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Preparing Leaders for the Future

December 30, 1899


Gailda Pitre Davis

Higher education is at a crossroads for leadership preparation and planning. According to research conducted by the American Council on Education, 58% of today's college presidents are over the age of 61. If just half of these presidents choose to retire in the next five years, a quarter of college presidencies—approximately 1,000 positions—would become vacant. It is unquestionable that we must prepare the next cadre of leaders for higher education, but the best method by which we should do this remains unclear. One suggestion for grooming future leaders in a way that will sustain higher education is through succession planning, and perhaps now is the time to consider this approach seriously.

Succession planning, long upheld as a key to sustainable and efficient leadership transitions in corporate America, has gained traction in higher education only recently. Barden proposed that succession planning will be difficult to embrace in higher education because of the egalitarian nature of the academy—"It just doesn't come naturally in academe to single people out for leadership potential"—and the disdain that many senior faculty have for administrative work. It has been further suggested that succession planning runs counter to our ideal of shared governance in higher education. However, I believe that the true difficulty we as a community have in buying into succession planning is our lack of understanding of its true nature. Clarifying the core aspects of succession planning may perhaps make it a bit more palatable for higher education.

Succession Planning Is a Process

Succession planning is a way for an institution to ensure a sufficient source of possible leaders for the future. It creates a systematic process by which institutions can establish a diverse talent pool with both the capacity and the skills to lead the institution into the future. It ensures the sustainability of the institution by preparing individuals to achieve the institution's long-term goals. It is important to note, as Bornstein indicated, that this process must be governed by and have the support of the board, president, administration, and faculty of an institution in order for it to be successful.

Succession Planning Is Leadership Preparation

Most institutions have some concern about the professional development of staff and faculty. For one thing, we know that professional development is often related to morale. Additionally, we know that professional development enables an individual to better perform his or her work duties. However, leadership preparation differs slightly from professional development, which mainly focuses on an individual's current position. Leadership preparation requires thoughtful, careful exposure of individuals to activities that provide them with the skills necessary to be effective leaders as well as to advance in their career. It sharpens their capabilities and advances their knowledge while providing the coaching and guidance necessary for successful leadership. Ultimately, succession planning is all about leadership preparation with the future ideal of leadership replacement.

Succession Planning Is Inclusive

Succession plans that are created by a single individual are doomed to failure in higher education. As noted, it has been questioned whether higher education can accept succession planning because of its culture of shared governance. However, well-laid succession plans can be done in a way that fully recognizes the importance of shared governance. Succession planning at its best is an inclusive process that engages people from various aspects of campus life to create the plan, identify emerging leaders, coach and support future leaders, and evaluate the process by which succession planning takes place at the institution. It is not a means to single out the "chosen one" nor is it meant to perpetuate the "good ol' boy" network; rather, it is a way to create a large pool of diverse, well-prepared candidates to fill multiple leadership positions at an institution.

Succession Planning Is Intentional

By virtue of the fact that the word planning is included, succession planning is not an accidental action. Institutional leaders must be intentional about how individuals are selected and prepared for leadership positions in higher education. Systematic planning is the primary way to keep succession planning intentional. Institutions must be clear about whom they will prepare for leadership positions, how they will prepare those individuals, the resources that will be allocated for such preparation, and the ultimate goal of the process. Furthermore, succession planning involves any number of opportunities for individuals to gain experience and exposure, both inside and outside their institutions, to situations and individuals that can support them in their development as leaders. This requires forethought and careful planning by institutions in order to create growth opportunities for future leaders. This, too, is intentional in nature.

Succession Planning Is Forecasting

Although we cannot be sure of how and when it will happen, one thing is certain about the leadership of our institutions: Eventually, there will be a vacancy to fill. Succession planning involves a keen awareness that key positions may become vacant at any time, for any number of reasons, even if only on a temporary basis. A comprehensive succession plan will provide the basis for selecting an interim replacement for critical positions, outline the means by which to fill the position, clarify the skills and desired characteristics of potential candidates, identify possible internal candidates for the position (who have been properly trained and vetted internally), and suggest the timeframe for concluding the replacement process.

Magner asserted, "Succession planning is going to change higher education," and I agree. Much in the same way that strategic planning, branding, and even technological advances have changed the ways in which we do business, I believe comprehensive, well-thought-out succession plans will indeed affect not just how we function but how well-prepared higher education will be to face the challenges of the coming years. Admittedly, institutions may invest a fair amount of resources in their succession plans only to find that promising leaders ascend to top posts of rival institutions. However, looking beyond the confines of one institution to the needs of our industry as a whole, I firmly believe that succession planning guides the development of a diverse cadre of emerging leaders who will in fact change higher education.

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