Higher Education Institutional Advancement: Finding Opportunity in Leadership Transition

Few things stress advancement and development professionals as much as turnover at the top of their organizations. In higher education institutional advancement offices, entire campaigns and carefully nurtured relationships can be dashed if the transition of a new president, provost, or dean isn’t managed smoothly or the new leader has other, unanticipated priorities. The best way to respond to the uncertainty of leadership turnover is for the chief development officer and colleagues to be proactive, and positive, says Witt/Kieffer Senior Partner Dennis Barden. The introduction of a new president or other executive brings opportunity as well as risk in terms of institutional advancement.

Leadership transitions were the focus of a panel discussion at the recent Big Ten Development Conference, aka DevCon 2013, held at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The event brought together delegations of development officers from all 14 Big Ten schools. Barden and other panelists shared thoughts and best practices for how development professionals can ensure that their agenda is heard and furthered in times of transition at the top.

I recently spoke with Barden about the more salient issues discussed during the panel:

What should development officers be doing even before a leadership transition comes along?

Barden: Obviously, well begun is half done. You can’t wait until the transition happens. You have to prepare for the transition when it first becomes apparent that it is going to happen, because you want to maximize productivity at the end of the outgoing leader’s tenure and from the very outset of your new leader’s tenure. You need a plan that is thoughtful and strategic, a pragmatic way of taking advantage of opportunities on both sides of the coin of transition.

What are some of the specific things you can do in this regard?

Dennis Barden

Dennis Barden

Barden: In terms of the outgoing leader, from a development perspective, you maximize that person’s relationships. There’s going to be support out there that is specific to relationships with that leader and it needs to be garnered and solidified while that leader is still on board. At the same time, you need to be planning for the transition into new leadership. Usually that’s done with some kind of transition committee. Planning should be focused on maintaining momentum with those supporters who are dedicated to your outgoing leader while recouping the support of people with whom that person perhaps didn’t resonate. It’s really an opportunity to loop in people who didn’t connect with the earlier leadership. But it all has to be strategic and you have to execute on it—it doesn’t make any sense to hope something will happen.

What would be a best practice in terms of ensuring that allies of the outgoing leader remain firmly in your camp?

Barden: One of the things that should be done is making sure that you are creating relationships that are based on mutual support of the institution itself. Some of those relationships are also going to be personal, but if they are only personal then that’s a problem. If you have gotten out of calibration on that, when you see the end of the leadership tenure coming, then that’s a good time to recalibrate and to reinforce the mission and importance of your school.

How do you reach out to those potential supporters who haven’t been donating or participating as much in recent years?

Barden: It is usually done by having what I would call the welcome tour. You take the new leader around and introduce him or her to your external constituents in their local venue and you make an effort to reach out to them either directly or through intermediaries, volunteers, etc. Make sure people who may have been disenfranchised during the previous leadership get access to the new one. There is a whole series of techniques that are well known to advancement professionals on how best to do this.

How much time should you expect to have with this new leader and how do you impress upon her or him your priorities and goals?

Barden: That’s a great question that was talked about a lot during the panel discussion. The search process itself can go a long way towards answering that question because the external priorities of the new leader should have been well expressed in the search criteria and discussed at length in the interviews. When the institution writes a position specification, it prioritizes how the new leader will spend his or her time—frankly, that external relations and fundraising component is without exception one of the top three priorities for new deans and presidents these days. And so you can take your cue from the leadership of the institution—what the board or the senior administration have expressed in terms of their expectations—and you build from there.

It is always a negotiation process—everybody is going to want a piece of your new leader. You have to have an advancement leader be in the position to negotiate and say, “Look, fundraising is forty percent of this person’s priority, so I need forty percent of his or her time.” The best way to get that time and the best way to ensure that you will always get it is to use it productively and that’s why you’ve got to have a plan.

Are you suggesting a 10- or 20-page document or is it more about the advancement leader having a plan in his or her mind and knowing how to approach the new university leader?

Barden: I’m suggesting it needs to be a written strategy with goals, a methodology to address those goals, and steps of execution. I think the days of “trust me, we know what we are doing” are basically over.

Are development leaders at most institutions doing this kind of strategic work, or could they be doing it better?

Barden: A lot of institutions are doing it, but they can always be doing it better. I think the quality of this planning is inconsistent. That’s not a surprise but I think advancement leadership needs to take its own fate in hand and really get out in front of it. They shouldn’t wait to be asked to create a written plan.

The style of the plan has to reflect the style of the organization and its advancement leader. I wouldn’t prescribe whether it should be a two-page synopsis or a 200-page notebook. It can be done millions of different ways, but it just needs to be done effectively.
It also helps to learn how your new leader wants to learn. Is this somebody who wants to read an expansive document or bullet points? Is this somebody who wants access to notes or to hear it verbally? How does your new leader want to be prepared? How does he or she want to make decisions, based on what kind of input, and delivered in what way? That’s a critical part of the transition process.

How about the overlap between the outgoing and incoming leader? How do you handle that transition from an advancement perspective?

Barden: That’s another question that came up during the course of the panel. If your former leader leaves town and is out of sight and out of mind, he of she is gone and you deal with the absence. But what happens when your former leader doesn’t go away? That is even more problematic.

One of the ways to get around this is to build a good relationship between your new leader and your former leader. If they have a candid and friendly relationship, then things tends to go better. Or if they don’t go well, then the one can say to the other, “you need to back off here.” You can use your institutional leadership here as well. Sometimes it’s your president or provost or board chair who has to tell someone to back off.

These things work well when your former leader endorses your new leader and defers to him or her and transfers his or her relationships to the new leader with some kind of endorsement. If that’s not going to happen, the worst-case scenario obviously is passive opposition, but at some point it’s not unusual that somebody has to step in, and it’s usually not the advancement leader.

Which leads to the last question—how does this scenario change when the transition is an ugly one or someone has been fired or forced out?

Barden: I think you want to agree on messages. It is important that the institution has a series of talking points and messages that are forthright and honest and that say as much that can be said. And frankly I believe you are often better off if you tell people what can’t be said. The problem with personnel actions is that usually only one side can do the talking. I think it’s important that the other side at least be able to say, “Look, we’d love to but we can’t.” I think too often institutions don’t say anything and feel that everybody should take their side. That usually just doesn’t happen without careful messaging.

Also, I think getting out in front of the story is critical. One has to be really careful about the degree to which you celebrate the new leadership because you don’t want to “dis” the former leadership even if something has gone wrong and the turnover in leadership is an unhappy one. But you also have an opportunity to really celebrate the arrival of new thinking, of a new day. It requires more careful planning and extremely careful messaging. It’s important that message be strongly communicated throughout the institution. It can’t sound like everybody is just parading a company line but I think usually there are three to six key points that can be reiterated at every chance. Especially if those points are sensible and honest they will generally carry the day.

By Paul Thomas, Witt/Kieffer Senior Writer (@PaulWThomas)

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Listen here for an interview with Dennis Barden on executive recruitment for advancement professionals, published by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).


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