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Human Resources

How Human Resources Can Ease Leadership Changes

Smooth onboarding by Human Resources gets incoming campus leadership off to good start
University Business, June 2013

Chances are, your institution is or may soon be recruiting for leadership positions, such as president, chancellor, or vice president. At Alfred University (N.Y.), for example, the search is underway for a new provost, and within the next five years, the institution plans to recruit two vice presidents and a president, says Mark Guinan, HR director at the private university, which supports approximately 1,000 employees and 2,300 students.

Retirements are a big factor to consider. The 2012 American Council on Education study of American college presidents covered the gradual rise of presidents’ ages over the years. In 1986, 42 percent were 50 years of age or younger while 14 percent were 61 or older. But in 2011, 10 percent were 50 or younger and 58 percent were 61 or older. The report noted that the anticipated wave of retirements could even cause a temporary leadership shortage.

When a changing of the guard is imminent, HR leaders should pay careful attention to the onboarding process to avoid transition issues. Soliciting employee and community input during the recruitment process—and helping new leaders bridge the gap between administrators and faculty­—are two tactics being used. Bringing new leaders up to speed on the school’s culture and ensuring they engage with community stakeholders is also key. HR’s involvement can make the difference between a leader who stumbles or one who hits the ground running. Here are four areas in which HR can help:

  1. Face time: Alfred University’s HR department will host individual meet and greets between the new provost and administrators, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and five schools—engineering, art design, business, science, and professionals studies. “Everybody needs to get time in,” says Guinan, adding that the onboarding process may take six months. “The new [provost] has to get in his or her mind what the various constituencies are going to be faced with.”
  2. HR liaison: At Baylor University (Texas), new deans and vice presidents are each assigned a client relationship manager who presents the “lay of the land” of the division or unit the new hire is overseeing. The manager will define the organization’s culture, addressing hot issues and identifying staff strengths and key challenges, says John Whelan, associate vice president of HR at the university, which employs approximately 2,400 and supports almost 15,000 students. The new leaders also share their visions so the HR department can immediately support their goals. Likewise, liaisons help in completing “nuts and bolts” tasks—such as benefits enrollment—so leaders can better focus on their responsibilities. “If [HR] waits around for the new exec to call, then says, ‘Here are forms to fill out,’ that person’s opinion of HR is going to be diminished. HR will live up to its worst reputation of being a bureaucratic, paper-pushing, administrative group,” Whelan says.
  3. Helpful resources: Last October, when Clifton Smart was promoted from general counsel to president at Missouri State University, he was already familiar with the schools’ people and culture, explains Penni Groves, general counsel at the institution, which has approximately 3,000 employees and 20,000 students. “As general counsel, he knew his job very well,” she says. Smart met individually with each of MSU’s vice presidents to address key challenges. But as president, “he has different constituencies to consider and a more big-picture job,” she says. However, Smart was not familiar with key online tools—such as the school’s policy library and applicant tracking system—that he would use as president. “HR [was] very helpful when bringing up practice tips that he didn’t deal with as general counsel,” says Groves.
  4. Current events: HR needs to ensure that all leaders, especially those new to the community, receive a weekly list of upcoming events and activities, ranging from athletic games to off-campus fundraisers, says Lou Pisano, chief HR officer at Central Connecticut State University, which supports approximately 1,500 employees and 15,000 students.

“Leaders need to pick something, get involved, experience something,” he says. “It helps them build relationships with people in the community, away from the stresses of the workplace.”