This has been a tough summer for college and university presidents. An unusual number (perhaps half a dozen) have had their sudden departures announced after relatively short tenures in office (2-4 years). The announcements have been carefully phrased to put a positive spin (or no spin at all) on the transition, but no amount of wordsmithing can convey a message other than that these were failed presidencies.
Let me be absolutely clear: I don’t have inside knowledge about the causes for any of this summer’s sudden transitions, but I am pretty confident that no search committee deliberately makes a high-risk selection. No President comes on board with anything less than an optimistic conviction that they can do great things for their new institution.
Unsuccessful presidencies can do serious damage to institutions. They represent a very public admission that the institution made a serious mistake. They undermine institutional self-confidence and strain the bonds of trust among stakeholders. They send mixed messages to the public about institutional competence, strength, and purpose. They squander momentum, and can undermine the stability of the senior leadership team and waste energy on internal power struggles. They can set up or exacerbate schisms within the board of trustees. They waste time and divert significant money from educational priorities (buy-outs and searches are expensive). They can derail strategic plans and fundraising efforts. In short, they are a disaster.
So what’s going on? I doubt that this is a trend with any common underlying problem. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina Principle” -- “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” -- seems a more helpful perspective. Saying a president was “a bad fit” or that the board had “a different vision” are not particularly helpful observations. Each situation is unique. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some common themes – and that there aren’t some common precautionary steps that presidents and boards should take to spare their institutions the pain and damage of a failed presidency. Here are a few of them:
1. Get the search right in the first place. Yeah, I know, “duh”. But what I mean is put together a search committee that appropriately engages all institutional stakeholders; do it transparently; make it clear that the final decision will be the Board’s, but bend over backwards to be sure that faculty, students, staff, alumni, and parents feel their opinions have been heard. The incumbent president should remove her/himself from the process entirely. The Board should select a search firm with a track record of success at comparable institutions. Good search firms are not cheap, but this is not a time to pinch pennies. If there are significant disagreements among stakeholders about the institution’s major challenges or future direction, these need to be resolved beforethe search launches. Torrey Helm, LLC does not offer search services, but we can be helpful in laying the groundwork for a successful search. Bill and I will have more in-depth recommendations about presidential searches in a future blog post.
2. Don’t settle. A failed search is far preferable to a failed presidency. It is neither fair nor smart to appoint a candidate who does not enjoy the full confidence of the search committee and the campus community. Firms like The Registry or AGB can provide qualified interim leadership if it proves necessary to re-do the search. (Full disclosure: both Bill and I have held interim appointments through The Registry).
3. Avoid Magical Thinking. Every new president worth her or his salt will have a vision for the institution – but is it realistic? Is it achievable? Is it compatible with the institution’s culture, congruent with its mission, affordable with its resources? Search committees and campus constituencies must resist the temptation to be dazzled by big dreams that have no relationship to institutional reality. “We will be the new Harvard” is probably not realistic (maybe not even for Harvard). Sometimes it helps to have an objective partner to advise on this alignment of visions. This is another area where Torrey Helm can play a useful role at a key transitional moment. (I’ll have more to say about the “vision thing” in a future blog post).
4. Invest in Coaching. The Harvard Institute for New Presidents is pricey – but provides good value given the foundation (and peer support group) it offers incoming CEOs. A crash course is unlikely to meet the full need though. New presidents need objective confidantes with whom they can share doubts, worries, and questions, off of whom they can bounce ideas, from whom they can hear difficult feedback and get sound advice. Providing this kind of confidential listening, objective perspective, and expert counsel is a Torrey Helm specialty. Between the two of us we have served as CEO, CAOs, Board Chair, and Board members at publics, privates, secondary schools, and community colleges. We are good listeners, keep confidences, and give good advice.
5. Keep the communication flowing. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” At the heart of every failed presidency is a failure in communication. Communication between the new president and the faculty, the staff, the students, the alumni, the board of trustees. Nobody sets out to fail at communication, but it happens with alarming frequency. New presidents are busy, various stakeholders are wary, messages are misunderstood (or not sent at all). Trustees, wanting to support the new president, may be reluctant to flag problems and prone to avoid negative feedback. Problems fester until the damage is done and relationships are strained to or beyond the breaking point. This is another area where objective outside assistance can prove valuable. Bill and I can provide an ongoing “check-in” process with the president and institutional stakeholders to surface and address miscommunication issues before they become open rifts that result in institutional failures; we can help keep leaders and the campus communities they serve on the same page and moving in the same direction.
Nobody wants to go through a failed presidency. Sometimes it’s inevitable but often, with the right help, institutional leaders can pilot their community through the normal turbulence of transition and into a long, successful cruise. Call us if you think you might need us.