Strategic Succession Planning Key to Continuity of Leadership

By Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell
College Planning and Management, December 2007

Although colleges and universities are rapidly catching up with the for-profit sector in best practices for transfer of managerial and strategic skills, they continue to lag behind in succession planning. Rare is the campus with a well-thought-out process in place. This is a critical area of need because the process of wooing, hiring, and retaining skilled campus leadership is at the top of the list for institutions of higher education. No other process has such vital long-term fiscal and other implications for a college or university.

In talking with our colleagues at other institutions, we find that while many have invested heavily in institutional reviews, feasibility studies, communications audits, and other formal research instruments, they’ve too often given little or no thought to planning for the future in terms of human resources. The late Peter Drucker, sometimes called the “father of MBO,” once observed, “The manager who views employees as a cost rather than a resource is fatally flawed.”

Planning Staff Development
Many institutions are just now beginning to move to the next level of staff development, going beyond capitalizing upon the wealth of individual knowledge and expertise within the organization to formalizing and documenting processes and procedures. Our campuses have benefited from the expertise of senior staff who come from a corporate background in “mapping” positions.

Moreover, a strategic, written, thoughtful process of identifying the knowledge base, strengths, talents, and experience of current volunteer leaders and replicating it in newer members is essential to an institution’s long-term success. For example, we’ve sometimes seen community advisory boards or young alumni advisory boards serve as a vehicle, both for identifying leadership potential in future institutional leaders and for grooming them to assume these responsibilities.

Further, cross training of volunteer leaders is sound practice, just as it works at the staff level to minimize the loss of continuity when a valued staff member leaves the organization or is away for an extended period. In fact, the caliber of volunteers whom we all seek to recruit is likely to appreciate this example of professionalism and opportunity to enhance his or her skills. We’ve both known institutions left bereft of leadership at the sudden or unexpected death of a chairman, for example, when cross-training and position mapping could have alleviated the cost to the institution, if not the human dimensions of the loss. Death, retirement, job mobility, and a change in personal circumstances: all of these occurrences are commonplace and easily foreseeable, but without forethought and planning, they may devastate an institution.

Additional Strategies
Following are some additional strategies that we’ve used successfully to ensure continuity of voluntary leadership.

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 blood, fostering a mentoring process among volunteer leaders.
Rotate committee chairs and membership periodically. The institutions benefit from fresh thinking, while the cross training adds depth and breadth to the board.
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 and provide a fresh perspective.
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 and the institution the opportunity to assess performance and productivity. By engaging volunteer leaders in this manner, colleges and universities initiate a process of proactive leadership development and training, ensuring that new talent and insights are continuously in the pipeline.

The current philanthropic environment demands that colleges and universities continue to demonstrate sound stewardship, clear accountability for outcomes and practices, and leading-edge business practices. Our stakeholders demand it, and ethical leadership requires it.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell is senior partner of Gallagher-Fennell Higher Education Services in Pittsburgh, PA, and coordinator of the Council of Independent Colleges’ (CIC) New Presidents Program.

Now in his 17th year as a college president, Dr. Scott D. Miller became the 19th president of Bethany College in West Virginia on January 1, 2008.


To learn more about
Marylouise Fennell, RSM
606 Bigelow Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15207


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