Finding Future Presidents

Peter Eckel explores the ways the pandemic might take its toll on the search for talent at the top and what search committees and boards should do in response.

July 13, 2020
 
 
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To say that these are trying times is an understatement. The pandemic will have profound impacts, as many prognosticators (some well informed, others less so) are suggesting, on enrollments, teaching and learning, student mental health, and research. But while higher education is completely and totally consumed with the present as it prepares for the fall -- addressing concerns over safety and equity and worrying about fiscal stability, among other issues -- it would be well served to also try to keep an eye on the future, particularly regarding its leadership.

In fact, future presidential leadership is one area that we haven’t heard discussed much at all. Presidents are under enormous strain as they work to find individual solutions to a collective set of problems, as one president characterized the current situation in a recent leadership roundtable. The pandemic might be expected to take its toll on the search for talent at the top in the following ways.

A large wave of retirements. Organizations such as the American Council on Education have long been predicting significant presidential turnover. The average age of presidents continues to increase each day. The realities of time haven’t been changed by the pandemic even if presidents think themselves graying faster these days. Four factors beyond age are likely to contribute to a larger-than-expected wave of sitting presidents stepping down soon:

  • Presidents who were planning on retiring have stayed in their positions. Most who were planning to depart this past spring or early next year have agreed not to disrupt campus efforts by doing so. They’ve remained to see their institution through the immediate crises and not add to its challenges. Thus, they will finally follow through on their plans to step down in the near future.
  • Presidents who were considering retiring in the next three years or so may well speed up their anticipated timetable. Too many are working too long and too hard. They feel as if they have put in 24 months of work over the last four calendar months and know that this pace will continue easily through the fall if not through the next calendar year. They will be tired and ready to leave.
  • Institutions have held off or canceled searches. Many realize the challenges of trying to search and onboard a new president during the pandemic with remote access, limited travel and the all-consuming work that is taking precedent across campuses. They realize that potential candidates may not leave their current positions, as they don’t want to abandon students, faculty members and colleagues.
  • Presidents will fail. While not aligning strictly with all of the doomsayers predicting the demise of higher education, these are challenging times for leaders, and some simply will not succeed. They were hired under different conditions and with different charges. Not all leaders have the skills, disposition and energy to lead their institutions through very difficult circumstances if not downright crises. Boards and faculty members will seek their resignations as they lose confidence or demonstrate their shortcomings.

The turnover will have significant implications. We will very likely see an increase in the number of open positions and a decrease in the number of potential candidates. The pool of potential presidents probably will shrink as provosts, deans and others will tire of this heavy lift, not be ready to pick up roots to move and want to avoid causing disruption at their current institutions. That has some important implications.

First, search committees and search consultants will need to work harder to develop deep and diverse pools. They will probably find themselves recruiting talent on a targeted basis rather than waiting for talent to find them. They may need to think differently about how to identify and source candidates and about the type of persuasions needed to simply get talented individuals into the candidate pool.

Second, we well may see higher presidential compensation. Demand that outstrips supply typically increases prices. Boards may find themselves needing to pay more for presidential talent. And they will be doing so at a point in time when many institutional coffers are already becoming much barer.

Governance patterns will be re-established. As more boards face the challenges of hiring presidents, they will soon come to understand the realities of the work needed to conduct a presidential search. To overgeneralize, boards typically fall into one of two categories when it comes to presidential search. The first group is the inexperienced. These are the boards that have had long-serving and successful presidents. The current members have not conducted a search, which was done by their predecessors, or they did a search a long time ago and probably in different circumstances. The second category of boards, and one facing different challenges in the search process, includes those that are terrible at presidential searches. They unfortunately conduct searches way too frequently with repeated subpar results. They do not have the capacity or knowledge to conduct an effective search, and thus, they do them over and over.

The pandemic and recent calls for social justice have elevated certain topics and decisions and minimized others in college boardrooms. Many boards are working in crisis mode or crisis mitigation mode. In effective board rooms, the discussions are focused and constructive. Less well-performing boards -- the ones a colleague and I labeled mediocre -- may be asking the wrong questions and creating distractions for their institutions when they can least afford them.

A final set of boards are those absent from the important work. Patterns of working in the boardroom today are heightened by the current situations and may be difficult to challenge in the future and will likely carry over into presidential search. Easily distracted boards may stay focused on the wrong issues. Absent ones may remain disconnected from the real needs of the institution.

