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The Pick and the Process: Leading a Presidential Search in the Digital Age

Investing in both the presidential pick and the process will prepare institutions for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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January 22, 2016

This article originally appeared in Trusteeship Magazine in November/December 2015.

By Celeste Watkins-Hayes

The most important job of a board of trustees is selecting a president. When Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College’s ninth president, announced her retirement after 13 years of outstanding service, the Spelman board launched an extensive process to identify her successor. The board chair, Rosalind Brewer, appointed me, an alumna and vice chair of the board, to lead the effort. The following are my insights on the search process.

Presidential searches should have two main goals. The ultimate goal, of course, is to select a leader who will move the institution in the right direction. But many overlook the second goal: to design and execute a leadership selection process that bolsters rather than undermines the institution’s strength. As campus stakeholders weigh in and search politics unfold, the symbolic importance of the journey becomes just as critical as its practical execution. Therefore, when searching for your next president, it is wise to invest heavily in both the pick and the process.

A well-conceived and effectively executed presidential search begins with instilling confidence in the institution’s stakeholders, which facilitates the search team’s work by establishing credibility. A controversial search process sets up what might be an otherwise exceptional hire for a difficult introduction to the campus community, saddling her with the task of mending fences that were damaged before she even took office. Ultimately, a presidential search process that is rocky, opaque, or exclusionary—in either perception or reality—fails to serve the brand well.

In this wired age, the dynamics around a presidential search have changed. Copious information about candidates—from online speeches to press appearances to authored publications—is now at our fingertips. Unfortunately, people can also very quickly share speculation and negative views, creating the potential for information that harms the search to go viral. However, by following some important principles, you can minimize these risks and lead a presidential search process that positively engages your campus community and successfully transitions your college or university into its next chapter.

PLAN THE PROCESS

Careful thought and meticulous execution were the cornerstones of our search. As search chair, I became a student of presidential searches. AGB’s 2013 book A Complete Guide to Presidential Search for Universities and Colleges was very helpful. It was also important to understand how Spelman had conducted presidential searches in the past. What worked well? What didn’t? What was the political history of presidential searches at the college? I spoke to all of the chairs of Spelman’s previous presidential searches as well as some former trustees, faculty, staff, and alumnae with deep institutional memory. I was struck by how clearly people remembered the searches for the last three presidents and had lessons to impart. From those conversations, we gleaned ideas to be replicated, pitfalls to avoid, and areas of sensitivity for our stakeholders that we took into account during the process planning. The talks also opened a two-way channel of communication between the search chair and some of the institution’s most valuable stakeholders.

LESSON: Doing the research on your institution’s presidential-search history will help you identify aspects of a standard search process that you can adjust to fit your institution’s culture.

Once I understood the search process and its history at Spelman, I began sketching out a timeline with the board chair, using AGB’s recommended timeline as a baseline and shaping it to our institutional context. We presented a draft to the board during a retreat a few weeks prior to the president’s official retirement announcement, and we led an executive session in which board members talked about the items that should be on the agenda of the next president.

The board thought a great deal about the end game, specifically whether we intended to bring one or multiple finalists to campus to meet the college community. We knew that sunshine laws require many public institutions to release the names of all finalists. However, private institutions increasingly run closed searches, presenting only one candidate, often after the official board vote has taken place.

A plan to present only one finalist to the campus community offers several advantages. First, we knew that, in this digital age, many high-profile prospects would not participate in an open search for fear of jeopardizing their current positions or signaling leadership instability in their organizations. Moreover, we understood that some would be leery of potentially compromising their “brand” should they be publicly unsuccessful in their pursuits. Finally, we recognized that the search committee, charged with recommending one candidate to the board after a thorough vetting process, would have the most information about the candidates and the most informed perspective on the pool as a whole. Campus stakeholders attending one event would be forming opinions based on limited information. If Candidate A performs the best during a one- or two-day visit, but Candidate B is actually the best fit for the job, how will Candidate B be viewed by the campus when she gets the job over Candidate A? How will that hamstring her initial efforts as president?

