III. Building Blocks and Positioning

Leadership Transitions Benefit by a North Star

Dr. Timothy P. White and Dr. Lars T. Walton

Transitions are inevitable and create a moment where campus leaders go, relatively rapidly, from “In the Know” to “Time to Go.” Transitions are often not an easy path to navigate at personal and/or professional levels. Amicable transitions occur over several months if not a year, whereas less than amicable transitions play out on a much shorter timetable; time can be both an enemy and a friend. Authentic retirements into the so-called golden years have different factors in play than do circumstances where one is leaving for another leadership position. The factors are different yet again when it is an unceremonious departure because of a misjudgment of a leader’s own doing or their inappropriate response to a significant campuswide incident. This essay explores types of transitions and delves into some factors and decision points that lead to them and optimize navigating them successfully. We discuss some attributes of leadership itself that help set the table for a positive separation. Of greater importance, this essay offers some strategies—regardless of the reason for the transition—that create a North Star for the transition window that is optimally beneficial to the person—in the here and now as well as for future employment, if that is of interest, but a North Star that also serves well the institution’s core functions and values of student achievement and success, faculty teaching/research/creative activity, staff support, service to and engagement with multiple communities, ongoing philanthropy, and in addition helps set the table for the next leader to succeed. The most altruistic among us will typically put the needs, values, and future of the institution and next leader first. And in so doing, they will optimize creating a transition where personal legacies are preserved and future leadership appointments when desired have a greater probability of materializing.

University and college leadership changes are obviously an inevitable part of higher education. Transitions occur for several reasons and create a moment where campus leaders go from “In the Know” to “Time to Go.” Regardless of the circumstances leading to a transition, transitions are often not an easy path to navigate at personal and/or professional levels, which are often immutably intertwined in engaged authentic leaders. In this essay, we discuss the general types of transitions that occur and some key attributes of good leadership as they set the stage for the inevitable separation. We provide some insights that lead to unexpected departures or short tenures for campus leaders, including some of the generic warning signs that leaders should be alert to. We finish the essay with thoughts for the outgoing leader to manage an exit under varying circumstances. The goal is to minimize personal and institutional harm and leave the institution and position better than it was found.

The Morphology of Transitions

Because of the heterogeneity of reasons for leadership changes, it is imperfect at best to attempt to categorize transition types. With that caveat in mind we categorize transitions into three “bins.” Bin One identifies circumstances where the individual is genuinely retiring from higher education or retiring from a leadership position in a university or college and rejoining the faculty with appropriate responsibilities. Bin Two includes transitions that occur when one voluntarily moves to provide leadership at another university, usually as a step to a larger or more consequential campus. The Bin Three separations are less happy moments of an unceremonious departure. Bin Three separations are infrequent but usually gain disproportionate attention locally, regionally, and/or nationally. While Bin Three separations are to be avoided if at all possible, they occur, for example, when a leader is clearly in over his or her head and ineffective, or where a misjudgment of the leader’s own doing or a campuswide incident that occurred on their watch and the response was inadequate. Bin Three cases usually are departures where a president is forced out by a governing board or a stakeholder revolt that renders them ineffective.

Additional factors that influence the tone and nature of the circumstances surrounding a transition is the length and effectiveness of a leader’s tenure. At one end of the continuum are long-serving and highly successful presidents, and at the other end are short-term less successful or unsuccessful presidents. In the former case, most stakeholders and constituents are likely to “grieve” when losing a beloved long-serving leader who is a respected member of the campus and broader community.

In the center of the service continuum is the case of a campus or system leader who has been in place for four to eight years and done generally good work. In this case some constituents will be pleased by the departure and agree it’s time for fresh new leadership. Other individuals will feel a tinge of betrayal that the separation is premature because there are important initiatives that need to be launched or are currently underway and not yet complete. While this latter emotion is commonly observed, it is in fact illogical because a good campus leader will always have important initiatives in the pipeline as they should fulfill the duties of the president up until the day after they step down.

At the other end of the service continuum are circumstances where a leader has only been in place for a short while and either isn’t up to the task and the campus and community constituents recognize this, or if the person of any length of leadership service becomes disengaged and ineffective with the needs, expectations, and responsibilities of being a president or chancellor.

We will explore these issues and offer suggestions on how an outgoing leader can facilitate a successful transition. Our essay is based on our experiences in, and observations of, higher education. This includes Timothy P. White’s (TPW’s) personal experiences, having had the privilege of providing senior leadership at three R-1 universities plus eight years as Chancellor of the California State University (CSU; twenty-three campuses; over 470,000 students). Before retirement in January 2021, TPW guided, influenced, and observed transitions among twenty of the twenty-three presidents who reported to the chancellor at the CSU. Lars T. Walton’s (LTW’s) experience includes being a vice or associate chancellor at two campuses of the University of California, and for several years as TPW’s Chief of Staff at CSU, where he worked closely on campus presidential transitions. And finally, this opinion is informed by our observations from afar of substantive transitions (good, bad, and ugly) that have occurred around the country.

