How to nail your higher ed. institution’s next presidential transition. How to nail your higher ed. institution’s next presidential transition.

Every decade or so – give or take a few years – the president of your higher education institution will near the end of their tenure. A change in leadership is an essential and healthy milestone for all universities and colleges. But it’s much more than a human resources exercise. 

A presidential transition will almost certainly be the biggest change your institution will undergo. It will impact every member of your internal and external communities throughout the entire process, and its impact can be felt for years to come. 

So it needs to be executed with precision.

Which is why your higher ed. communications team must be involved in every conversation, meeting and committee that sees through the transition from start to finish. Why? 

Because your school needs to nail the exit. And the landing. 

Knowing how and when to reach out to your many, diverse stakeholders is one thing, but there are a whole set of hidden opportunities at your fingertips that can enhance campus pride, strengthen relationships and even inspire donors. 

With strategic planning, insight and a few gems within your reach, your communications team can ace each fundamental piece of this major transition – and set a precedent for future presidential changeovers.

Phase One: Your Outgoing President’s Victory Lap.

It happens to many colleges and universities: You get so excited about what’s ahead that you neglect to fully reflect on and celebrate the past. 

  • The good thing about presidential transitions is most of the time we can anticipate them years in advance. And that’s when we need to be thinking about what your outgoing president’s legacy is going to look like. Over those last years, there may have been a strategic plancapital campaign, or rebrand in the works.
  • If your leadership and institution happened to knock it out of the park by doing all three of these projects, bravo. Shout that from the rooftops. Your communications team is going to have a cornucopia of messages and assets from which to define your outgoing president’s legacy. Let the fun begin.

Because, by the time you’re ready to announce your president is moving on, the hard work is over. Now all you have to do is applaud it. 

The golden phase.

  • This is your institution’s time to get sentimental and talk about its past – both recent and distant. It’s your golden phase. Reflect on your outgoing president’s years and legacy in your messaging and communications. And celebrate and revisit your historical footprints. Take a tour through your historical buildings and re-tell your school’s storied history with colour and a renewed freshness. 
  • Talk about how far you’ve come, too. Not every campus has a perfect track record. Be transparent and see if you can revisit past mistakes. How has your campus changed for the better? What was learned? Doing all of the above will get the nostalgia flowing with your stakeholders, and their roots within your institution will grow deeper. 

The bottom line: Give your outgoing president the recognition and farewell they deserve before transitioning to your incoming president. These are two distinct phases and milestones and are effectively hard stops. Each deserves its time in the spotlight – for the presidents, for the clarity of your audiences, and for the benefit of your institution and the stories you’re telling. 

For your outgoing president, it’s a chance to really celebrate their legacy and the progress your institution has made, to allow your stakeholders to breathe it all in. Embrace it. You don’t get this kind of window very often.

Phase Two: Search & Recruitment and The Awkward Phase.

The second phase is two phases rolled into one. The search and recruitment phase is more technical and human resource-focused. And the second can be . . . awkward. Read on.

Search & Recruitment.

You already know this: At every step of the way, you need to keep your stakeholders in the loop on what’s happening. But how do you divvy it up when it comes to internal and external stakeholders?

  • Your external stakeholders will have some interest in the major milestones, but it’s probably not necessary to involve them with the smaller day-to-day moments. Your internal audiences, however, will be invested in search and recruitment most of the way – particularly your faculty and executive. Externally, your major donors will want to be apprised of major milestones during this time.
  • When you’ve formed your search committee, make sure your internal stakeholders know. When you’ve hired an executive recruitment firm, communicate that, too. And when you’re conducting interviews (if they’re not open to public view) all of your internal and external stakeholders should have an interest.

On that note, there may be pressure to keep candidate interviews open. Weigh the pros and cons for your institution, because open interviews of course reveal who candidates are, and for obvious reasons, they may not want that information public. Either way, be sure to have messaging ready to defend your rationale for proceeding with open or closed interviews. 

Operationally, you have a treasure trove of search and recruitment layers to communicate. Sharing this information with stakeholders will go a long way in building trust and transparency into a major milestone, and in dictating how smoothly the entire the presidential transition goes. 

  • You’ve completed your search and interviews, and the board has made its decision. Congratulations, your institution has chosen its next president! There’s just one thing. Technically you have two presidents. 

Now what?

Enter the awkward phase. 

Everyone is understandably excited. But remember – you’re still communicating the legacy of the outgoing president, hitting all the institution’s nostalgic and historical notes, and although we won’t cover it here, you’ve still got two big events to plan. 