Nevertheless, given the high-engagement culture of the Spelman community, we knew that adopting a completely closed process would generate considerable but understandable resistance. We therefore chose a hybrid approach: invite only one finalist to campus, postponing the board vote until after the campus visit. This allowed the campus community to meet the finalist and provide feedback before any official action was taken. We shared this plan from the beginning and reiterated it throughout the search to attract candidates and give stakeholders time to digest the strategy, ask questions, raise concerns, and understand this as the approach that would build the best possible applicant pool. Should the invited finalist prove not to be a good fit during the campus visit, we could invite another person to campus.

The search committee, however, viewed the need to invite another candidate as highly unlikely given the extensive vetting process that took place prior to the campus visit. We sent strong signals to the invited finalist and discussed the preliminary terms of a contract as a show of confidence and to ensure that all parties were on the same page. We recognized that this hybrid approach carried some risk: the candidate’s name would go viral, but without a formal job offer. However, we believed that this was a reasonable risk if it meant running an inclusive process that the campus community could trust.

LESSON: Message your search strategy early and often so that stakeholders know what to expect well before you arrive at the end game.

BUILD THE TEAM

The next step was to mobilize the search team. (A separate entity, the transition group, focused on planning and executing the thank-you and farewell events for Dr. Tatum and organizing the on-boarding process for the incoming president.) A smooth process depends on forming a highly competent group that has the savvy, experience, vision, and interpersonal skills to plan and execute it optimally.

For the presidential search committee, it is important to assemble a group that brings excellent skills to the task at hand, instills trust and credibility among the institution’s constituent groups, works together cohesively, and can sell the opportunity to candidates through enthusiasm and professionalism. It is also very important to appoint people who will attend all meetings, read all assigned materials, and bring their A-games to the conversation. We knew that many people would desire or even expect a seat on the presidential search committee, which is typically appointed by the board chair or other nominating body. We sought to be as inclusive as possible, but we tried to avoid “obligatory” appointments. Here are some key questions to ask when selecting search committee members:

  • What technical expertise can this person bring to the table? We had specialists in finance and budget, law, human resources, fundraising, and higher education, among other areas.
  • Are all of the institution’s constituencies (students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, trustees, and friends of the college) represented in some meaningful way?
  • Do we have the right mix of personalities? It is critically important to bring together smart, discerning people, but it is just as important that they know how to disagree without being disagreeable. The search chair should not be bogged down mediating intra-group conflicts.
  • Is there diversity on the committee in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, religion, length of tenure with the institution, etc.?
  • Do you have confidence in each person’s ability and willingness to keep the proceedings confidential?

Keeping the committee to a reasonable number will be challenging, as there will be many highly qualified people who care deeply about the institution and would be honored to serve. Some institutions create separate search advisory boards. With a fairly large 15-member search committee, we opted not to do this. Instead, I set up monthly one-on-one calls with key members of the college community to update them on the search and hear their ideas, many of which we adopted. We enlisted people to help us engage with their particular constituency groups. When the finalist visited campus, we invited these individuals to attend small “preview” events the day before the formal visit to provide opportunities for more intimate interaction.

LESSON: There are many options for meaningfully engaging stakeholders in a search; search committee membership is not the only tool.

In our meetings, we used the “round robin” technique, asking each member to offer his/her comments (and starting with a different lead person each time) to ensure that no one would dominate the conversation and to create a space for respectful disagreement. This also helped to level the playing field insofar as search committee members came into the process with a range of titles, expertise, and search experience.

Three other entities can play significant roles in the search process:

First, through a competitive RFP process that resulted in strong proposals from several excellent firms, we hired a search firm shortly after Dr. Tatum’s retirement announcement. In addition to considering the strength of the firm’s proposal, its reputation, the quality of references given, and the interview performance, we found it wise also to consider the institutions with which the firm had previously worked and the diversity of the proposed team. The firm’s network will become your search’snetwork, so ideally you will select a firm that has worked with both peerand aspirational peer institutions. Open, positive communication between search consultants and the search chair is critical. I talked extensively with our search consultants and encouraged them to provide their candid perspectives. While never overstepping, the consultants offered invaluable context.

