the case of public colleges and universities—from state sources. No one expects the situation to change anytime soon.

To advance across this more rigorous terrain, presidents will need to lead change in their institutions in ways scarcely envisioned a half decade ago. And trustees must be confident that their top executive is up to the task.

Implicit or explicit in most evaluations are questions of compensation and contract renewal. Today, however, the rationale for renewing the employment agreement should be based more on the president’s ability to lead going forward than on achieving past objectives. Moreover, compensation should be linked to leading the right kind of change rather than adequate performance of conventional presidential duties.

Yesterday’s Leader—or Tomorrow’s, Too?

Consider an all-too-common example of a board’s dilemma with an able president who has satisfied most of the expectations from the time of his hiring, but who may not be the leader for the future. Now in his fourth year, this president, a former development officer, was hired to bring “peace to the valley” to an institution troubled by faculty members’ no-confidence votes in his predecessor based on what they regarded as his autocratic style and lackluster fundraising record. The new president quickly established a rapport with faculty leaders, partly by adjusting teaching loads downwards; restored relations with the alumni; strengthened annual giving; and launched the early phases of a new capital campaign.

The board has recognized and appreciated all those efforts. But trustees have become increasingly concerned that the institution may be losing its competitive edge. The decision of a local community college to offer popular—and competitive— four-year degrees has challenged the institution’s student recruiters, and evidence suggests that admissions standards have been eased to help fill the freshman class. The choice to limit teaching loads has led to hiring more faculty members to teach the same curriculum, which has contributed to modest but growing budget deficits.

Although the president has acknowledged such problems, he has maintained that some are cyclical and will improve with time, while others—like the competition from the community college—are unavoidable. He also contends that fundraising will remedy the budget deficit.

The board chair believes the president has the intelligence and energy to deal with these problems, but she wonders if he really knows how. She hopes that a comprehensive evaluation of the president will help the board decide what to do next.

Adding a strong future orientation to current presidential-assessment models would help resolve the dilemma of this chair and her board. The practice of presidential assessment needs to catch up with the new reality by shifting focus in three new directions:

  • The evaluation process should examine past performance as the key source of information on the executive’s ability to lead change in an ambiguous and challenging future.
  • The criteria must include the kind of skills and attitudes conducive to engineering positive change in an academic setting, not just conventional leadership traits.
  • Since every leader is, to varying degrees, incomplete, the evaluation must be joined to a presidential development program that will assist the president in doing a job often vastly different from the one he was hired to do four or five years earlier.

While this article focuses on comprehensive evaluations that take place every three or four years, attention to the more immediate future also makes sense for annual reviews, too.

Analyzing Past Performance to Predict the Future

The best way to forecast how a president will perform in the future is to take a hard look at how he or she has met the challenges of the past. An executive who talks a better game than he plays is unlikely to transform himself overnight into a strong leader. But displaying creativity and resiliency in the face of past adversities can provide a pretty good basis for believing such traits will persist in the face of new challenges. The trick for boards is to change the way that they usually evaluate their president so as to determine his or her potential for future leadership.

Today the dominant process for evaluating presidents is the 360-degree model every three or four years based on 20 to 50 confidential interviews of people in a position to comment on the executive’s performance. Some interviewers employ a formal set of questions linked to conventional thinking about what it takes to be a successful president. Others prefer a more intuitive approach that begins with a question like, “In your opinion, how is X performing as a leader?” After an astute evaluator synthesizes all the responses, this model can yield a comprehensive portrait of the subject. Still other interviewers rely to varying degrees on confidential electronic surveys in which reviewers rank the president’s performance on different criteria, such as sound judgment, results orientation, and international savvy.

Whatever the process, evaluations tend to focus on one of three areas: the president’s skill at building and sustaining relationships, his or her success at actually achieving goals, or his or her performance in several areas of presidential responsibility—including fundraising, budgeting, and planning. Each approach has its plusses and minuses, but all three need to be updated to reveal the president’s potential to lead positive change in the new, more competitive environment that most institutions face.

Using Relationships to Leverage Change

The relational model of evaluation emphasizes the so-called soft skills of communications: displaying empathy, building cohesive teams, and fostering diversity. To be sure, social skills are important to leading major changes like a merger with another institution or discontinuing long-cherished academic programs. As Ronald Heifetz, author and co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, points out, such major changes require a president with the social skills to encourage campus buy-in and avoid destructive pushback.

