Needed: A New Style of Leader for the New Era

By J. Terrence Franke    //    Volume 22,  Number 2   //    March/April 2014

The pace of change in higher education is accelerating rapidly, and new “nontraditional” challenges—those that previous higher education leaders have not had to face—are surfacing every day. Presidents must grapple with increasingly complex demands and wear more hats than ever before. The rate of turnover in leadership is growing, and the risk of failed leadership is high. It has all led to heightened pressure on boards and institutional leaders. The next president your board selects, and the selection and transition processes it follows, may be the deciding factor in whether or not your institution thrives, struggles, or fails. The key to success is being proactive, not reactive, when it comes to leadership planning and transition.

The headline of a recent article in Forbes raised the question: “The Toughest Leadership Job of All (It’s Not What You Think.)” The answer from author Rob Asghar was that the toughest and most underappreciated leadership job was not that of a corporate CEO, but rather that of a university president. I agree and also submit that the process of finding the right leader for a college or university is an equally tough job. Having served at Lawrence University for more than 15 years as a trustee under three presidents and as a board chair under two, and having just helped lead the search for a new president, I have gained new perspectives about leadership, change, and transition.

At Lawrence, a number of factors led us to seek a new style of leadership and to pursue some nontraditional approaches to the search and transition. The result was the selection of a new president from the next generation of leaders. And while every college or university has its own set of challenges, which are likely to vary among different types of institutions—public, private, religious, for-profit, online, and so on—some of the lessons we learned may be pertinent to a range of other boards.

A New Mindset for Search and Transition

Most board chairs have the experience of selecting a new president only once, as I hope the case will be for me. Also, most of us who are chairs have limited or no experience in leadership transition and are probably quite anxious about it when called upon to oversee it. We realize that we can’t do this alone and, on top of everything else, we want to do everything “right” for our institution.

At the same time, we are all fairly familiar with the traditional process to follow in a leadership change: designate the search committee chair, select the search committee, hire a search firm, gather input from campus constituencies, develop a presidential profile, advertise the position, attract a candidate pool, eventually select and hire a new leader, and start the transition. That all made sense to us at Lawrence and is what we initially thought we needed to do.

We were very fortunate to have had 17 months advance notice of our most recent president’s retirement plans after nine very successful years as president—many institutions are lucky to have a year’s advance notice. We felt we were early in our public announcement and thus would have a large pool of qualified candidates. We hired a leading, nationally recognized consulting firm to conduct the search. We had a good partnership with that firm, a great chair of the search committee, and a very committed committee.

But several months into the process, we realized with some surprise that the required traditional steps that we were pursuing were probably not sufficient to achieve our goal of hiring a transformative leader. We were missing vital outside perspectives. It was clear that we needed to be more proactive and think more holistically about the process, the candidates, and the transition.

What could we do beyond the traditional steps in search and transition to ensure a successful outcome? We asked ourselves, “How do we leverage other boards’ experiences, and how do we get a good handle on what other college presidents feel they are facing today?” The presidential profile that we developed—based on initial advice from many at our institution that a Ph.D. and experience in the liberal arts were crucial—at first seemed adequate. But we then began to wonder: Had we really captured the daily realities of leading a liberal-arts college in the new era? Had we adequately differentiated Lawrence’s leadership needs from those of other institutions?

We came to the conclusion that more research was necessary to prepare us to find the best candidates and president. Trusteeship magazine articles on leadership, search, and transitions were a good resource. We also asked friends and acquaintances who were board chairs, search committee chairs, and board members about their experiences with search and transitions. They represented a range of institutions and included Bowdoin College, Columbia College, Coe College, Concordia College, De Pauw University, Doane College, Northwestern University, Wabash College, and Yale University.

Many of our contacts at those institutions were in the midst of presidential searches or had recently completed them. They provided advice and suggestions about what worked well and what they would have done differently. They described the search process as extremely competitive, as a large number of other institutions are simultaneously searching for new leaders. They cautioned that the candidate pool might not be as deep as one would hope. They also stressed the importance of a well-planned transition from one leader to the next and the role of the board chair as a partner of the new president. Another key to success, they advised, was a high level of communication between the board and the new president.

I also connected with Richard Chait, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an expert on governance, who likened presidential search to finding a marriage partner: In the end, would we have the best partner for Lawrence? In addition to evaluating each candidate, an important role of the search committee was to sell Lawrence, he stressed. He mentioned that astute candidates would also be looking to the board as a strategic partner and would want to know its caliber—so the board should represent Lawrence well. And, finally, he reinforced the importance of diversity in the candidate pool throughout the entire search process.

The Case for a New Mindset

Almost every day a story appears in the news media questioning the value and cost of a college education—just one of the long list of disruptive challenges that leaders in higher education now face. In fact, Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at Harvard University, founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and author of several important books on change and innovation, has predicted that the bottom 25 percent of colleges and universities will disappear in the next 10 to 15 years. To cite just some of the challenges confronting boards and presidents:

  • MOOCs and online learning, and related “flipping” and “unbundling”;
  • Stress on revenue from flat or declining net tuition revenue, as well as flat or declining income from philanthropy;
  • Increases in expenses outpacing revenue growth;
  • Moody’s downgrades of college and university bond ratings (A number of institutions were downgraded in 2013, which may increase borrowing costs and limit access to capital markets.);
  • A shrinking applicant pool and declining enrollment (One-quarter of private colleges experienced a drop of 10 percent or more in freshman enrollment between 2010 and 2012.); and
  • Increased scrutiny of presidential compensation.

