You are here

Best Strategies for Transferring Presidential Power

A university leader outlines the crucial steps new presidents and cabinet leaders must take to make for smooth transitions.
University Business, Sep 2006

Presidential transitions are challenging for everyone--the new campus leader and the staff. Regardless of the challenge, the more that can be done to establish a sense of common purpose, trust, and understanding, the smoother the transition.

A transition is more than planning an administration "takeover." A transition is "the passing from one stage to another," so it is important to know where the incoming leader and the institution are going after the initial first steps. Connecting the initial transition to a long-term plan or vision for the near and distant future is a valuable tool once the "moving in" is over and a new team is in place.

My 2003 transition at Towson University (Md.) involved previous transition experience, but incorporated some unique factors. I was returning to a campus that I had been a part of for 21 years as a faculty member, dean, associate vice president, provost/vice president, and executive vice president. During the time I was away from that campus, almost nine years, I served as the president of San Jose State University (Calif.). Like any new president, I wanted the transition to go well, and, because of my unique history, it was necessary to make it clear that I was not coming in with preconceived ideas about the campus, ideas that may have been formed because of prior service on the campus. It was important for the campus community to know that, although the incoming president had a long history at Towson University. It understood there had been significant change in the almost nine years I had been away.

Preparation for the upcoming transition included sorting through and benefiting from experiences in my earlier transition at San Jose State University and talking with a number of colleagues and professional executive coaches about leadership transition. Publications and several articles related to this very challenge--including one written by colleagues Steve Weber and Ira Krinsky at San Diego State University on "New Manager Assimilation"--were helpful resources. As a result of inquiry, dialogue, and working with key advisors on the campus, I developed an approach that used a "Transition Advisory Team" process (the team is described below). The last preparatory task was selection of a transition coordinator. I selected two transition coordinators for the Towson transition. The coordinators, and later the transition team, were given the charge of facilitating my leadership transition by soliciting feedback from on- and off-campus stakeholders.

An incoming president can use many types of transition coordinators: a firm specializing in transitions; a trusted current advisor used on a consultant basis; or people already on campus. For the Towson transition I selected two campus-based coordinators who were well known and trusted on the campus. I also knew both well. I worked with one professionally and personally before he joined the university near the time of my previous departure. The other was junior faculty when I departed nine years ago, but I got to know him well as chair of the Presidential Search Committee that had recruited me to the campus.

The transition coordinators were also used as focus group facilitators. This approach provided a more cohesive approach and enabled me to gather large amounts of information without dealing separately with many individuals. The coordinators/facilitators established and met with at least one focus group from a wide range of stakeholders, such as the Alumni Board; Board of Visitors; Council of Chairpersons; Foundation Board; Provost's Council; Student Government Association; University Senate; and unaffiliated groups of faculty and staff. In a number of instances more than one meeting was necessary to allow full participation of all interested individuals. This was especially true for faculty and staff focus groups. The facilitators scheduled meetings of approximately 60 to 90 minutes, though many lasted much longer. During the meetings, focus groups were permitted to choose their own direction of discussion, comment, and questions, but during the discussions the facilitators asked a series of predefined questions. The questions, asked of each group, were intertwined in the discussion in the form of "what do you think of..." or " what advice would you...". Examples of questions threaded into the discussions:

What do we know about the new president?

What do we want to know about the new president?

What should the new president know about us?

What does the new president need to know to be successful?

What significant issues need to be addressed?

What do we do and what do we do well?

What advice would you give the new president before he starts?

Although comprehensive notes were taken and all questions were recorded, the process assured anonymity of individual participants--a key component to the success of the effort. The facilitators provided a working summary of each focus group, summarizing major points by combining similar comments. This aggregation process further assured participant anonymity.

The focus groups were held during the two-month transition period between the time the new president appointment was announced and the date of taking office. The short time span and intensity of the effort, with several focus groups meeting each week, created a strong feeling of campus involvement. There was an openness and significant buzz on campus about the ongoing discussions.

Finally, in an attempt to use the feedback in the most productive way possible, I appointed a Transition Advisory Team. The team included one individual from each type of focus group mentioned above. In addition, a member of the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland and a senior representative of the chancellor were also included on the team. Each of the stakeholder groups was asked to select its representative to the Transition Advisory Team. There was no attempt by the transition coordinators to influence the selection of the representatives. The result was a good mix, which included four faculty, two staff, a student, an alumnus, two members of the institution's Board of Visitors, one from the Board of Regents and the chancellor's representative. The two transition coordinators were also members of the team.

The Transition Advisory Team held several working meetings, including one full-day meeting with me away from campus, to discuss the information that had been provided by the focus groups via the coordinators. The team had access to hundreds of unedited questions, comments, concerns, and advice for the new president. The information was provided in several formats. As one example, information could be labeled by specific focus group: e.g., faculty perspective or University Senate perspective. Information was also sorted and provided using various topical categories that had developed during focus group meetings. Examples of the categories are academics/faculty, marketing/public relations/communications, vision/future goals, plans/facilities, budget/resources, athletics, branding, enrollment/growth, partnerships, the University System of Maryland, campus master plan, the president, and advice for the president.

