The best leaders enable all members of a community to feel a sense of ownership of the mission during a presidential transition.

4 pillars of a successful presidential transition

The best leaders enable all members of a community to feel a sense of ownership of the mission of an organization

Key points:

A presidential transition is a valuable—and vulnerable—time for an institution. It is a moment of opportunity that can be effectively utilized or squandered. Many emotions come with this experience for a college community: excitement, grief, curiosity, impatience, and anxiety, just to name a few.

How can you harness the energy of a transition to capitalize on the opportunity? There are four principles that will enable your college to move forward strategically.

Celebrate together

In order to move forward well, you need to spend appropriate time marking the important moments of the last presidency. If you rush this step, it can lead to feelings of misunderstanding and some members of the community harboring resentment that will plague your college for years. Everyone processes change differently. Allow a wide variety of ways to celebrate across an appropriate amount of time to facilitate a healthy period of reflection and closure.

Your celebrations should highlight significant accomplishments and milestones from recent years as well as honoring the contribution of the outgoing president and other key players. Invite representative stakeholders from all facets of the institution to share their stories. Utilize multiple avenues for your reflections, including publications, public events, and social media.

Communicate often

Transparency is essential for a successful presidential transition. From the moment a presidential transition is announced through the early days of the new administration, clear and frequent communication is a must.

The search process should be thoroughly explained and readily available. Create a specific page on your college website that students, staff, alumni, and other stakeholders can refer to when they have questions about timelines, process, and progress. Provide regular updates as appropriate—even if it’s to assure members of the campus community that the process is going smoothly. If there are setbacks, be honest and succinct as you share them. You don’t need to go into extensive detail to adequately communicate.

In addition to sharing specifics about the presidential transition, your outgoing president and other leaders should express their commitment to the campus community throughout the transition.

Once a new leader is announced, outline dates, events, and point people to whom questions can be directed throughout the transition. Eliminate small frustrations or costly errors by attending to details that will change, such as email addresses with personnel movements.

Foster partnerships

Ideally, your outgoing president and incoming president are partners in the transition. They should communicate and support one another throughout the transition. Make as much space as possible for dialogue and shared time. This can include formal, structured times to convey information, duties, and institutional knowledge, as well as informal times for connection. Integrate one-on-one conversations and broader gatherings with key stakeholders. 

In some instances, this cannot be achieved. When a presidential transition takes place because of a death or because of a termination, there are additional nuances to be taken into account. In these cases, it’s even more important to lean into partnerships with other key leaders. Empower deans, members of the board of trustees, key staff members, student leaders, and committed alumni to be resources for the incoming president as they step into a complex leadership transition. In times of fraught transitions, it is even more imperative to show solidarity and stability.

Engage your mission

An institution is bigger than any one leader. Anchor your community in the principals that have been through lines across the history of your college. Throughout the transition, intentionally connect to the mission and values that drive your organization. This will enable your community to be nourished by the past as they step into the future.

Articulate how the outgoing president’s tenure fits within the overall narrative of the college’s history. The new president should steep themselves in the culture of the institution for an intentional season of learning upon assuming office. We advocate that an incoming president not make any significant changes for the first year. Once they do begin to introduce initiatives, they should explain them within the context of the mission and values of the institution. The best leaders don’t just tap into mission and values themselves, but enable all members of a community to feel a sense of ownership of the mission of an organization.

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