Hiring a university president is the most important decision a board of governors will make. It is a challenging journey marked with interviews, months of discussion, selection committee meetings and tough deliberations. Once the ideal candidate has been identified, it may seem like the difficult part is over. But, in fact, the most important work of the board lies ahead.
Beyond the hiring and selection process, the board has a responsibility to ensure that the conditions for success for a new president are in place. The first few months in the role are critical for the incoming university president and can ultimately determine whether the new president will fulfill their term or be reappointed. An estimated 20% of recent presidential appointments among Canadian universities were unsuccessful, resulting in the president either leaving before the end of the first term or failing to meet the expectations and objectives set out for them. A deliberate onboarding strategy mitigates the risks associated with a change in leadership and improves the odds of the president’s and the university’s success.
There is often a perception that leaders selected through a rigourous process have enough experience to know what to do once they assume the new position. While most new presidents have certainly gone through a rigorous interview process, and careful consideration has been exercised in selecting the right candidate for the institution, there is still an adjustment period when taking on a new leadership position. Factors like organizational culture, traditions and norms are unique to each institution and take some getting used to for even the most seasoned leader. In fact, new leaders typically demonstrate the ability to do the job but where they stumble is on some of the softer aspects of the role. Some common missteps include underestimating the influence of certain people or groups, misinterpreting the “small p” politics, making incorrect assumptions about change readiness or demonstrating leadership behaviors that do not align with the cultural norms of the institution.
In our experience, onboarding strategies can go a long way to help ease the transition and ensure success. Successful onboarding strategies tend to cover four key areas:
1. Strategic Objectives
What are the key strategic role objectives or outcomes that the president is expected to focus on in their first 12 to 18 months in the position? The board will have insight into the relative priorities amongst the many objectives set out for the new president. Providing clarity in terms of both what the president is expected to accomplish in the first part of their term, and the evidence of success that the board will look to for assurance that the president is on the right track, removes the risks of goal misalignment.
2. Leadership Behaviours
What are the most important leadership behaviours required for success as the president? Each university has its own culture and, depending on where the university is in its lifecycle, certain leadership behaviours will be more effective during a transition in leadership. For example, is it best to focus on collegiality or external relationship building? By offering explicit recommendations, the board provides the president a solid touchstone for planning an effective approach and a basis for soliciting and receiving feedback.
3. Influential Relationships
What are the key relationships the president will need to seek out and cultivate? This includes relevant stakeholders, but it is also helpful to define key opinion influencers and decision makers within the university’s internal and external communities. The board should establish a network of advisors, mentors and coaches to support the new president in their onboarding process. This can include board members, external advisors, vice presidents and deans, community leaders and professional executive coaches. The former president or retired university presidents from other institutions should also be considered as they have their own experiences to share. Being the president can be a lonely and demanding job and it requires the support of the entire university. It is important to help the new president to figure out whom to lean on for advice and support.
In addition to defining the key strategic objectives, leadership behaviours and key relationships for the new president, the most important part of an onboarding plan is feedback. Universities often rely on annual compensation discussions or even the mid-term review of the president as the only formal opportunities to provide feedback. However, a proactive approach to provide direct feedback earlier in the process can avoid issues before they arise. Either the board chair or the chair of the HR committee of the board should assume primary responsibility for providing regular feedback to the president on their performance on the first three areas outlined in the onboarding plan. Ideally, one or two of the university’s vice presidents might also be engaged to provide feedback from the ‘inside perspective’. We have found that the act of pre-setting these discussions removes some of the stigma associated with giving feedback and encourages ongoing dialogue.
Don’t leave the first year of your new president’s term to chance. By having an onboarding strategy in place, universities can help to mitigate costly and disruptive turnover. Be deliberate about creating the conditions for success, and providing support and feedback. The sooner the new president can hit their stride in their new role, the sooner they can start making the positive impact that you expect.
This white paper represents the collective opinions expressed during a series of academic roundtable discussions held in 2012, hosted by Anna Stuart, Dr. Ross Paul, former president of Laurentian and Windsor Universities, and, Dr. Peter George, president emeritus of McMaster University.