Dealing With a Leadership Change

It happens to every college or university at some time: the president announces that he or she is leaving. While there are a myriad reasons a president leaves, the fact remains that the institution immediately finds itself dealing with a transition period that many find daunting.

College Planning & Management questions Thomas Gilmore, vice president of CFAR (Center for Applied Research, Inc.) in Philadelphia, about presidential transitions. CFAR is a management consulting firm that specializes in leadership strategy and organizational development and has done a lot of work with four-year, research-intensive universities. Additionally, Gilmore is an adjunct professor at Wharton in Philadelphia, so he has a clear understanding of higher education's unique culture.

CP&M: What trends do you see in presidents leaving their posts?

Gilmore: There is a trend of the job being so huge and complicated that you aren't getting the long tenures of the Father Hesburghs, who served Notre Dame for 35 years. Public university presidents are serving, on average, five years, and their private counterparts serve about seven years.

What's troubling are situations where you're getting rapid turnovers. Richard H. Hersh left Trinity College after a year and a half. David Auston resigned from Case Western Reserve, resulting in James Wagner stepping into an interim role for a year, before Edward Hundert was named. Brown experienced a disruptive turnover when Gordon Gee left after two years. Colleges and universities are complicated institutions, and it's extraordinarily disruptive to have such a short cycle, which really places a premium on the quality of the search process to find the new leader and diligently test the chemistry of the fit.

CP&M: What disadvantages occur when a president steps down?

Gilmore: The disadvantages are mostly in inflicted on institutions that have a talented leader who has gotten some things going and then is attracted out to another institution too early. That leaves not only disappointment and aban-donment issues, it also creates more cynicism: "Can we really sustain the kinds of changes this institution wants to make?"

But if there has been a mistake in that the institution has hired someone who just doesn't work out, the board needs to step up quickly to realize the mistake and make a change, even though it's costly, because staying with the wrong leader for three or four years can be enormously debilitating.

CP&M: Are there enough candidates nationally to fill universities' needs for presidents?

Gilmore: I think many people would say no, but there are also real issues about whether something resembling formal corporate strategies for developing the leadership bench would work in academic cultures. What we believe is that a president should be developing a network of faculty leaders and setting a model of relating to key talented people in the administrative infrastructure so that there are more people who have a rich experience in driving a complicated initiative in some part of the institution.

CP&M: Are universities working hard enough to train the younger generation to take the helm?

Gilmore: We do sense a building interest in more formal leadership development programs for deans, academic leaders and even presidents. This will help, but all the literature says that the most potent modes of development are experiences in one's work that exposes one to the challenges of working with others on high-stakes issues.

I recently attended a session in Tampa with more than 100 associate deans for faculty affairs in medical schools. Almost none of them aspired to this position or felt trained for it. When they reflected back, it was stepping up to a substantive committee assignment, such as curriculum reform or technology transfer, where they really enjoyed seeing a broader set of issues for the institution and came to the notice of others as thoughtful, respected colleagues. This is followed by more opportunities and, finally, a formal role in the administration. I think that will continue to be true for the pool of people who become presidents.

CP&M: What should a search process look like?

Gilmore: A really good search process is fundamentally a learning process, not an event. It begins with a rapid form of strategic thinking: What are the future challenges, and how do they inform who we are looking for? This is a plus because it gives a transitional period in which all the different communities of interest can ask: "Where are we? From where have we come? Where are we going? What's important to us? How is the outside world changing? How are students changing? How are students' expectations changing? How are the expectations of leadership shifting?" If those inquiries can be thoughtfully translated into "This is who we need to be in the future," it's really a terrific starting point.

When the new person is selected, campus leadership has, in a sense, made a bet that this is the skill set, values and temperament that is going to lead the institution in the next five to seven years. A lot of that is out of their awareness. There's just a hunch through the interview process that needs to be checked via careful reference interviews to determine, "Are these the traits that we want to deepen in our culture, and does this person have the right capabilities?"

CP&M: How should a new president set priorities?

Gilmore: In the early transition, the leader has to both join with strengths and begin to selectively innovate. By building on initiatives of predecessors, a leader shows respect for the institution's history. By carefully innovating, a leader demonstrates the courage to lead and change something that the institution takes for granted. This prevents him or her from being stereotyped as ignorant and contemptuous of the institution's history, or completely captured by the institution's history and too timid in taking on some of the really important challenges.

There's an important maxim of under-promise and over-deliver. Early on, it is so easy for a new leader to be seduced by everybody coming to him or her excitedly with their passions and what they think is needed. It's extraordinarily tempting to say, "Yes, go forward with that." The leader needs restraint, particularly in that early period, to focus on a few high-stakes actions that communicate "This is where I'm taking us." The more the leader can get aboard and deeply know the critical networks, bring in a few critical allies made up of both old-timers and fresh faces, and build his credibility with early actions, the more he or she can be effective at guiding the institution.

Finally, colleges and universities are filled with talented people who love their work, yet often are too loosely linked together. Part of the leader's role is to find, join, link and amplify these pockets of innovation and passion such that they become more potent in the wider community.