What Do You Really Need in Your Next President?
A presidential transition can be a time of great excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, or all of the above. For the committee charged with finding a new...
A presidential transition can be a time of great excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, or all of the above. For the committee charged with finding a new leader, the tendency is to jump right in and get moving on this vitally important hire. But even when it seems crystal clear what is needed from a new leader, the smartest thing the committee can do is to take a step back before forging ahead.
Taking the time to define what your institution needs in its next president — especially during a period of tumult or after the departure of a long-serving CEO — sets the stage for a successful search.
Keep in mind: Not everyone with leadership potential wants to be a college president. It’s a thankless, grueling, 24/7 job in our post-Covid era. Showing that your campus has done its homework before recruitment will go a long way toward enticing exceptional candidates to consider such a monumental role.
As a search consultant, I recently supported two institutions that took very different tacks in their presidential searches:
- On the first campus, the trustees felt confident from the start that they knew what was needed in a new leader. Representing the majority voice on the search committee, the board’s views dominated meetings. As we got deeper into the search process, however, the committee members began to have second thoughts. They realized that the most pressing issues facing the institution called for a different profile of candidate than they had originally imagined. It took additional time to shift gears and refocus the search on candidates aligned with this new profile.
- The other institution took a more measured approach from the start. Before opening the search, the committee conducted an organizational-needs assessment and defined the type of leader to meet those needs. Once under way, the search used those written guidelines to frame the process.
Both campuses hired outstanding new presidents. But the first process took a toll on the search committee (and, dare I say, on the consultants) while the second moved forward with clear understanding and direction at each stage.
In too many leadership searches, the planning phase is cut short — which can be a missed opportunity and a time-consuming mistake. Articulating and prioritizing your needs up front will, ultimately, result in a stronger set of candidates who are best suited to meet the unique and up-to-date needs of your institution.
Here, then, are some pre-recruitment steps to consider if you are a trustee or search-committee member:
Step 1: Conduct a thorough organizational assessment. Your board should conduct this review, with an eye toward defining what the institution needs now and in the years ahead. It should include an honest look at how you stack up against your competition, your financial performance and outlook (including the strength of your fund raising), your progress toward stated strategic priorities (if you have them), and your organizational culture and morale. The results will inform your institution’s requirements for its next president and serve as important background information for candidates.Done well, this assessment can also serve as a roadmap for the newly appointed leader. Too many presidential tenures are derailed because the leaders are not set up for success from the start — there is a lack of thoughtful transition planning, onboarding, and support for the newcomer. While search or leadership consultants don’t have to be involved at this assessment stage, we can help you think through the process and ask the right questions.
Some institutions — roughly a quarter — do succession planning, a process that often includes organizational assessment. A succession plan outlines future leadership requirements and sometimes identifies potential candidates. Consider a presidential search as an opportunity to create or update your institution’s succession plan. It could even lead to the selection of a strong internal candidate who has been groomed for the role.
Step 2: Go on a listening tour. After the board has done its work, it is time to invite your faculty and staff members, students, alumni, donors and other constituents to share their views. Your search consultant can help you map out this tour and organize small-group meetings, open forums, and/or one-on-one sessions. You could also use a community survey to solicit broad feedback.
Ask people what they see as the most exciting opportunities and the most concerning challenges facing the institution as well as the experiences and skills they believe the next president must have.
Step 3: Take what you hear to heart. You may or may not believe — or even like — what you learn from these meetings. Regardless, stay open minded. This is the mix of people that your new president will be leading, and it is important to understand what they want in their next campus leader.
If there’s a lack of alignment between what the board and the campus desire, now is the time to understand and deal with those differences, to rethink and refine expectations and build consensus.
The trustees on one presidential-search committee I worked with were convinced that a corporate leader would be ideal to resolve the university’s most pressing concerns, many of which related to rising tuition and the shifting business model of higher education. Well into the process, they realized that other issues and dynamics had to take priority — for example, community building and concerns about campus culture, student experience and DEI — and an experienced academic leader was needed. The board didn’t let go of its desire to hire a business-savvy leader but concluded that now was not the right time to bring in a “nontraditional” candidate.
Step 4: Put a leadership profile in writing. This document serves multiple purposes. First, it requires you to put into words the agenda for your next president. The exercise alone can help define the new leader’s strategic priorities if they were unclear beforehand. Second, the document requires the committee and the board to wrestle with how to share institutional challenges with the public.
Speaking from experience, developing the leadership profile for a presidential search can be a daunting and time-consuming task — but well worth the effort. One committee I worked with was reluctant to share publicly the university’s financial circumstances. The institution had been in a deficit-spending position and reversing that trend was a top priority. In the end the committee and the board made the difficult decision to be open and honest about the problem. They needed a president with the skills and the willingness to take it on. One candidate in particular noted that “it was refreshing to see such openness.”
The lesson: It’s OK to scare off a few candidates who are not prepared to tackle your institution’s challenges. The right president for you will be willing to do the work. Some may come fully equipped to act, and others may need more support.
Step 5: Prioritize. No candidate has it all and no candidate is absolutely perfect for your institution. But understanding campus needs — and being willing to prioritize them — will help you make the best choice among imperfect but highly qualified leaders.
I worked with an institution that ended up with four remarkable presidential finalists. Much to the board’s pleasure, it could have hired any one of them. The search chair shared with me that the ultimate decision came down to a simple question: Who will be the strongest change agent? That candidate got the job. Because this board knew what it wanted, listened to people on the campus (who were also ready for change) and prioritized its needs, trustees came to a unanimous conclusion and hired the president that they and the search-committee members were most excited about.
A key priority for many colleges is diversity. Now is the time — before the search begins — to evaluate whether or not your institution will prioritize hiring a woman, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, or other diverse leader. Much more than a yes/no consensus, this question requires an institutional analysis. Will the campus truly welcome someone other than the traditional white, male president? Will such a hire have the support of students, faculty members, administrators, and trustees? Is the college ready for someone who has a unique background and CV, who will talk and think differently from their predecessors, and who will challenge institutional norms and push for change?
So many colleges and universities crave diversity in their next president, and yet their institutional culture remains change-averse and beholden to tradition. Look carefully at what a diverse leader would mean for the future of your institution and how it operates. Be ready to explain to diverse candidates how your institution is positioned for change and how you will support them should they be hired.
“The change in leadership provides an opportunity to pause and consider where the college is today and what it most needs in its next leader,” said Donald Gould, chair of the board at Pitzer College, who oversaw the recent search that hired Strom C. Thacker as its new president. Giving all constituencies a voice in that process, he said, “leads to greater acceptance and support of the candidate who is ultimately selected.”
A presidential search is an opportunity for people across the institution to envision what is possible under new leadership. It is important to take a step back — assessing needs, gaining consensus, and crafting a comprehensive description of the role — before charging ahead to find the right person to lead your institution’s future.
This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to republish has been granted.