Second, we appointed a dedicated executive-search administrator (ESA) to assist us throughout the process. An ESA can help the search chair finalize the search timeline and facilitate its execution, draft correspondence and other documents, plan search-related events, manage search accounting and expense reimbursements, liaise with the search firm, and staff the search committee during and between meetings.

Some institutions appoint an employee to do this work. Given the magnitude of the commitment involved, and depending on your search design and the scope of your outreach efforts, it is wise to consider bringing in an outside party. This can help safeguard the confidentiality of the process, relieving a current employee of the burden of having information that attracts so much curiosity. We were fortunate to be able to engage a former employee of the college as our ESA. This person knew the institution well and knew how to move the right levers to get things done but was able to offer a fresh perspective from beyond campus. A lawyer by training who understood well the importance of process and confidentiality, she became a trusted adviser.

LESSON: For the search administrator role, consider engaging a former employee who left the institution on favorable terms or an individual who has served as a consultant to the institution.

Finally, we convened a synergy group, made up of three campus officials, the ESA, another search committee member, and myself. The synergy group assisted with stakeholder communications, compiled primer materials for candidates and the search firm, assisted with searchrelated events, and helped devise internal strategy. Although the synergy group did not have access to confidential candidate information, members drew on their indepth knowledge of the college to advise on how best to engage the campus community throughout the process.

EXECUTE WISELY

With a clear and collaborative process plan and an outstanding team to implement it, you are ready to operationalize your vision for the search process. As search chair, I created a daily plan of action, informed by the search timeline, my weekly work plan, and emerging issues. On a typical day, I engaged in scheduled and unscheduled calls, crafted and polished emails and documents, and reviewed candidate dossiers. Running a presidential search entails a sustained commitment that can be taxing but profoundly rewarding.

LESSON: No matter how well you plan or execute, there will be challenges. You will make mistakes and perhaps even step on a few political landmines. You can recover.

As we executed our plan, we constantly emphasized confidentiality. Some might argue that confidentiality in such a search is unattainable in this wireless age. Information that slips out can cause promising candidates to pull out of the process if they don’t trust the professionalism of the players, and stakeholders may respond disruptively to leaked information. We understood that we were dealing with people’s livelihoods and wanted to be respectful and careful. As in many aspects of the search, the search chair sets the tone and therefore must develop a very strong and disciplined filter, having substantive conversations with stakeholders while nevertheless protecting confidential information.

ENGAGE THE CONSTITUENTS

We reminded stakeholders that the ultimate authority to select the next president lies with the board. But we nevertheless recognized the intense interest in the search and knew that “opening the tent” would be extremely valuable. So how do you engage stakeholders without undermining the confidentiality of the process or inviting too many cooks into the kitchen? How do you create an appropriately inclusive and appropriately transparent process?

We viewed the search process as an opportunity to strengthen the board’s relationships with campus stakeholders and to create a collective moment of reflection on Spelman’s future.

We sought to establish transparency and encourage inclusion early on by educating people about the presidential selection process. Providing stakeholders with an approximate timeline of the search and sharing some of the logic driving decision making allowed people to understand the systematic method by which the next president would be selected. We presented a slide show to groups of faculty, student leaders, alumnae, administrators, parents, and staff leaders about the search and encouraged people to ask questions and give feedback.

Stakeholders were offered four ways to participate in the search: attend a listening session hosted by the search committee and facilitated by the search consultants (we held several on campus and in four cities with large alumnae presence), complete an online survey about the college and its future direction, nominate candidates or sources that should be solicited for nominees, and attend events to meet the finalist during the campus visit.

The search chair, board chair, search consultants, and several search committee members invested considerable time in campus outreach, calling or meeting with members of the campus community in order to solicit their feedback, gather their nominations, and connect them to the process. We “worked the phones,” proactively reaching out to deeply networked members of the campus community to address any concerns.