I then began working with the team. We worked through the material and brainstormed during transition team sessions; we began to concentrate on campus needs and what had to be done. A number of questions and goals arose:

Where are we and what are we?

How are we known and how do we want to be known?

What is our size and how big do we want to be?

What are our strengths and what are our weaknesses?

What do we need to do short term, medium term, and long term?

As one would guess, I found many of the discussions to be energized and invigorating. Members of the team were anxious for new leadership and direction and cared about the future of the institution, but the group wasn't homogenous. However, their differences gave me confidence that there was broad-based representation with many viewpoints. While there were differences, it was also possible to begin to see information congeal into areas of common focus for the campus. The group developed the overarching theme as being, from a mission perspective, "Maryland's Metropolitan University." The group then developed several subthemes:

Student success and student experience

Enrollment management, growth, and mix

Resources for success

Partnerships philosophy

Telling and selling the story

Although not part of my charge to the Transition Advisory Team, the themes were held for future dialogue on the university. The team recognized that there would soon be work on an installation address and a "strategic plan." Before that work could be initiated, it was necessary to complete the "transition."

To many members of the campus community, the transition was capped with the President's Fall Address. In the fall following my arrival, the preliminary brand and subthemes became the basis of my first Fall Address to the campus community. A couple of months later the themes became the cornerstone of the address at my installation ceremony. Because the themes were developed with input from both internal and external constituencies, there was a wide range of viewpoints. Significant effort was put into synthesizing the final thematic areas, while considering campus values and beliefs. The transition was facilitated significantly through the development of a common set of goals. Seven months into the transition, the themes were well understood and largely embraced on the campus.

The next important step was to prepare the campus to move to the next transition stage. It was once again emphasized that transition did not end when the new president assumed office or with the Fall Address. I wanted to communicate to the campus and to external stakeholders that my presidency should not be viewed as the watershed of the institution. It was important to couple the first stage of the transition, the period through the Installation Address, with planning efforts that were in place prior to my return and to a new strategic plan.

Each transition will encompass unique factors. In this instance a new campus Master Plan process was well underway. It was important that I quickly became familiar with the capital program that extended over the next two decades and neared a billion dollars in planned projects. It was necessary to study the proposed direction to allow myself to have the opportunity to provide input and changes and be satisfied that the institution should push forward with the plan. In the Towson transition I concluded that the Master Plan was well thought out, nearing completion, and afforded me enough flexibility to become part of gaining external support and moving toward implementation. We also knew that the institution needed a long-range plan that was compatible with the Master Plan, as well as existing institution goals and a plan that would enable me to achieve my goals and respond to my charge from the chancellor and the Board of Regents.

The next task was to take what was learned during the first stage of transition and understand what was already in place and, from that base, prepare a strategic plan to extend to the next decade. I felt it was important that this effort be completed prior to my second Fall Address. Doing so would indicate to the campus community that I had a commitment to the future and reinforce that the transition did not end with a report from the Transition Advisory Team and the installation of the president.

Several major steps were taken to prepare for a new strategic plan. The five themes--Student Experience and Success; Enrollment Management, Growth, and Mix; Resources for Success; Partnerships Philosophy; and Telling and Selling the Story-formed the template for preparing a new plan. The goals from the existing strategic plan (last updated in 2001), input from the transition focus groups, and input from the Transition Advisory Team were melded with the five themes. Once again it was important to clearly indicate that the past was not dismissed by the present; we were building on it. A draft plan was developed.

I decided to capitalize on the very positive tone that had been set by the transition focus groups. I asked that we use the same process and that focus groups again meet to provide input on a draft strategic planning document. Although there were similarities with the earlier focus groups, one key difference became evident. In the initial transition round of focus groups much of the input related to concerns, problems, and questions regarding current issues. The later focus groups, convened to provide input for a strategic plan, quickly realized that their input would actually have an effect on the future direction of the institution. Once the focus was changed, the interaction and recommendations became much more specific and goal oriented and proportionately more valuable.

Once all input was aggregated, a list of goals and specific actions was prepared. Following multiple reviews with vice presidents, boards, and the campus community as a whole, the base for a new strategic plan was in place. Those goals became the foundation of my second Fall Address, fulfilling a transition promise to provide specific directions by the close of the first year. In the fall semester of 2004, more input was accepted for a month following presentation of the new plan. The draft plan was placed on the campus website and input was accepted via the site. The new plan was finalized. "Towson University 2010: Mapping the Future," was released prior to the close of the Fall 2004 semester. This release completed the final stage of the transition.

The transition was a series of evolutionary steps in Towson University's development, and not, as is all too typical, an upheaval from one administration to another. There are many stages within a transition, not simply a change from one president to another.

From a president's perspective, the process as used at Towson University was very successful. I felt the focus groups provided a wealth of data, information, and, in some instances, wisdom. By making a commitment to the campus communities that they would be partners in the transition, I was able to maintain their interest and support over the entire transition period. Knowing that tasks had to be accomplished over an extended period, this support was critical. Our guiding principles during the transition stages were: involve them; respect their input; respect the existing culture and previous efforts; and share progress. We are now prepared for the Fall 2005 Address to the campus, when I will issue our first "report card" on the plan that every member of the campus community had an opportunity to help craft.

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>