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Succession planning and the executive search: A 'both-and' proposition

Many people see the two as being in opposition, but higher ed leaders say they must go hand-in-hand

Institutions in Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, and Mississippi have all garnered attention recently for having new leaders appointed by boards or governors without going through the full search process. And while this process has been met with some controversy, experts in higher education say there is a place for proper succession planning in the industry; leadership decisions can be intentional and not entirely decided by an outside firm.

“I don’t see it as a binary solution,” said University of Pittsburgh vice chancellor for human resources Cheryl Johnson Sunday during a panel at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. “It’s not only open search or succession planning; it’s really both-and.”

“Higher education is a people business,” Johnson said, pointing out that people have to be both groomed for leadership and proven qualified through the search process. And while the idea of planning for one’s successor seems to “fly in the face of shared governance and transparency,” according to Johnson, they actually go more hand-in-hand than people realize.

For one thing, as Georgia College President Steve M. Dorman has found, sometimes succession planning is actually preparing someone to lead at another institution, not the one at which he was trained. Georgia College is a top producer of talent who then go on to become interim leaders at other institutions, Dorman said.

“The nature of the presidency and the provostship and the deanship is the idea that these are five to six-year positions, and then they’re moving on,” he said, noting that “incumbent to what we know about what we do is the need for succession planning.”

“We will continue to see a lot of turnover because of the nature of the profession,” said Dorman.

Recognizing this, Dorman advises leaders to “think about what your bench strength is,” to use a sports analogy, and evaluate the pipeline of talent at the institution before there is a vacancy.

“Who will come along and fill the positions of need?” he asked. And, to take it a step farther, “How can you hire with advancement in mind,” anticipating that while someone is being hired for one job, she actually might be a good fit for another opening that is expected to come up down the line.

Stacking the bench

“We should be about creating pathways … for leadership,” even if those pathways lead away from the institution which made the initial investment.

One way to achieve this pipeline, said Dorman, is to encourage “faculty members and potentially promising leaders to take part in local, state-wide and national leadership programs.” Another is asking those whom you’d like to evaluate for future leadership positions to chair committees or lead projects that will enable top administrators to begin to evaluate and cultivate their skills as leaders on a micro level before moving on to something bigger.

It is this line of thinking that led current Wilberforce University President Herman Felton to found the Higher Education Leadership Foundation (HELF) in 2015.

“I think it fully necessary for leaders who aspire to lead to not necessarily think about the place, but to rather focus on obtaining the skills that are transferable anywhere. I think we have to be really understanding of the fact that opportunities to lead happen when you least expect them. It’s another reason why you have to be prepared to soak up, to learn, to practice the craft and the trade and to be ready, to be deployable,” Felton said via telephone.

“What we talk about at HELF also is about being highly skilled, principled and disciplined, and those skillsets play out anywhere,” he said. “It is a very rare occurrence that ppl grow from a junior level position to become a president all at the same space. And the skills that we learn at one particular place may not necessarily be good for that place,” he added.

Leaders need mentors, too

Felton also touts the importance of mentorship, and says he credits his “village,” and especially the relationship with the president at his previous institution for paving the way for him to successfully lead another institution.

“I can’t imagine being in this space without having a village of mentors. Having mentors who have sat at the seat, I thought I was prepared until I sat in the seat. And I’m a person who has studied this space, worked in this space, but there’s something inherently different about being the president,” he said.

“I’ve had the opportunity to have mentors who are newly-appointed presidents, who are in the middle of their walk, and who are seasoned, and it has made an invaluable difference in the way that I lead,” continued Felton, adding that advice on everything from “how to deal with external constituents, how to manage the board relationship, how to deal with legislators,” and even how to slow down before firing off responses to stakeholders have been among the most valuable lessons he’s received from other leaders.

Dorman said strong mentors are particularly important for interim leaders, who are faced with “the difficult task of moving an institution forward, versus maintaining the status quo, and preparing the institution for the permanent leader.”

Succession planning as afterthought

John Cavanaugh, president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, said that as an enterprise, higher education does a good job for planning for crisis, and considering who might assume responsibility in the event the current administrator is unable to lead, but overall does a poor job of planning for more natural departures.

“Succession planning is not about you; it’s about the institution — institutional continuity … and making sure what we hold dear in the values [of the institution] and the reason for our existence gets passed on,” Cavanaugh said. 

“Succession planning is really two-fold. I’ve learned since being a president, it’s really the responsibility of the board and the president,” Felton continued. “When you assemble a team, you assemble a team with at least one person that you would feel comfortable if you were incapacitated or terminated or for whatever reason … could take over for the good of the institution.”

“I think that at the end of the day, it’s about the survivability of all institutions, and the skill sets that we learned at one place are really about the journey, it’s not just about the institution that you’re at. … We all pick up skills and tools along the way that make us successful leaders,” he said.

Felton said many leaders are afraid to broach the conversation about succession planning.

​“I don’t know if the generation of leaders who are in the space now are really focused on succession planning and I don’t know if the board dynamic allows for that conversation to be had,” he said.

But Cavanaugh said it is unacceptable to continue to avoid succession planning conversations because they might be uncomfortable or controversial.

“Succession planning ... really needs to be a part of the overall strategic planning for the institution," he said. “If we think we have a problem with the leadership pipeline now, what kind of problems are we going to have in a decade?"

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Filed Under: Higher Ed