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Preserve Your University’s Legacy By Supporting Your New President

leadership transition May 05, 2022
university president transition

- By Sophie Pinkoski 

In the past decade, 18 presidents of Canadian universities failed to complete their first term. With even more university presidents announcing their departure during the pandemic, it’s becoming more crucial than ever to support incoming presidents through their leadership transition.  

To start with, replacing an outgoing president is more than just finding someone to fill a role. The president is the face of the university, and therefore, they hold the institution’s legacy in their hands. It takes careful discussion and planning to not only select the right person for the job, but to prepare them to take on such high-stakes responsibilities.

Their leadership transition does not end with simple onboarding.

Even the most experienced candidate who knows the institution intimately will have a steep learning curve in taking on a leadership role. But what support do they need most? 

Integrate, don’t just onboard – The concept of “onboarding” is often loosely defined from one institution to another. Regularly, this is considered giving the new leader the basic information needed to understand their new environment. What this doesn’t account for is appropriate insight into the institution’s current culture. Understanding their institution’s culture can be the hardest transition a leader can go through and if they can’t navigate within the rules and norms, they will find it all the more difficult to succeed. 

Encourage an environment of learning – Leaders are less likely to ask for help out of fear of appearing weak. For this reason, it brings them far more comfort when learning is encouraged within all levels of the institution. By normalizing self-improvement and assessment, your leader can better identify their blind spots and development opportunities to fill those gaps. When they can come into their new role with a sense of curiosity and open to growth, they can build confidence in their leadership capacities. 

Communicate early and often – Building honest and trusting relationships between the board and president early on is key. These discussions will clarify everyone’s goals and intentions and give the new president a wide array of perspectives from people who know the university well. By fostering healthy connections between the president, the board, and their transition team, you give them someone to help maintain momentum and keep them on track.  

Be upfront about challenges – Your new president needs to know the biggest challenges your institution faces well in advance.

They have a right to know what responsibilities they’re taking on so that they can properly assess their ability to take on such issues before they accept the job. 

Facilitate mentorship opportunities – Your outgoing president's involvement shouldn’t end once their successor is named. In fact, your incoming president will benefit greatly from the insights of the one person who knows the role best. Allow your outgoing president to connect with the new president to pass on their knowledge. The incoming president should be surrounded by a support network of people who understand their position. Colleagues, other university presidents, and the past president are all perfect options for potential mentors. 

If your outgoing president represents where the university has been, the incoming president represents where it’s going. Being attentive to both your university’s past and future will ensure its legacy remains well preserved. The best way to do so is to actively support your new president as they catch their bearings in their new role. When others can see your president’s successes, they will feel confident in your institution as a whole. 

Coming soon - more resources for university president transitions. Click here to stay  updated on the latest university president news.

Further Reading: 

Leadership Transition in the Times of COVID-19, University of Alberta, Peter Lougheed Leadership College 

Why Have So Many Canadian University Presidents Failed? University Affairs 

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

Six Keys to a Successful Presidential Transition, University Affairs 

Best Practices for Leadership Transition, Peterson Rudgers Group 

New Leaders Need More Than Onboarding, Harvard Business Review 

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