Leadership Traits That Matter

There is value in considering what attributes make an effective leader who more often or not will then experience a well-managed transition at the end of their service. There is an element of truth that day one on the job as president is also the beginning of a runway—hopefully a long and accomplished one—that leads to a smooth separation transition down the road. Said another way, presidents and chancellors are always on an “interim” appointment as other individuals will precede and follow you.

In this short essay we will touch on only a few key elements of leadership, including building community, listening, shared development of strategic plans, and personal attributes.

Activities that campus leaders typically engage in—such as building trust among faculty and campus leadership, cultivating donor and town/gown relationships, being present at campus and community events—are important because they also build community on campus and in the region. These activities early and during your presidency will also factor into the tone and nature of the transition. The community you have cultivated can be respected allies at the time of separation and be helpful in facilitating a graceful transition (particularly those in Bins Two and Three). “Helpful” in this context means informed voices who can point out achievements and successes to help balance any voices that emerge that are excessively critical or venomous.

When accomplished people become campus presidents or chancellors, they often engage in a honeymoon listening tour among the plethora of stakeholders. They then engage the campus in developing a plan outlining a multiyear strategic intent built on the strength of the past and the emerging needs of the future.

Collaborative and consultative leadership does matter if you wish to accomplish something consequential. It’s usually best to gather a team of stakeholders (faculty, staff, students, alumni, etc.) to develop that plan. By having others help shape and inform the goals of the plan, the president (and institution) gets the best ideas and goals in play. Broad ownership encourages all to work relentlessly to pursue the ideas, achieve the goals, and own the outcomes.

Plans of strategic intent help keep you on course no matter what headwinds come along. Leadership of a university requires resilience, as not everything works out. Indeed, leadership is where you seek success yet learn to manage failure and learn from it. Leadership requires the courage to be vulnerable and own errors and fix them, and the ability to be comfortable in a sea of ambiguity.

Leadership that inspires others to be better takes confidence and preparation—but not arrogance. Leadership benefits from humility and empathy, and by creating an environment where you wish to hear how others think. Indeed, active listening is a key part of leadership. Active listening isn’t just waiting for someone else to stop talking, but rather it is listening and being fully present to what others are saying. It is indeed helpful to remember the word listen has an important anagram: silent.

And finally in our view leaders who are authentic and genuine aren’t about self, but rather are purpose-driven in the service of others. Servant leadership is often used to describe that approach, and to do so one must genuinely enable, value, and celebrate the achievement of others around you—a colleague, a student, staff or faculty member—as if it were your own. Leadership benefits from compassion, inclusivity, courage, fair-mindedness, collaboration, curiosity, respectfulness, and authenticity. When people feel validated and accepted, it builds trust. As Steven Covey and others have said: progress happens, change happens, at the speed of trust! This approach to leadership more often than not bodes well for a smooth separation at the end of your tenure as president or chancellor.

Deciding When It’s Time to Leave

There are documents that in many cases influence the timing of transitions, such as verbiage in contracts or appointment letters, to the evaluative outcomes of formal multiyear comprehensive reviews. Such reviews allow governing boards to objectively assess presidents and chancellors by judging achievements against the a priori goals and expectations. Comprehensive reviews often occur every three to five years, in addition to the less formal review of effort that usually occurs at least annually. It is wise to insist on frequent informal assessments with your board leadership so “surprises” about your performance are minimized.

In the case of Bin One and Two transitions, it is helpful when presidents use honest and objective self-assessments of their accomplishments and institutional accomplishments against goals. There is value in leaving at a high point of your leadership tenure, such as closing of a comprehensive campaign, opening a major facility, or establishing a new school or college within the university that was a cornerstone of your efforts.

Alternatively, there can be factors that delay a separation, such as the vulnerability of a comprehensive campaign and philanthropy, the risk to enrollment or research funding, and/or the stability and quality of the senior leadership team.

There are also very important personal factors that come into play, and this is often difficult for a president or chancellor to give proper weight to. Indeed, even though your leadership tenure was several years of taking care of issues and other people, deciding to leave is a moment to think honestly and deeply about self and family. Have honest conversations with your spouse or partner, and a few “tried and true” trusted colleagues. Is that passion for the job there every morning, the so-called fire in the belly? Are there health or schooling issues for kids, or aging parents that you should get closer to geographically? In Bin One and Two separations you need to honestly calibrate factors that are best for you, because no one else can or will.