Yet evaluation models that stress social skills should go beyond measuring popularity or how adroitly the president copes with independent-minded academics. The evaluation must examine the president’s capacity to use social intelligence to, in fact, create positive change. Pursuing questions like these will help reveal if the president can employ his social capital to leverage change:

  • Does the leader engage large and small groups in genuinely difficult conversations about future directions?
  • Has this leader built a reservoir of trust among various individuals and groups in the campus community such that they will accept difficult change in part because they believe in the integrity and foresight of the president?
  • Has the president built a team that not only works harmoniously with others but that is committed and able to make tough decisions in support of necessary change?
  • Has the president shown that he or she has the interpersonal skills and talent to rebuild relationships after they have been strained by unpopular decisions?
  • Has the president shown that he or she harbors the emotional maturity and discipline to accept criticism and even personal attack without becoming afraid to lead or acting out his own hurt or anger?

In the case that I presented earlier, it remains to be seen if the well-liked president can convert his popularity into support for tough conversations about the need for his institution to change.

Comparing Current Tactics to Future Needs

Using social skills and capital is part of the how of change, but equally important is the what: the objectives, policies, and metrics that will reveal if change is actually occurring. Change, after all, is not just about accepting its need, but also about taking actions that make a difference in the fortunes of the institution. Models that gauge whether the executive is meeting her goals focus on her success in “moving the needle” to secure measurable results. But is the president pursuing the right strategic objectives and not just comfortable ones?

Adding criteria like the following will help reveal if the president remains attentive to the most-critical challenges that demand leadership, as opposed to pursuing goals that are standard, familiar, or well within reach:

  • Before selecting objectives to pursue, did the president and the board engage in serious and informed discussion of what strategic directions the institution truly needs most?
  • Are the current objectives based on a strategic plan that is stale, irrelevant to the demands of the future, or lacking board support?
  • What opportunities have not been pursued because the president chose a particular course of action, and why were they set aside?
  • To what degree have the president’s objectives been aligned with the goals of the board? The institution’s strategic plan? Or—for public institutions and systems—the goals of the state?
  • Has the president devoted the right proportion of time and energy to the various objectives? For example, has he or she focused on fundraising even as the institution has faced an enrollment decline that demands attention?
  • In adapting to a changing environment or pursuing new opportunities, has the president been agile in reordering priorities to meet more-urgent demands and opportunities?

The president in our hypothetical—but all too typical—case does not deny the new competitive forces surrounding his college, but he appears unwilling or unable to change his strategies to meet them.

Looking for Change-Leadership Traits

A third evaluation model focuses on behaviors in key areas in the president’s job description where presidents are expected to perform well: augmenting the institution’s financial and reputational strength, leading academics, raising money, managing internal and external relationships, and so on. Focusing on those conventional areas speaks to the importance of maintaining daily operations and relationships, which makes sense in a status-quo environment. Yet that approach misses the target when the board needs to know if the president can lead change to meet new challenges.

Traits conducive to change leadership must be added to the mix, including strategic adaptability, emotional resilience, optimism in the face of bad news, and the ability to work with a board and the academic community to recognize and adapt to change.

Answers to questions like the following, adapted from my book, Leading Change: How Boards and Presidents Lead Exceptional Institutions (AGB Press, 2011), will provide a more complete view of the president’s potential to bring about meaningful change:

  • Does the president understand relevant theories of change and how they apply in an academic setting?
  • How adept is the president at engaging the board in upstream discussions of the need for change and the strategies to achieve it?
  • Does the leader actively engage the appropriate people throughout the institution, and the larger community of stakeholders if appropriate, in the change process?
  • Does the leader display the talent to create or recognize good ideas that will actually work and discard unproductive, stale, or misplaced strategies?
  • Does the president exhibit the ability to change leadership styles and strategic objectives in light of new challenges, perceptions, opportunities, and the realization that an initial strategy, or its successors, aren’t working?
  • How has the executive’s capacity to spring back from criticism, failure of a particular tactic or strategy, or the emergence of yet another obstacle been demonstrated?
  • Has the president shown readiness to select, promote, and sustain competent team members while saying goodbye to those unwilling or unable to play a lead role on the change squad?

Choices Following the Presidential Assessment

The hypothetical case study that I’ve described depicts a talented, energetic president, but one who is not facing up to the serious competitive challenges confronting the institution—much less showing a willingness to adopt new strategies to surmount them.