Another implication of the current situation for boards is that they may come to favor one type of leader and skill set and disregard those with different leadership traits and experiences. But what happens when institutions are through the crisis? Can boards find a balanced approach that doesn’t overly prioritize leadership for the urgent over leadership for the important? Boards will need to articulate presidential leadership needs for both the immediate and the longer term.

Relations are tenuous, if not strained or broken. Institutions may be at a crossroads, and discussions this summer and into the fall will be difficult and stressful. Institutional leaders will face many decisions that will be unpopular as they work to navigate uncertain and volatile waters. These decisions may well pit faculty members against administrators as well as each other. Faculty members and administrators, along with boards, may have to conduct near-term presidential searches in an environment of strained, distant relationships.

The age of working remotely will further complicate the situation. Decision makers will rarely be in the same room, and an online medium simply isn’t the same as in-person communications when it comes to high-stakes decisions and negotiations. Nonverbal signals get lost. Trust is less, due to transmission delay. There are no opportunities for the all-important hallway/water cooler/parking lot discussions to make sense of ambiguity and engage colleagues as we do when on the campus together.

Moving Forward

Boards and search committees can take five specific actions given the likely contexts in which they will be operating.

  1. Prepare to work for talent. Good presidential searches require time and energy from many people on the campus, and both are in short supply now and into the foreseeable future. Know if your board and institution are: 1) either inexperienced at conducting presidential searches or 2) terrible at it. Develop a plan and a process from that simple starting point. Don’t follow the lead of the University of Wisconsin system search.
  2. Don’t shortchange input for speed. Even with the potential for strained relationships, it will be exceedingly important to find ways for significant input from the faculty and other constituencies. As Robert Birnbaum taught us 30 years ago, presidential searches are about discovering organizational goals as well as identifying a person to lead. The pandemic means that traditional ways of engaging faculty, alumni and others will be limited. Search committees will need to work in new ways to ensure widespread input not only to secure the needed leader but also to provide one of the few opportunities for community engagement with the direction of the university. (The other time is strategic planning, and we know how well that works for many institutions.)
  3. Think differently about hiring criteria. When I ran the Advancing to the Presidency workshop at ACE for seven years, much of the discussion with presidential candidates and search consultants was on ensuring that their skills and experiences matched the search profile for each position. That may have been fine then, but the focus on the alignment of experiences might not be as helpful ahead as the world continues to change in ways that are unpredictable. Institutions may better be served by leaders who have potential and promise. In a Harvard Business Review article, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz writes about leadership promise indicators, such as a fierce commitment to excel in the pursuit of unselfish goals (motivation), curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. The ultimate aim is to recruit a person able to lead in the future, not one who has simply succeeded in a different past that may be less of a prologue than it once was. Rethinking talent identification may also open the doors to a more diverse and inclusive set of candidates if we get outside the old boxes that seem to generate fairly standard (read: not diverse) presidential pools.
  4. Restructure the search process. One possibility for doing so: rather than starting a process that first creates a large pool and walks all candidates through phases that narrows the group, boards and their search consultants should maybe think about recruitment waves. In that model, they would interview a select group of individuals recruited to the position, and if none are appropriate, create a second pool of candidates and so on. That could allow institutions to address the open/closed conundrum by working with a small group of individuals at a time and might allow for better faculty and stakeholder engagement. It might also allow both candidates and campuses to get to know one another better, which can be challenging in the best of circumstances. The downside is that this approach can limit diversity for nontraditional candidates if people are not well-known and the smaller pools not carefully constructed.
  5. Be wary of some candidates. Finally, the challenges of the pandemic will showcase not only the leadership abilities of many people but their weaknesses, as well. While higher education has a wealth of talent, it also sometimes elevates people to posts where they cannot succeed. Doing more due diligence will be important for the future given the high stakes, the likely greater financial investments required and the challenges of searching remotely.

The pandemic is causing higher education to rethink much of its work; the same should be done for presidential searches. Ensuring the effective hiring of presidents is a key strategic investment. A task well done can reap rewards long into the future. In contrast, one done poorly will create long-term challenges requiring energy and talent much better spent elsewhere.

Bio

Peter Eckel serves as senior fellow and director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He co-directs the Penn Project on University Governance. His most recent book, with Cathy Trower, is Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance. He is a trustee at the University of La Verne.

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