Is it any wonder that a growing number of boards are rethinking the skills that are required for future leaders?

Input from Presidents

While we learned a lot from such discussions, we still felt a need for more information. Thus, we conducted 10 interviews with the presidents of peer liberal-arts institutions in the summer of 2012. Three key questions were on the top of my mind:

  • What are the key challenges that sitting presidents face?
  • What were their transition experiences as new leaders in their institutions?
  • What advice would they have for us regarding leadership skills and experiences?

Every president we contacted immediately agreed to an interview, and it appeared that the three issues on our interview agenda were very relevant.

As we conducted the interviews, several key themes emerged. First, the challenges that the presidents mentioned were broader than we expected and similar to those also facing for-profit organizations, including fierce competition in several domains and severe economic stresses. As for the challenges to the core academic “product” of educating students, the top four that the presidents cited were:

  • Maintaining and increasing the quality of the educational product;
  • Managing the cost and price of the product;
  • Marketing the product and differentiating it in a crowded marketplace; and
  • Delivering the product.

Second, every president with whom we spoke agreed that change is needed and inevitable—and that the traditional model for liberal-arts institutions will not work in the future. They also said that presidents need a tremendous amount of courage to lead such change, as the academic community may not broadly embrace it, making it extremely difficult at some institutions. Adding more pressure, they said that change needs to be accomplished in a relatively short period of time and that presidents need to demonstrate more creative thinking than ever before.

Third, the presidents had wide-ranging backgrounds—much more diverse than I had expected. Four had career experiences outside academe, and some had a J.D., M.D., or M.B.A instead of a Ph.D. Because 40 percent seemed relatively high, we conducted additional research to see if it was an anomaly. We reviewed the backgrounds of the presidents of the “Top 50 National Liberal Arts Colleges” from the 2012 U.S. News & World Report list. The results were that close to 20 percent of this larger pool had nontraditional backgrounds—less than my interview pool, but still significant. We also found that virtually every president in the “Top 50” group had assumed his or her position in 2000 or later and had been in office on average about six years.

We quickly realized the need to share these findings—which I developed into a paper, “Key Findings on Search, Leadership and Transition”—with everyone involved in the search. For the search committee, we started each of our two key candidate-review meetings for narrowing down the pool with a summary of what we had learned from the interviews as well as from the other research. We also shared the document and observations with the entire board to help broaden their awareness about the transition coming our way and what they might expect from a new leader. The main takeaways for us were: 1) openness to diversity was critical, 2) change, in many forms, was coming, and 3) it was essential for us to be prepared for this change by selecting the right leader for our institution.

A Message to Board Chairs

Besides finding the right candidate, successfully managing the transition process is also crucial. What can board chairs in particular do across the campus and throughout the alumni community to ensure success? These observations may be helpful:

1. Think holistically and view the transition not as a transaction, but rather as a part of a multiyear strategic plan. Keeping institutional focus throughout the transition is vital, as once it is lost, the effect can last for years. And don’t forget that how you manage the process really counts.

2. Seek out and learn from others about the search process, leadership challenges, and transition planning—and do so as soon as you get wind of a transition or a need for some form of leadership change. Use this information to develop the best institution-specific approach for your search and transition.

3. Openness to diversity is vital throughout the entire search and transition process—not only diversity in connection with race, religion, sexual orientation, or other traits commonly associated with the word “diversity” but also in the sense of ideas, perspectives, and experiences.

4. Prepare the search committee, the board, and faculty leaders about what to anticipate throughout the transition. In particular, recognize that the new president will not have all the answers and that mistakes and missteps will no doubt occur as he or she seeks to understand your culture. Expect, and accept, some bumps along the road.

5. During the leadership transition, understand that the role of the chair becomes more central and can easily become a full-time job. You must maintain your relationship with the current president, work closely with the search committee and its chair, evaluate and eventually attract your candidate pool, and negotiate with finalist candidates. In addition to doing all this, you must also perform the regular roles and responsibilities of the chair. You are the glue that holds everything together. This is the moment when the concept of the board chair as “servant leader” becomes a reality.

6. Be aware that the transition begins well before the day that the new president is hired—typically a number of months before he or she assumes the role. Be sure to establish a transition committee, with broad representation of the campus community and alumni, perhaps at the same time that you establish your search committee. And don’t forget to determine what educational or developmental needs the new president may need, including those dealing with president-board relations. A personal coach for the new president, if not already in place, may be appropriate.

7. Make sure to plan multiple celebrations for the departing president as well as the new president.

8. Partner with the new leader from the date that he or she accepts your job offer. You will play a key role in the success of the transition to new leadership. Astute candidates will view you as a key resource and ally. They will turn to you for advice and counsel that no one else within the institution can provide, especially when it comes to understanding the culture and helping to prioritize among a long list of immediate and long-term challenges.

