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How Outgoing University Presidents Support the Transition Process

leadership transition Aug 24, 2022

- By Sophie Pinkoski

University presidents come into their roles knowing their time as a leader will one day come to an end.

Being restricted to a defined term in office means they have the opportunity to prepare their successor intentionally.

After all, no one understands what a new president will need more than their predecessor; they were once a new leader themselves. 

Lately, more presidents are leaving well before their initial term. This is not a reflection of their leadership abilities, rather, it may be an indication of the level of support they’re given through their transition into the president’s role. The outgoing president's last responsibility may be to help set the next president up for a successful tenure. However, there is a fine line between leading strong in the final months in the role and positioning the new president's success, and finding that balance can be a challenge. 

Here are ways the outgoing president can offer support to their successor through the transition process: 

Share what you’ve learned throughout your tenure – As the outgoing president, you can be a good mentor by leaving insights for your successor to leverage while still settling into the role.

Accessible, clear, and detailed documentation will make their job easier. Ideally, meetings or calls before the handover enables the greatest amount of knowledge transfer.

Sharing your understanding of the institution and issues minimizes the risk that they will create unnecessary challenges, and it ensures they don’t waste time duplicating work that has already been done. By sharing what you know (especially what you’ve always had in the forefront of your mind but never thought to write down) your successor can better understand the reasoning behind decisions you’ve made and how you have successfully navigated your complex role.

Help your successor build their network – A university president is expected to make decisions with the nuances of campus culture and the political landscape in mind. In order to do so, a new president must be fully immersed in their environment. This involves getting to know key figures within the university and broader community, which can be challenging as someone still getting to know the institution from a leadership context.

As outgoing president with that network already at your fingertips, you can make the necessary introductions to help them integrate into the community and make informed decisions as leader. 

Manage your successor’s expectations – A new president will be eager to get started on certain projects and agenda items. However, every university’s funding and resources are going to vary. Make sure they’re aware of the institution’s unique limitations to identify the most realistic goals so they can prioritize accordingly. 

Don’t impose on your successor and their team – While it’s important to be there for the new president in a mentoring capacity, you need to know when to step away.

The leader the university needs now is likely going to look different than the one they needed when you were hired.

For this reason, their leadership style might be a departure from what you’re used to. As your term comes to an end and theirs begins, your job is not to judge how they do their job. You don’t need to duplicate your skills in the new president. Instead, help them develop their skills in ways that will best benefit the future of the institution. Be there to support them through their transition, but don’t linger beyond that. Know when it’s time to let go and move on. 

It’s tempting to make a clean break when it comes to departing from your role, but investing in your successor’s impact is the best thing you can do for your institution. Sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience with them will ease their transition into the role. You know more than anyone what they need to succeed. Give them the tools to do so before you take your final departure. 


Further Reading: 

More Presidents May Be Leaving, But Will Their College Be Ready For It? Inside Higher Education 

Why Have So Many Canadian University Presidents Failed? University Affairs 

Change is Inevitable: Preparing for a Leadership Transition, AGB Search 

7 Ways to Help Your Successor Succeed, Let’s Grow Leaders 

Prepare Your Successor for Success, Harvard Business Review 

How to Exit Your Job With Grace, Let’s Grow Leaders 

The Role of the Outgoing CEO in the Leadership Transition Process, Kittleman 

How to Help Your Successor Succeed, Strategy + Business 

Transitioning Leadership – The Outgoing Executive Leader – High Performance, Mickey Addison 

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