  • Your communications must absolutely follow a schedule to avoid overlap, confusion and uncomfortable moments. You don’t really want to be tweeting about the how the outgoing president’s vision led to the successful implementation of your higher ed’s strategic plan three minutes after you’ve sent out a news release announcing a major presidential search committee milestone.  
  • Whether your next president is internal or external will also dictate which audiences you will initially target for communications and messaging. A candidate from your higher ed. institution will be more or less known to your internal community, so you may want to focus more externally. But a president coming from another community is going to be of great interest to your internal stakeholders. 

Communications logistics of internal vs. external incoming president

There are logistical considerations to ponder, which will be impacted by whether or not your incoming president is internal or external:

  • If your incoming president is new to your school, do you plan a public format where both presidents can be seen together? Look at the pros and cons of such an arrangement. Some schools feel a meeting at a neutral school event demonstrates continuity, which may be important to your community. But continuity may be the last thing wanted, and such as symbolic gesture could backfire. 
  • Does your next president start meeting internal and/or external stakeholders and partners before their term starts? Or do you wait until they’re on the job?
  • What will your presidential transition look like in terms of media appearances, initiative takeovers and information briefings?

Your institution’s culture will dictate your decisions. The important thing is to create a plan and communicate clear expectations for everyone, thereby minimizing the disruption . . . and awkwardness.

Phase Three: Your Higher Ed. Institution’s First Year with the Next President.

Before the torch is officially passed, you need to consider a few key agenda items to start preparing for the very moment your next president has been chosen (but not yet installed). Here’s what you can expect to tackle starting in phase two and overlapping into phase three.

Spoiler alert: YOU get to innovate!

  • Change things up. New leadership is a perfect time to think about ways to update your institution’s story, take advantage of opportunities for organizational change management initiatives, and update key messages according to the vision of your incoming president.

Think about new presidential traditions and rituals, meetings, recognition ceremonies, or appreciation events. Will your next president do a tour of the campus? What will that look like and achieve? Will they start a monthly, or weekly, media briefing? Will they consider a weekly live Twitter session for students? Are they going to get on Tik Tok? And what will their hashtag be?

  • Be more diverse and inclusive A change in leadership affords you an opportunity to drop traditions and start new ones. Your next president can be the agent your university or college has been looking for. Start fresh. Consult and connect with specialized groups such as Indigenous students to see if they want contact with the incoming president, and how that would work.  
  • Media training. Whether or not your next president previously had media training, they may not have been trained by your institution, and certainly not in the role in which they now serve. Plan to incorporate media training for your incoming president before installation.
  • Expertise? Check. You should also note that if your president is an expert in a specific field of study, they should be made available to the media in this role, as well. Undoubtedly, they’ll have to dial back their contact media with as an academic given the demands of the presidential job, but whenever possible, this will maintain their credibility as an expert in their field during their long presidential tenure, demonstrate their breadth of their roles on your campus, and contribute to the institution’s earned media assets.
  • Strategize about social media. Next, have your social media team develop a strategy specifically for your next president. Think outside of the box. Wouldn’t it be memorable if they sang tunes on their Tik Tok while walking from the administrative offices to their weekly meet with students? If the president is new to campus, take advantage of their fresh perspective and have them post their musings, observations, videos and pics – complete with their penchant for Oxford commas and double spacing after periods. Doing so will translate authentically to audiences (and if done well, rekindle school pride) – especially if it comes straight from the source.

When you’ve got your social media strategy in place, launch your institution’s presidential accounts (or relaunch if existing channels have been dormant). Your students – and prospects – are watching, as well as other stakeholders like faculty, staff, and media. Make it count.

  • Introduce your new president. Congrats, you’ve finally rounded the corner. It’s time for introductions – share them with the world and let the fun begin!

The honeymoon period

Take full advantage of the honeymoon period that follows when your next president begins their tenure. Work with the president to develop lighthearted and endearing story ideas that news and trade media will be happy to cover (before they dive into asking hard-hitting questions). 

One last note: Notice that we’ve been careful about language. Your outgoing president is not the “old” president. Nor is your incoming president “new.” (Until after installation, and then it will need to transition to “new.”) Subtle language choices are part of the big mix, and using thoughtful language is part of a successful transition.

A higher education institution’s presidential transition is never easy. It takes heart and skill to navigate. But when you take the transition phase by phase, you can minimize disruption and anxiety as much as possible for everyone involved. 

And when you do, your team will confidently say you nailed it.

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