The board has three options. It could thank the president for his services and search for a new leader. This choice entails losing an able president who admittedly is “incomplete,” while accepting the risks of a new hire with faults of his or her own.

As a second option, the board could go along with the president’s assessment that current strategies are adequate for the future, even though it doubts that to be the best course of action. As the chair of an institution from which this case partially derives said, “He is probably the best president we can get.” This defeatist option merely postpones the day of reckoning when the institution will be in worse shape and the remedies harder to achieve.

The third and preferred option would be to use the 360-process as a springboard to challenge the president to accept the new competitive realities and change his style to lead the institution in meeting them. In that instance, the board should The trick for boards is to change the way that they usually evaluate their president so as to determine his or her potential for future leadership. commit to supporting the president as he makes the personal adjustments, including hiring a confidential coach versed in the rigors of change in academe.

The board should also commit to support and participate in what Heifetz calls the “courageous conversations” that should precede major change. “In a period of sustained uncertainty, the most difficult topics must be discussed,” he noted in Harvard Business Review (July/August 2009). “Dissenters who can provide crucial insights need to be protected from the organizational pressure to remain silent. Executives need to listen to unfamiliar voices and set the tone for candor and risk taking.”

Finally, the president must be confident that the trustees “have his back”—that they will support him in the face of the inevitable pushback that change elicits.

Colleges and universities are confronting change at an accelerating pace, and institutional leaders must be able to manage and lead that change. Using the change-oriented evaluation approach that I’ve suggested vastly increases the odds that the board and president will be able to work in tandem to address the institution’s challenges.

Ohio University: Into the Future

While many institutions are still doing a more traditional 360-degree presidential evaluation, the board and president at Ohio University opted this fall to do an evaluation with a strong future orientation. President Roderick J. McDavis has been in office for seven years, and the institution is close to finishing a $450-million fundraising campaign that will provide support to the institution’s learning communities as well as deferred maintenance for its 43 residence halls, among other things.

As with other institutions, Ohio University finds itself operating in a dynamic, ever-changing environment. The board recognizes that its leadership, and that of the president and his team, must be adaptable, flexible, and ready to respond to those fastchanging circumstances.

I visited Ohio University’s campus in October for the second time, as I had conducted an earlier comprehensive review for the board and McDavis in 2008. During this visit, I met with a variety of constituents; those I could not meet with, I interviewed later on the telephone. My goal was to get an updated sense of the president’s strengths and weaknesses—his past performance—but, just as important, to get an idea of what the university community saw as the major challenges going forward. I asked them to consider: What does the past bode for the future? Are there issues the president should be more attentive to? Areas where the president could strengthen his performance or concentrate his effort to meet future challenges?

These forward-thinking questions—which some presidents I’ve worked with say have been embedded in their evaluations all along; they’re just more explicit now—offer a great benefit to the president and the institution. They create an opportunity for conversation and raise the question of what needs to change or be adjusted in the president’s leadership style to create the most successful presidency possible. “For universities and presidents, a future-centered comprehensive evaluation gives a sharp focus on pursuit of the vision,” said McDavis. “With the rapid pace of change in higher education, informing and guiding successful leadership for the university’s future must be at the heart of the performanceassessment process.”

Board Chair C. Robert Kidder is in his ninth year on the board, and his second term as chair. When he began his service, the board not only did not conduct periodic comprehensive reviews of the president, but also its practice of conducting annual reviews (the “backward-looking review,” as Kidder calls it) was informal, at best. That has all changed, and it now conducts a comprehensive review every three years. “The board wanted to respect shared governance,” Kidder said. “There was a desire to listen, in a more formal way, to many stakeholders.”

This is the board’s second time doing a comprehensive review, and the process has been both productive and illuminating. “This time, doing the comprehensive review, the strategy is clearer. We know the president better. We’ve articulated more clearly our fundraising goals and the path forward,” Kidder said. “We’ve articulated the kind of university Ohio University wants to be.”

Some Key Points about Presidential Assessments

  • The ultimate purpose of presidential reviews is to contribute to the development of leadership effectiveness, which in itself includes various dimensions and facets of a complex process.
  • The review process should encourage presidents to think deeply about their own satisfaction with the position, and what they have learned about the strengths and weaknesses they bring to their responsibilities.
  • Since leadership development is the primary goal of assessment, it is important for the board to draw out the strengths and best possibilities of the president in achieving both short- and long-term goals.
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