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President's Perspective: Turning Heads
President's Perspective: Turning Heads

Leadership transitions and advancement

By John Lippincott

In many parts of the world, the tenure of school, college, and university leaders—heads, presidents, rectors, vice chancellors—is growing increasingly short. Therefore, most advancement officers will experience change in the leadership of their institutions at some point during their careers.

Turnover at the top carries with it particular challenges and responsibilities for the professionals in charge of institutional fundraising, alumni relations, communications, and marketing. After all, the success of our work depends on relationships of trust between key external constituencies and the institutional leadership-relationships we have helped forge and strengthen.

Even when leadership turnover at a school, college, or university is the result of careful succession planning, some important relationships will be disrupted or put on hold. When the turnover is controversial due to institutional rifts or individual impropriety, many relationships will be damaged, some severely. In extreme cases, the advancement team may find itself caught between competing agendas, divided loyalties, and warring factions.

So what's an advancement officer to do when faced with changes in leadership? We recently explored this question with the three CASE commissions—alumni relations, communications and marketing, and philanthropy—during a joint session. Among the many thoughtful observations and recommendations, three themes stood out.

Planning: The advancement office can and should play a leading role in planning a smooth leadership transition. When possible, this includes making the best use of the outgoing CEO's time following the announcement of his or her departure (ideally a period of six to 12 months). While this is certainly a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the departing CEO, the messaging should also emphasize confidence in the future of the institution and the incoming leader (or the search process).

The onboarding of the new CEO also requires serious thought and preparation (even more so at times of crisis or controversy). Advancement offices should prepare a briefing binder for the new head as well as a suggested schedule of visits with key constituencies during the first week, first six months, and first year on the job. Moreover, the advancement team should work closely with the incoming CEO to develop an approach to his or her official inauguration that reflects the values of the institution and the vision of the new leader.

Positioning: Leadership transitions are opportunities not to be wasted. The departure of one CEO and the arrival of another create high levels of interest among alumni, donors, community leaders, and media representatives. Therefore, the transition period can be used to reinforce the brand and positioning of the institution.

What better time to remind external constituencies of the characteristics that make the institution distinct and the contributions it has made to their lives? Even controversial transitions provide an opportunity to demonstrate core values, remind internal and external audiences of the institutional mission, and chart a path to a brighter future.

Priorities: Leadership transitions are also an important reminder of priorities. First and foremost, they remind us that the institution is more important than the individual. This point becomes particularly salient in situations where the transition is the result of, or has resulted in, internecine warfare. Advancement officers should remember in such circumstances that their loyalty is to the institution and should help key constituencies adopt that view as well.

Along similar lines, the new leader is more important than the old leader. For advancement professionals, this often means adapting to a new leadership style, adjusting to the personal strengths and weaknesses of the incoming CEO, and accommodating changes in roles and routines. Advancement officers who are unwilling or unable to support the new CEO may find it necessary to make updating their resumes the priority.

And how does a leadership transition affect the priorities for a fundraising campaign? Given that campaigns at U.S. universities have an average duration of about seven years (according to the most recent CASE campaign report), a change in CEOs during that period is likely. If the campaign is well under way and resulted from broad input and careful planning, then the new CEO would be well-advised to continue to pursue existing priorities. If the campaign has not yet been launched, then the incoming head deserves the opportunity to review the fundraising priorities as part of his or her overall strategic planning process for the institution.

Many aspects of a change in leadership at a school, college, or university fall outside the control of the advancement office. However, by focusing on those elements and relationships that they can influence and by heeding the sound advice offered by the CASE commissions, advancement officers can make a major contribution to a smooth leadership transition and the ongoing progress of their institutions.

About the Author John Lippincott John Lippincott

John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.




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