Sadly, in the case of Bin Three separations the president will lose control over most of the more coherent factors that can be used to guide decisions in Bin One and Two separations. In Bin Three cases a deep but quick and honest reading of the tea leaves among board leadership, media, direct reports, and stakeholder leaders is undertaken. And when it becomes clear that the writing is on the wall to leave and that the situation is irreversible, it’s best for the institution and for you to move expediently to a separation.

At times in our leadership, we will wonder if this a “Bin Three” moment or only a bump in the road. This is when it becomes critical to already have in place a trusted set of friends and advisors, often outside of the institution with no stake in the outcome, who can give you the cold dose of reality.

Warning Signs That Can Lead to Unexpected Transitions

There are three main things that can go bad and lead to a Bin Three transition: relationships, relationships, and relationships! At the core of strong professional relationships is timely and accurate communications of the good, bad, and ugly things that will occur in a university and campus community.

Thus, one warning sign that there is trouble brewing is when communication starts to get stifled or less frequent, your calls not being returned, and so on. Good advice is to confront that and make sure there isn’t an underlying agenda at work, and if there is to nip it in the bud.

While all the relationships will matter, the most important for a president or chancellor is the hiring/firing authority—typically a governing board (often named trustees, regents, curators, or similar terms). These people are the fiduciaries of the university and in public universities, they may be appointed by the state’s governor and confirmed by the senate, or they may be elected by the public at large. In private universities fiduciaries come from many different community and business venues. During your time as president our best advice is to maintain frequent and honest communication with the board chair and other leaders; during the separation transition those relationships help.

We find it wise to follow the “no surprise rule” with those your report to. This is delicate because the unhappy things that occur at a university are usually a management issue (personnel matter, Title IX issue, etc.), whereas board responsibilities are more on the policy and fiduciary side. It isn’t healthy for the institution or your leadership if board members start getting overly involved in management decisions. So another warning sign of pending trouble is if boards are frequently surprised and dismayed to first learn of something—particularly a negative matter—in the press or by a phone call from an elected or business leader. Or if board members become adamant in making management decisions that are in your purview.

Another warning sign emerges if the leader’s cabinet, which is best to meet quite frequently to build and maintain relationships and manage issues and opportunities, stops becoming a vibrant and useful forum for discussing matters that really matter. Or if it becomes not possible to invite and welcome constructive dissent with an eye to make things better.

Be attentive to another warning sign of trouble brewing if attendance starts to wane at meetings of the president’s cabinet, fiduciary board members, foundation board members, or campus galas.

A North Star and Some Mechanics of Transitions

Because the circumstances leading to a transition vary dramatically across the higher education landscape, we opine that it is best to identify institutional North Star(s) to guide the decisions that are in front of the person during the transition. Indeed, just as consequential presidents have developed a North Star to guide their tenure (e.g., a strategic plan to guide the university and their day-to-day activities during their presidency), the analogous need exists during a separation transition.

The most straightforward North Star that guides successful separation transitions is when the outgoing leader puts the needs, values, and future of the institution and its next leader first. In this scenario an effective North Star is one that serves well the institution’s core functions and values of student achievement and success, faculty teaching/research/creative activity, staff support, philanthropy, and service to and engagement with multiple communities. It helps set the table for the next leader to succeed. Sadly, when transitions become clumsy it is often because of losing sight of those north stars that provide guidance in an often emotional time.

And as an added benefit with a principled North Star the person is strengthened by altruism, and it will optimize the opportunity for a transition where their personal legacies are celebrated and preserved.

One adage that we find to be extraordinarily helpful is to “arrive gracefully and leave gracefully.” The first part of this adage is easier to follow than the latter part, because when you arrive most everyone is eager to meet you, share their thoughts with you while they learn about yours—the so-called “honeymoon” phase that hopefully lasts a year or so.

In separations categorized in Bins One and Two, it is easier to keep this adage of gracefulness in mind and have it guide your actions and communications. In Bin Three departures it will often be hard to do so, as many things will be off the table for you to influence or control. But don’t lose sight of the fact that even in a tough Bin Three transition you can still control your behavior, actions, and communications.

Granted, in today’s world social media can easily throw kerosene on a small spark and in a matter of hours create a firestorm. The outgoing president will have minimal influence over others in the general media and higher education trade publications. In these circumstances, the respected allies that a president developed during their term of service can become a useful force in minimizing unbalanced and unfair treatment at the end of their tenure as president.

