Marcia Brown Mintz
Newly appointed college and university presidents are welcomed enthusiastically and inaugurated ceremoniously amidst excitement, new ideas, and hope for the future. Yet, the term can also begin against a backdrop of pressure points that may include budget constraints, enrollment disruption, imperatives for diversity, equity and belonging, competing faculty priorities, and community and staff concerns. All can be intensified by the speed and spread of social media and media attention.
How can a new president best become oriented, be guided by trustees, faculty leaders, and top administrators, and set the right tone for their presidency — all in the first year? One approach is to develop an integrated first-year plan.
Developing a first-year plan brings institutional intentionality and structure to the presidential transition. An integrated first-year plan is distinguished by customization and by considering the interests of the individual, the governing bodies, campus leaders, and other campus constituencies along with the institution’s present circumstances. It is designed to support the new president both individually and as a member of the community through structured experiences and guided reflection as the new president gains traction and enlivens their new role.
Customization is key because every situation is different. Whether the president was hired from outside the institution or appointed from within, and whether experienced or new to the role, the transition into the presidency brings complicated shifts in responsibilities and professional identity for the president. All new presidents can benefit from a rich, well-designed, first-year plan to help them excel in their new role.
Drawing up the first-year plan is a collaborative process including the new president, key members of the board and select others depending on the context. It presents opportunity for the board and other senior colleagues to anticipate organizational and strategic shifts for the institution and to be reminded of what are likely to be challenging features of the year ahead. It also opens opportunity to set reasonable expectations for the president consistent with the circumstances of the appointment and what the individual brings to the job — expertise, experience, and enthusiasms.
For example, a president appointed from within might benefit from a plan designed to help them see the institution through fresh eyes, interact with old colleagues in new ways, and take up a new role in a familiar place. The plan for a president coming into a new institution — particularly one facing urgent challenges — might consider how to manage and set realistic community expectations for interventions in the first year. The plan for a president who is a “first” also might factor in the community’s particular take on that distinction. All plans need to recognize the new president’s unique situation and incorporate the institution’s culture, principles, and vision, and its system of local, regional, national, and global relationships — and to do so from both the president’s vantage point and those of the key stakeholders.
At the most basic level, the first-year plan could cover
- Key introductions and a listening tour
- Institutional characteristics and dynamics — history, evolving identity, strategic imperatives, culture
- The academic calendar and schedule of key gatherings, deliverables, decisions, and travel
- Communication norms and channels (even media training)
It should also include opportunity for reflection (e.g., gaining perspective on challenges, both what is working and how to handle things differently) and resources for individualized development and feedback (e.g., through executive coaching).
The plan might also emphasize leadership development, which could include building strong and productive relationships, perhaps along with attention to related expertise in the areas of effective communication, conflict management, difficult conversations, influence and buy-in, supporting campus leaders, engaging with faculty, alumni relations, and interactions with students and their families.
Another specialized focus of the plan might be the locus of control and layers of decision-making involving faculty governing bodies, the governing board, staff organizations, student government, alumni organizations, and beyond the campus at the local, state, and federal levels. Studying decision-making and authority across the institution can be supported by techniques such as CFAR’s Decision Charting tool. Decision charting contributes nuanced understanding through mapping of authority and roles across the campus. The charting itself is simple yet highly effective for learning about, keeping track of, and even optimizing decision-making processes. Any decision can be charted, and doing so engages leaders and those who work together in important conversations about roles, authority, and process.
A selection of key decision charts and the process to create them can serve several purposes in the president’s first year. They can:
- Inform the first-year plan
- Contribute to the president’s understanding of institutional context and constraints
- Inform the president’s understanding of leadership dynamics
- Better familiarize the president and board members with the roles and influence of leaders across the community in key decisions that affect the institution and the presidency.
All new presidents and their institutions face bold challenges as they transition to new leadership, and they stand to benefit from a customized first-year plan with attention to what has gone before and an eye on the future.