Whether it’s the end of a successful Presidency or a board’s decision to seek new leadership, Presidential transition is never easy. It’s risky, time consuming and expensive and that’s before factoring in a level of cultural uncertainty as a new President takes the helm. And the experts are right – hiring, supporting and evaluating the President is the single most important role of a Board of Trustees. Get it right and the institution moves forward. Get it wrong and it can cause significant trouble and an uncertain future. Over my career, I’ve experienced transitions as a President who has transitioned in and out (twice), as a board member in both higher education and healthcare enterprises and as a member of search committees. I’ve seen very successful transitions and deeply troubling transitions.
Most transitions have the same key players: an outgoing President, a search committee, a search firm and potential candidates. All play an important role, but in my experience it’s easy during this process for an institution to lose momentum and focus. An outgoing President is beginning to focus on the next stage of his or her career and is busy putting finishing touches on ongoing projects. Candidates for the position are studying up, preparing to go through the process and the search firm is often working closely with the search committee to hopefully define the institution for candidates, find and vet the best candidates and guide the school through the process. The short-term economic incentive for the search firm is a successfully completed search. And the search committee, whose membership typically represent various campus constituencies are primarily interested in vetting candidates and candidly, some would say, protecting the interests of their constituency. This process can often take months and that doesn’t include the inevitable honeymoon after a new leader is in place. In my experience, I’ve seen this time period also become a time of institutional drift. If there’s a capable management team in place, daily operations continue to run well. If there’s a less than optimal team in place, a transition has the potential to throw the school off course and perhaps derail important ongoing efforts and projects.
I think boards should take two additional steps to help insure that institutional momentum and focus remain during a search. First, if the board does not have a key set of dashboard metrics and a list of top institutional projects that it reviews periodically, this is an ideal time to determine the metrics and create the list. If the board already has and uses such data, this is the ideal time to identify those key metrics that should be monitored more closely and reported to the board more often during the transition. While the search committee is vetting candidates, the board also should increase monitoring those critical metrics during the transition phase. I once witnessed a board working through a difficult transition that started in March, involved a search firm and a search committee. The outgoing President was a “hands off manager” and while the staff could see that the leading indicators of September’s class were trailing significantly, no one reported to the board that the school was facing a significant under enrollment in September. In fact, the incoming class was 20% smaller in September, posing significant financial challenges to the incoming President who was seated in November. What metrics should be monitored? One of my former classmates is a Captain with Delta Airlines. During lunch one day, I mentioned to him how confusing a large jets cockpit must be with all those gauges, dials and indicators. He replied “they all have a purpose, but for transitions in flight I really need to keep my eye on the five most critical”. That’s an appropriate metaphor for presidential transitions. Before a transition begins, I suggest the board receives reports on:
- Budgeted versus actual revenue, expenses and cash flows
- Enrollment inquiries and applications for the incoming class year-to-date compared to last year’s actual performance
- The current discount rate compared to the budgeted discount rate and last years actual
- The projected United States Department of Education Financial Viability Ratio
- The current and projected retention rates
While there are others depending on the size, scope and financial position of the institution, I would lean towards metrics that can move quickly and be more damaging to the school should they shift radically. An incoming President can at times have his agenda greatly modified by inheriting an issue that could have been prevented through transitional monitoring. My colleague, Dr. Michael Townsley, in his recent book, Financial Strategy for Higher Education: A Field Guide for Presidents, CFO’s and Boards of Trustees, summarizes it quite nicely by saying, “Dashboards are critical to managing strategy & operations. The purpose of the dashboard is to provide information to decision makers so that they can quickly identify problems that need to be addressed”. While many institutions don’t report data in “dashboard” format, board monitoring of key metrics is critical during transitions. A transition is an ideal time for a key metrics dashboard.
Second, while determining what metrics might be observed and reported a bit more often during a transition, there’s still a void. While those typical players in the process all have an important role, someone needs to act as the diplomat, working with the board and the outgoing and incoming Presidents to continue to keep the school focused and on track with individual metrics and projects. Someone independent whose only goal is temporary stability in reporting and who has the skills necessary to guide an incoming President. My colleague Dr. Ellen Hurwitz, in her blog post, Unnecessary Roughness: Presidential Transitions in Higher Education, suggests the use of a coach to support the board as well as the outgoing & incoming Presidents during changes in leadership. Ellen writes:
“Given the pace of the presidency, the challenges of effective trusteeship and the inevitable turnover in higher education leadership, it behooves an institution to invest in an independent transition or leadership coach who centers on the long term viability and success of the institution and advises the leadership accordingly. Sometimes trustees can play that role effectively especially when they have been Presidents themselves. Oftentimes, however, well-meaning trustees make matters worse, provoking premature transitions or fostering a lingering and counter-productive presidency.”
I endorse Ellen’s suggestion and also offer that a coach with experience in the “hot seat” is the ideal candidate to work with the board and the outgoing and incoming Presidents to coordinate identifying key metrics, reporting them to the board, ensuring consistency and stability of key projects during the transition. A coach, armed with the key metrics and list of significant projects can work confidentially with the board and the outgoing and incoming Presidents to ensure consistency in the transition and when a new President is seated, can help the newly placed President “get” the culture, gain role clarity, build important relationships and navigate the early parts of the transition. Needless to say, there’s also tad of “ego negotiation” in leadership transitions and an independent coach can help in these delicate aspects of transition. A transition coach can also help establish appropriate transition boundaries and help all parties respect the boundaries. Effective dates for key transition markers should be established and those boundaries should be respected and enforced by all involved. Change is to be expected after new leadership is appointed, especially in this era of disruptive innovation, economic uncertainty and difficult demographics. A new President needs to gain a respect for the past and the role played by a predecessor and an outgoing President needs to respect that change will, and most likely should, happen.
Many years ago, I chaired a hospital board during a particularly difficult CEO transition. At a colleague’s suggestion, we used a retired healthcare CEO in this independent coaching capacity. He acted as a friend, coach and mentor to all of us involved in the search. He reported to the board weekly on major indicators and projects, he guided both the incoming and outgoing CEO’s and was close counsel to me as board Chairman. He guided the incoming CEO (who had come from another region of the country) on the nuances of the local market and the backgrounds and personalities of the board and management team. Many years later (10 to be exact) I’m pleased to report it was a successful transition with a CEO who is still in place with a thriving hospital in a challenging healthcare marketplace.
The cost of executive derailment is high and even with the perfect candidate, there’s no guarantee of success. Transitions are expensive, but a failure in transition is more costly. Planning for stepped up monitoring of metrics and projects helps the board in its governance role during this critical time and the wise use of an experienced transition coach through the process certainly improves the odds.