Being inclusive also involved keeping the sitting president and trustees informed. We invited the president to offer a state-of-the-college presentation to the search committee at its first meeting, ensuring that committee members had current information with regards to college fundraising, enrollment, budget, academic affairs, operations, etc. As search chair, I spoke regularly with Dr. Tatum about the process. The board received regular updates through email and during our board meetings. While we could not share the names of candidates outside of the search committee, we could gather nominations and listen to endorsements. The board chair and I also sent regular email updates to the campus community, and the presidential search website included the search timeline, the schedule of search-related events, instructions for nominations, bios of search committee members and search firm consultants, and the leadership profile.

LESSON: Set a tone of collaborative and constructive dialogue through your outreach strategies. Try to be as open-minded as possible and recognize that great ideas will come through exchanges with the campus community.

LISTEN TO FEEDBACK

Campus stakeholders typically offer a great deal of feedback during a search. Having a systematic and efficient way to collect and review that information, packaged by the ESA for the search chair’s review, proved to be very helpful. We could identify in real time the ideas, suggestions, and areas of concern that were most frequently offered and adjust accordingly. We included an FAQ page on the presidential search website, addressing areas that had generated the greatest number of queries. Inevitably, tensions arose between the internal workings of the search and the desires and external perceptions of campus constituents. When they did, we tried to be as forthright as possible about our constraints so that stakeholders could have some sense of why we were unable to adopt a proposed strategy. Adjusting our approach when possible increased the overall level of inclusivity and transparency in the search; it is the role of the search chair to strike that balance between flexibility and firmness.

LESSON: In such a moment of institutional change, it is important to recognize that stakeholder anxiety will sometimes be expressed unconstructively. Assume the best intentions from all involved.

ENCOURAGE AN ISSUES-DRIVEN SEARCH

From the beginning, we entertained many different ideas about the profile of the person who should be Spelman’s next president and spiritedly floated candidate names. We considered several talented people, so we knew that we needed clear rubrics to determine who would be the best person to lead Spelman at this moment in the institution’s history.

We promoted the concept of an issues-driven search, leading a dialogue about the key issues facing the college now and into the future and the strategic direction of the institution. We felt that if we encouraged the campus community to debate a desired biographical profile (academic vs. non-academic; a background in the for-profit vs. nonprofit vs. public sector; established figure vs. growing profile), we might make it more difficult to build consensus. We would also be speaking in the abstract, evaluating unnamed candidates with one defining characteristic rather than taking a holistic approach to candidate assessment.

Our issues-driven approach allowed us to ultimately focus on identifying the strategic challenges and opportunities that we believed would require the next president’s attention. We collected ideas through the listening sessions, the search website, and one-on-one conversations with key stakeholders. Some wanted very specific issues addressed; others identified broader strategic concerns on the landscape of higher education. This process helped us identify strengths and opportunities that we could articulate in the leadership profile. Thus we wanted candidates—through past and proven experience, leadership style, and forwardthinking vision—to fit the leadership profile and demonstrate how they would move Spelman forward. The profile provided our campus community with a clearly articulated statement of aspiration, helping the search committee marry campus needs with candidate backgrounds, skills, and expertise.

BUILD THE POOL

Building the pool of candidates requires a dynamic and collaborative process that leaves no stone unturned. Candidates move in and out of the pool, so it is critical to continue engaging prospects until you form the right group. Using the leadership profile as a guide, we explored “aspirational” candidates with the background and experience that would be a windfall for the college, “strong” choices with excellent credentials, and “stretch” candidates with excellent skills but less experience in roles of this magnitude. Interviewing a range of candidates created a diverse pool that encouraged the search committee to imagine several models of leadership for the college.

LESSON: Some unexpected, but not ideal, candidates will enter the search. Other candidates who seem ideal will drop out. The pool will shift frequently. Your job as search chair is to help build the best pool possible so that the search committee has excellent options.

THE INTERVIEWING PROCESS

The search committee conducted two rounds of in-person interviews, using questions designed by a subcommittee. We invited all board members to participate in the second round of interviews with our three semi-finalists, creating the first of multiple opportunities for trustees to engage with the president-elect prior to the board vote. Our interviews covered a wide range of topics, including the candidates’ backgrounds and preparation for the role, experience with college administration, and strategic ideas for higher education. We were deeply grateful to the candidates for their willingness to enter the process and were humbled by their accomplishments.