Key Attributes of the Next Generation of Presidents

As a tough job keeps getting tougher, institutions will need to be more open to candidates from diverse backgrounds beyond academe. The new generation of leaders will bring skills and experiences that increasingly overlap with knowledge-based organizations. Experience in academe, an understanding of shared governance, and knowledge of pedagogy are still required in most cases, but are no longer sufficient. In the past, the traditional leader was an academic with some management experiences. Increasingly, the most effective leaders will be skilled managers who also happen to be in academe.

Based on our experience and research, we can recommend that you may want to consider the following attributes as key to successful leadership for your next president:

  • Courage. The new president should be self-confident but not arrogant. He or she should be capable of moving forward in a challenging era—even when unable to please everybody, especially in a shared-governance environment.
  • A wide array of management skills. The president should have strong management and operational skills, as well as leadership experience in knowledge-based organizations.
  • Strong communications skills. The president should be an engaging personality, able to speak effectively with a wide range of constituencies both on and off the campus. He or she should seek out others and welcome their opinion.
  • The ability to inspire others. The president should encourage and enable change through people rather than directing that change. He or she should inspire others by articulating a vision for the future and be driven by doing the right thing for the right reasons.
  • Entrepreneurial aptitudes. The president should be at ease with the changing 21st-century higher education environment and be willing to take risks and try new approaches and ideas.
  • Financial acumen. The president should understand complex financial models and be capable of prioritizing among a myriad of needs for investment in an environment where, for many institutions, the “numbers” don’t easily work.
  • An eye for marketing. The president should be able to differentiate his or her institution and articulate the value of an investment in higher education.
  • High-minded values. The president should be open, transparent, and accessible and have no hidden agendas. He or she should be self-reflective, and put the institution first—above himself or herself.
  • Fundraising abilities. The president should be able to build rapport quickly with alumni and donors. He or she should be comfortable asking for significant financial support and generating substantial gift income.
  • Experience in successfully managing change. The president should be a pragmatic problem-solver and be able to understand and articulate a “business case” for change. Ideally, his or her personal history will also include successes as well as failures in leading change.

So who, in the end, did Lawrence select as its president? Interestingly, each candidate in our finalist pool had a non-traditional background and experience. That outcome was not intentional; rather, it reflected our goal to determine the best candidates to lead our university at this time. The finalists brought needed experience and skills that were beyond the traditional presidential career path.

We ultimately hired the executive vice president of Princeton University, who was part of a triumvirate—president, provost, and executive vice president—that managed the university. Before Princeton, he had been a senior administrator at Columbia University, but earlier in his career, he had served in two economic-development departments of the New York City government and had held positions in investment banking and consulting. His educational background was also nontraditional: He had an undergraduate degree from Vassar College and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. After seeing him serve eight months in his new role, I believe that we did find the best partner for Lawrence. In a reflection of his open and transparent leadership style, he has already successfully pulled together all campus constituencies to agree unanimously on several important changes at the university that I thought would take several years to make.

For other boards in the process of hiring a new president, my final advice is this: Selecting the next president may be the most important decision you make when it comes to the future success of your institution. Leadership change and transition are in your future, and failure is not an option. Intentional and proactive leadership by the board and its chair, along with nontraditional thinking, are key to increasing your chances for success.

The First Questions Boards Should Ask Regarding a Presidential Departure

Boards are often stunned by the news of a presidential departure. Caught unprepared, they may be unsure about the necessary first steps and the path forward. Because institutions may be vulnerable to uncertainty and demoralization at these moments—and boards may risk outright missteps—these failures of board leadership can be costly.

Boards that have anticipated the various possibilities and worked out at least general and provisional answers to some preliminary questions will be far more likely to know what they need to do and cope effectively.

First, well before they address how to conduct the search, they may ask these questions about the immediate challenges and first steps:

  • What guidance is available to us?
  • Does the situation on campus need stabilizing? If so, what are its causes, and what steps will improve things?
  • Why do we find ourselves in this situation?
  • What are our basic responsibilities going forward—our authority, powers, and obligations?
  • Do we want to have a search, or should we at least look first at whether there is an outstanding internal candidate ready to assume the presidency?
  • Do we move directly into a search for a permanent successor, or do circumstances require a period of interim leadership?
  • What and how should we communicate now with the community and public?

Next, if the search and appointment process hasn’t been planned, it will need to be debated and designed using these guiding questions:

  • Who takes what role? With what guidance and support?
  • How do we communicate with the campus and with the community?
  • Will we assess the institution’s needs, challenges, and opportunities before we begin the search?
  • How will our search committee be constituted, and who will lead it?
  • Where will we find good search consultants, and how do we select among them?
  • How long should a search take?
  • Where will the resources come from?
  • How many candidates do we want the search committee to recommend to the board? Will we want them ranked or unranked?
  • What kind of contract terms should we be prepared to offer?
  • How can we ensure that the community unites around the selected individual?

Excerpted from A Complete Guide to Presidential Search for Universities and Colleges by Joseph S. Johnston Jr. and James P. Ferrare (AGB Press, 2013).