Higher Education: The Role of Advancement in Presidential Search and Transition

Presidential transitions in higher education are times of tension and uncertainty, but also opportunity as the new leader brings fresh ideas and energy. Among the overriding issues that the campus community will be concerned or curious about include how a new president will interact with key donors, reach out to alumni, and support fundraising and marketing efforts.

Therefore, it is critical the advancement office have a voice during a presidential search, and play an integral role in ensuring a smooth transition between the old and new regimes. In particular, the chief advancement officer must make sure he or she is heard throughout the hiring process, and then be an essential, right-hand resource as the new president takes over.

Witt/Kieffer senior partner Jon Derek Croteau and consultant Zachary A. Smith have a unique perspective on this matter, having worked closely with various colleges and universities in the recruitment of both chief advancement officers and presidents. They are also co-authors of Making the Case for Leadership: Profiles of Chief Advancement Officers in Higher Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). In addition to profiling ten prominent advancement officers, the book presents an Advancement Leadership Competency Model to help gauge leaders and leadership candidates in this area.

In the interview below, Croteau and Smith share their thoughts about what role advancement must play in presidential recruitment and transitioning.

How should the advancement office be represented in a presidential search? How can it ensure its voice is heard loud and clear?

Zachary Smith

Zachary Smith

Smith: First, it is ideal that the chief advancement officer serve on the search committee. Being on the committee is certainly not a given, but it is hard to imagine many boards not having a clear understanding of how important the advancement competencies are to the success of a president. Through the committee, the chief advancement officer can provide perspective and context about the full spectrum of external relations issues to both the committee and potential candidates. Because the external function has become such an important role of today’s presidents, the chief advancement officer can provide critical input about the campus’s needs related to communications, marketing, alumni relations, government relations, and, of course, fundraising.

Jon Derek Croteau

Jon Derek Croteau

Croteau: Let me add that the chief advancement officer (CAO) can also help assess candidates for their advancement competencies as well as their past successes in regards to furthering advancement goals and initiatives. For university and college presidents today, the ability to understand advancement and its needs is critical. What better way to assess that ability than to have advancement prominently represented on the search committee?

If the CAO is not on the search committee, it is then important for him or her to be intimately involved with the interviewing process and to have an important stake in the decision-making process. The CAO can reach out to members of the board and search committee to convey priorities and discuss advancement issues that are critical to consider as candidates are being interviewed and vetted.

What kinds of issues should advancement look for in potential new presidents as they are being recruited? Is there a best way to voice concerns or praise for specific candidates?

Smith: In addition to assessing a new president’s fit with the culture of the entire campus, the chief advancement officer should also be assessing how potential candidates will fit with donors, trustees, volunteers, media, and alumni. Chief advancement officers have the best understanding of the culture of these various constituent groups, and forming positive and productive relationships with external constituents will be crucial for the success of a new president. The chief advancement officer must make sure he or she communicates what makes these constituencies unique to the specific campus and the community, and the type of president needed to work successfully with these groups once on board.

Croteau: In regards to giving feedback about specific candidates, it is important to be measured and grounded in the facts. What proven results was each candidate able to describe in regards to advancement matters? What role did the candidate play in an institution’s advancement? Call attention to individual candidates’ successes and metrics from past performance, since this is the best indication of future performance.

Feedback provided about candidates should also focus on competencies. What advancement competencies are most essential for the president to possess—intellectual curiosity, effective communications skills, self-awareness, etc.—and does the candidate have those competencies or not? It sounds cut and dry, but this takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the equation.

What kinds of discussions should advancement and development professionals have with the outgoing president?

Smith: I would argue that the discussions advancement professionals have with the outgoing president are based largely on the circumstances surrounding the president’s departure. However, I believe the chief advancement officer should focus primarily on issues and existing relationships the current president has with external constituents, and divide those issues and relationships into three categories: 1) issues and relationships that need immediate attention and stewarding during the transition; 2) those that need attention and stewarding immediately upon the new president’s arrival; and 3) those issues and relationships that need attention and stewarding within six months of a new president’s arrival.

The outgoing president can help evaluate and make those judgments in collaboration with the chief advancement officer prior to his or her departure, and the chief advancement officer can then develop an action plan based on those three categories of issues and relationships.

What should advancement do to prepare itself for an incoming president?

Smith: The advancement office should prepare by first developing a comprehensive summary of external individuals associated with the campus. This summary should include names, photos, background information, and a summary of recent activity reports. A call list should also be provided to the new president so that personal phone calls can be made to high-level constituents. Ideally, these calls should be made immediately upon the announcement of the new president (or just before the announcement). The call list should include the campus’s most important and high-profile constituents (large donors, elected officials, etc.) who need or deserve immediate attention from the new president (those in categories one and two above).  The chief advancement officer should review the call list with the new president, and in some cases help the president during the calls (i.e., sit with and brief the new president as conversations are taking place).

Croteau: The chief advancement officer should also put together a brief overview (1-2 pages) of the advancement division’s strategic plan that includes strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for success in the future. And, of course, incoming presidents should be provided with an historical overview of fundraising data.

Once that president is in place, how can advancement ease the transition and ensure that it has the ear of the new leader?

Croteau: Most chief advancement officers in today’s institutions sit on the president’s cabinet and have significant access to the president, so it’s usually not very difficult for the chief advancement officer to have the ear of the new leader. What is usually more important is for the advancement office to ease the transition of the new leader by ensuring he or she has sufficient information to be successful with external constituents (and not step on any land mines), and that the new leader is provided with detailed briefings for every meeting and/or event scheduled or planned by the advancement office. It’s a matter of keeping the president educated about donors, key stakeholders, and important issues that may arise.

Smith: It takes time to learn how the new leader prefers to work with the chief advancement officer and the entire advancement office once on board. However, chief advancement officers should err on the side of providing too much information rather than too little, especially during the transition and the first 3-6 months on the job. Allowing a new leader to be surprised at a meeting or event about an issue or topic he or she should have known about is not recommended!

By Paul Thomas, Senior Writer

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