INTRODUCTION TO THE CAMPUS COMMUNITY

We arranged a three-day campus visit for the finalist. This would involve a grueling marathon of intense engagement with all of our constituency groups, but it would also affirm our commitment to an appropriately inclusive and transparent process. Whether attending an in-person event, reading about the candidate online, or viewing a webcast of her town hall session, everyone in the Spelman community could learn about the recommended finalist prior to the official board vote. We offered an online survey to collect stakeholder feedback, underscoring that survey results would be one of several data points informing the search committee’s final recommendation to the board of trustees.

As we anticipated, the news media reported the finalist’s name within minutes of the college’s releasing it. Her cell phone and email inbox were flooded with messages of support. Because only a fraction of our campus community could attend the in-person campus forums, many gathered their information about the candidate through social media and by exploring her online presence. By the conclusion of the first day of the visit, I had received several voicemails, text messages, emails, and social-media messages. This gave us up-to-the-minute impressions of the finalist, helping us identify topics that stakeholders wanted to learn more about as we structured a forum with the candidate that members of the campus community could access online.

In this sense, the finalist’s biography that is circulated to the campus community is critically important, as it shapes initial impressions of the candidate. It should be tailored to inform both the media and your institution’s stakeholders. If major institutional changes are on the horizon, emphasize the candidate’s prior accomplishments in leading transformation. If the candidate has personal connections to your institution or ones like it (e.g., liberal arts college, women’s college, HBCU), that information should be included. It is also important to present the candidate’s fundraising experience. Through the biographical statement, the search committee is not only introducing the candidate’s credentials but also signaling why she was chosen as a finalist.

THE VOTE

Following the campus visit, the committee reviewed the feedback, which was overwhelmingly positive. We met with the finalist to thank her for an outstanding campus visit and to register our unwavering support. After a unanimous vote, the committee presented the finalist’s name to the board, recommending that she be elected as the tenth president of Spelman College.

During this very special meeting, the motion carried unanimously and enthusiastically, naming Mary Schmidt Campbell as Spelman College’s president-elect. The dean emerita of the Tisch School of the Arts and university professor in the Department of Art and Public Policy at New York University, Dr. Campbell is an accomplished scholar and a recognized leader in both the public and nonprofit sectors. Captivating the search committee and trustees from her first interview, she demonstrated, through her brilliance, vision, creativity, and grace, that she is the right leader at the right time for Spelman.

CONCLUSION

Spelman’s rich history and bright future fuel a highly committed community of students, faculty, staff, alumnae, parents, trustees, and other supporters. Our sense of institutional commitment registers at the highest decibels. We recognize that Spelman has a critical presence in higher education, and its mission is still vitally important as we consider the work that remains to ensure that all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or class, have access to opportunity.

The weight and significance of the search for our tenth president never escaped the many individuals who contributed to the process. We sought to continue our tradition of outstanding executive leadership, honoring the transformative work of Beverly Daniel Tatum and those who came before her. We needed to do justice to the courageous women and men who built Spelman, those who support the college today, and those who will be a part of it in the future. We are truly honored to have Dr. Campbell lead us into this next chapter.

Colleges and universities appointing new presidents over the next several years will do so in the context of dramatic transformation in higher education. Longstanding ideas about the value, necessity, affordability, and quality of a college education are now openly contested. Some institutions will not survive—all will be forced to change. Boards will be tasked with identifying the best leaders for the times: individuals who can enhance the competitive advantage of their institutions, offer energetic servant-leadership, and present a vision for education that is simultaneously global and local, future-oriented and historically rooted, boldly assertive and pragmatically grounded. Boards must identify and attract presidents who will provide inspired leadership in a transforming world. Investing in both the presidential pick and the process will prepare colleges and universities for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Celeste Watkins-Hayes is associate professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research. She also serves as a vice chair for the Spelman College board of trustees.

Topics: Opinion