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Closing Remarks: The End of the Beginning

Recognizing successful presidential transitions

By James Martin , James E. Samels




Presidential transitions are messy, challenging, and inevitable. Each provokes thousands of questions and issues that institution leaders must address over long periods of time—from the earliest confidential discussions between an exiting president and board chair to the moment years later when a new president is fully established in campus life and culture.

Clearly, transitions involve much more than just issuing a press release about the new campus CEO, showing him or her around campus, and making introductions to alumni leaders, donors, and key members of the media. Typically, transitions are long-lived and multifaceted harbingers of a campus CEO's overall tenure and even institutional maturity and health—all of which magnify the importance of identifying when a transition is ending and a new president is getting settled.

A president has fully arrived when he or she supplants the predecessor in the collective consciousness of the institution. Just when that occurs and with what degree of success are more difficult to discern. Several indicators mark the final shift from "president in transition" to "president as established leader."

A new leadership team is in place. Each new campus CEO needs to develop a core group of trusted advisers and cabinet members whose commitment and loyalty arise from merit and selection. This does not mean, however, that new leaders should risk disrupting campus operations by removing all senior officers from the previous administration. Instead, a president who pursues dual team-building strategies—appointing new team members from inside the institution while recruiting new talent from outside—signals that he or she has moved beyond the "getting acquainted" phase of transition.

The board no longer will follow the new president over a cliff. Board members typically give a new leader a wide berth for the first several months but gradually engage in more rigorous scrutiny as time passes. This does not necessarily represent a challenge to his or her authority. Instead it often signifies that the president has entered a new phase of leadership and is better equipped to handle the frank, sometimes tough, discussions with board members that are the norm in most institutions.

Faculty members tell the new leader what they really think. When both senior and junior faculty members are more willing to be open and candid in their communications, presidents will know their transition has been successful. From broad issues concerning academic freedom to focused questions about assessment, presidents must be prepared to listen to what faculty members think—and to do so frequently.

The institution has completed the first cycle of the next strategic plan. This benchmark usually occurs well after the traditional first hundred days of a new presidency. In fact, given the typical life cycle of strategic planning, it might not occur until one to three years after a new CEO's inauguration. Few other exercises acquaint a new leader with an institution as thoroughly. Nothing reveals an institution better than an in-depth self-assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

The new president knows the institution's real stories, including where the bodies are buried. Presidents need to know the unadulterated stories of their institutions—flaws as well as strengths. Further, they need to understand the campus's turf battles, power struggles, high-profile personality conflicts, and political hot buttons. A transition is successful when a president begins to make progress in these areas, including two of the thorniest political issues on a campus—education policies and financial planning.

The president earns media exposure. When a new president attracts media attention, the institution also receives welcome publicity, and the campus community often is enriched by the positive exposure. (Press coverage can cut the other way, however; missteps and misstatements make good copy.) As a new CEO's first year ticks by and the requisite "listening tours" wind down, journalists are less apt to withhold tough questions. In such an environment, CEOs who earn positive media exposure not for being new but for their leadership have entered a new phase of their presidencies. Few media outlets will waste ink or time on a chief executive who has not established a leadership imprint.

The institution has eliminated structural budget deficits. Presidents who turn a surplus (or balance a budget, at the very least) signal their commitment to ensuring high-quality programs and faculty and demonstrate to trustees their keen appreciation of the bottom line. The inability to establish or preserve the financial security of an institution, including its precious endowment funds (when applicable), can be a sure sign of a different kind of transition: one to a new job elsewhere.

The president strengthens or develops capacity for institutional advancement, especially fund raising. Alumni and other donors are more likely to open their wallets for a campus CEO who celebrates an institution's legacy and ensures its future excellence so it continues to be a desirable option for their children and grandchildren and other prospective students. New leaders who earn such loyalty can wield substantially increased power in off-campus and corporate settings.

The president leads the financing, design, and construction of a new building. Whether the result of an aggressive capital campaign or simply the product of a campus planning process, a president's first building serves as a highly visible mark of transition success. Buildings are immediately accepted as a currency of leadership in both the campus and external communities.

The president leads an effort to launch a complete degree program. This long-standing benchmark often is measured these days by a president's ability to mount a complete degree or certificate program online. New presidents often find that the relationship between information technology and academics is framed by either/or options, leading to the erroneous claim that traditional liberal arts and sciences will suffer if information technologies expand into teaching and learning. Presidents who are able to marry these now competing—but ultimately complementary—areas of campus influence through low-cost collaboration will draw support from diverse corners of campus, from the board's budget committee to the faculty senate.

Back to the future?

The end of each presidential transition begins a new phase of "president in place" that eventually ends with a transition to a new presidency. It's a fact of academic life: Campus leadership, even when stable for long periods of time, is transitory—the end of one tenure is the beginning of the next. Wise senior administrative and faculty leaders recognize this inevitability and so preserve timelines, document useful procedures, and note lessons learned from their most recent transition for reference as they design the next one.

The central theme of such a record is to strategically manage—not just mark—transitions. When leaders do so, transitions present opportunities to shape an institution's future as it reaches the end of the beginning.

About the Authors James Martin
James E. Samels

James E. Samels is president and CEO of the Education Alliance.

 

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