Business Practices (Achieving Administrative Excellence)
Strategic Succession Planning
- By Dr. Scott D. Miller, Dr. Marylouise Fennell
- April 1st, 2017
Although colleges and
universities are rapidly catching up
with the for-profit business sector
in best practices for transfer of managerial and
strategic skills, they continue to lag behind in
succession planning. While many campuses
have invested heavily in institutional reviews,
feasibility studies, communications audits and
the like, they’ve too often given limited thought
to planning for continuity. Rare is the campus
with a strong such process in place.
Because recruiting, hiring and retaining
skilled campus leadership is a priority for
institutions of higher education, no other process
has such vital long-term fiscal and other
implications for a college or university.
Planning for Presidential Transition
Scott Miller recently transitioned to his fourth college presidency.
His boards at prior institutions have been well prepared for
succession because each year, in Executive Session, they have a
discussion centered around “What if?” Such discussions focus on:
- Identifying a successor — Is there a logical second-in-command
who could be pressed into action in the short or long term? The
American Academic Leadership Institute (www.americanali.org),
in collaboration with the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC)
and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities
(AASCU), offers an Executive Leadership Academy and Senior
Leadership Academy to grow talent.
- Adequate transition time — Most presidential contracts require
at least a 120-day transition period, a reasonable timetable
in case an external search is required.
- Interim services — If no logical interim is available from
within, Boston-based The Interim Registry is an efficient way to
provide skilled leadership at the senior-staff level.
Planning for Board Succession
Board chairs don’t serve forever and not all board vice chairs
desire to be chair. It is therefore important to engage the board in a
similar discussion of succession planning.
A written, strategic process of identifying the knowledge base,
talents and experience of current volunteer leaders and replicating it
in newer members is essential to an institution’s long-term success.
Community advisory boards or young alumni advisory boards can
identify potential leaders and groom them for future board roles.
Further, cross-training of volunteer leaders is sound practice
for boards as well as staffs. Volunteers will appreciate the professionalism
and opportunity to enhance skills. Death, retirement,
job mobility and a change in personal circumstances are commonplace,
but without forethought and planning devoted to crosstraining,
these events may prove disruptive.
Here are some additional strategies for continuity of volunteer
- Stagger terms so that only one-third of their members cycle off
their boards at any given time. This practice helps to create a
blend of new and experienced members.
- Rotate committee chair and membership periodically. The
institutions benefit from fresh thinking, while the cross-training
adds depth and breadth.
- Offer incoming members a chance to broaden their skills and
experience by serving on committees outside their areas of expertise.
This practice creates a “win-win” for everyone; the institutions
benefit by being able to attract and retain talented leaders
who embrace continued professional growth and development. At the same time, volunteers add to their knowledge base.
- Engage younger alumni and other friends at another level of
leadership first before placing them on the board, giving both
parties a chance to test the fit.
- Utilize outside counsel to provide orientation for new board
officers and committee chairs, and to do a “wellness check” of
The current philanthropic environment requires that colleges
and universities demonstrate sound stewardship, clear accountability
for outcomes and leading-edge business practices. Our
stakeholders — and ethical leadership — demand it.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.
Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was previously president of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc. and serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.
Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.