Controlling the Future

An overwhelming change on the college presidency landscape is coming within the next three to five years, which makes Jack Maguire, chairman and founder of Maguire and Associates in Concord, MA, an institutional Paul Revere. His consulting firm, which works with hundreds of higher education institutions in the United States and overseas, has the research to show the average age of a college president in 2008 is in the early to mid-60s; more than half are older than 50. That means many retirements will be coming and a huge turnover is the natural result.

In other words, institutions of higher education need to put their succession plans in order now so they won’t be caught by the rising tide later.

The problem is, while not unheard of, formal succession plans in higher education are almost non-existent, Maguire points out. “It’s not at all like the Fortune 500 companies, which if anything are over-reliant on creating an internal successor so that they can have a smooth hand-off,” he said.

On the other hand, Jim Collins’ Good to Great claims that 90 percent of the best companies in our country promote internally. Maguire’s studies reveal that, at the college and university level, that’s more like 20 percent. Only four percent of new women presidents in the past five years have charged up the ranks from the inside — and that wasn’t exactly by design.

“From my experience, it’s more happenstance, or the last person standing, or ‘we couldn’t find the right person outside, so we grit our teeth and go with the insider,’” Maguire said. His benchmark would be for every college and university to have a couple of outstanding leaders ready to step in at a moment’s notice, rather like the vice president of the U.S. is on call to take over in an emergency. That’s not to say this person is an heir apparent, he’s quick to note, just that this individual has been trained and mentored to hold the position.

The Breakdown
The hurdle, consultants say, is politics, which are far more complicated than in corporate America. Listening to constituencies from the bottom up but making decisions from the top down is tricky in the first place, Maguire said — and people most likely to succeed have usually run into difficulty with someone at a faculty level in this environment. So, Maguire explained, a search committee involves folks who will say, “Let’s not make the dean our new president because she rejected somebody for tenure or didn’t follow up on an academic program we thought should have been instituted.”

“The devil they don’t know is better than the devil they do,” he added.

It’s the same movie from where Richard Hergenrather, Ph.D, sits. As an adjunct professor of economics, management, and organization at The University of Southern California and chairman of his own Hergenrather & Company executive search firm, he’s seen the issue from all sides, and also lays a lot of blame on the search committee process. “It’s dog-eat-dog and, as I used to say, ‘I have never seen so many people fight so hard for so little,’” he said. “There are quite a bit of jealousies and trying to garner resources.”

The second misstep Hergenrather sees is more intrinsic. University cultures, he believes, do a poor job of teaching people how to lead. “They do a heck of a job teaching researchers how to research, and teaching teachers how to teach. But they assume leaders will arise, and they don’t plan for it,” he said “If they see the charisma and vision skills, they recognize them and grasp onto it, but they don’t nurture it — they don’t grow it from within as a succession plan would.”

Virginia Polytechnic Institute is about to break that mold.

A Bold Pioneer
When Mekeisha Williams, MPA, joined Virginia Tech as director of University Organizational Development two years ago, she knew upfront her job was to implement a success plan. First problem: “Our culture does not accept the term ‘succession planning,’” she said. “The pure business act of retirement planning goes against the grain of everything in the academic tenure process.” Instead, she stresses the phrases “talent management” and “talent development.”

Her department began by developing an executive development institute that takes candidates based on a nomination process from among vice presidents and deans. These high-potential individuals are then offered leadership training. Unfortunately, the University now has slots for only 21 people out of 9,000 employees. So Williams also has a team of human resource management consultants assigned to different units throughout the University to evaluate the folks who don’t make the institute cut and develop ways to encourage their latent talents, too.

“It’s huge work, and we don’t have enough people to do it,” she laughed.

Still, she’s welcome about campus because, rather than relying solely on the president’s announcement of her role, Williams made sure the message about benefits trickles down to the masses. “We are not holding up the golden child, in a sense. We are not identifying just one person, but looking at a range of people,” she said. The program strengthens the performance review process and presents cross-functional training opportunities. “If we don’t show how this fits into the bigger scheme of things strategically, succession becomes just an event, and you know how those come and go,” she added.

Williams stresses to colleagues that succession planning isn’t a program folks can copy and paste onto another campus. Customization to address the culture is vital to even getting it off the ground.

“This is about survival, not replacement,” she summed up.

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