In these tough and unhappy circumstances, it is helpful to make the transition as expedient as possible. And then during or after the departure, avoid any urges to publicly by spoken word or writing criticize your past institution or its people. The latter may be fully justified and feel good in the moment to do—but in the medium or longer run it won’t go well and otherwise good legacies become soiled.

In addition to the notion of leaving gracefully, a second useful adage is “to do no harm.” Suppress the occasional human-nature tendency to let zingers fly or post negative and blaming tweets and the like. Remain mindful that in public institutions in most states, anything you write in a letter or email—including casual or unfortunate word choice or intemperate thought—is subject to a legal public records request and may appear on the proverbial front page above the fold. Don’t let your emotions of the moment get the better of you.

In the rare circumstance where an outgoing president has been authentically and verifiably wronged, such as a contract was violated, a serious false accusation made, or some other illegal or against policy activity, it is wise to engage counsel and think through options that are possible. It is less wise to engage in such discussions in the press or on social media if you are interested in the best possible outcome.

It is wise to discuss with your system chancellor or president, or the board chair or whoever is the hiring/firing authority the timing of an announcement for separations. Amicable Bin One and Two transitions occur over several months if not a year, whereas less than amicable transitions in Bin Three play out on a much shorter timetable. Indeed, time can be both an enemy and a friend, and there may be some guidelines on this element in policy or your appointment letter or contract.

If the interval of time from announcing a separation to departure is anything less than three or four months, it could be harmful. A short timeline doesn’t give enough time for the incumbent to finish open projects or at least develop status packages to help the next person continue the work. It doesn’t allow for a thoughtful process to identify either an interim or permanent next leader. Alternatively, if the lead time is too long (more than one year), the outgoing incumbent will become a lame duck and less effective in getting important things done to benefit the institution. Long transitions delay the arrival of a new president and can slow campus development and philanthropy. Six to twelve months is about the right length of time for a transition.

In Bin One and Two separations, it’s helpful for the incumbent to finish the most meaningful open projects and initiatives to help set the table for the next president to succeed. If there is an unpopular decision that needs to be made—such as removing a vice-president or dean that is weak—do those things so you shoulder “the blame” and not the next leader in their early months of service. Make the substantive decisions that have been in the works for some time and are still undecided. Don’t equivocate, as the middle of the road is where there is at best discomfort and at worst roadkill!

There is an art in making the transition, and we have seen outgoing or former presidents do bizarre things that cause harm. In one case, a former president who had been out of office for many years but still lived in the community, when they came back to campus—often unannounced—they parked their vehicle in the one spot reserved for the existing president. When TPW learned of this as system chancellor, he went and spoke to that person to end the behavior. Another case was where the outgoing president (a Bin Two separation) moved to a campus office and continued to behave like they still were the president—for example calling deans to meet to identify and seek funds for a new initiative without alerting the new president, or publicly commenting in the hallways and campus coffee shops in a way that visibly second-guessed the new president’s agenda. As chancellor, when this was brought to TPW’s attention he visited with that person and at the end of an unreasonable discussion removed them from campus.

These examples may elicit a wince or a smile as you read them, and they are relatively minor in the big picture but do lead to negative campus gossip and influence one’s legacy. More long-lasting harm can occur when an outgoing president, particularly if they stay living in the community, is not mindful of the things they might do or say—or not do or say—that undercut their successor. TPW had to reach out and influence the subsequent behavior of one particularly revered past president, a person without a mean bone in their body, who would come unannounced to campus events, engage with donors, and at times when asked about something the new president was undertaking provided an inert comment that then typically became interpreted as disapproval. It is these subtle behaviors that can do lasting harm to the institution, and sully the legacy of someone who otherwise was revered.

Observing these and many other occurrences led TPW to counsel outgoing presidents that when they step down to also step back. It is best for the institution and the successor if the outgoing president does not influence the hiring decision for their successor. A newly minted past-president is well advised to be sure the new president has their mobile phone number and that they would accept their calls for advice and counsel on matters pertaining to the university, but that they wouldn’t initiate the call. TPW advised past-presidents not to come to campus or university events without either an invitation or at least alerting the new president’s office they would be at an event. To become a successful past-president, the number and depth of professional relationships on- and off-campus need not go away, but the interactions with such individuals need to be carefully and thoughtfully executed. The intent of course is not to interfere with the new president’s ability to establish relationships or change course on policy and priorities that they themselves might have put in place.

Wrapping It Up

The apt name for this chapter is “passing the baton.” Though many say our time in university leadership is a sprint, others will challenge that notion and say it is a marathon. But alas, ultimately our time in leadership is a dash. No, not the symbolic hundred-yard dash but rather the grammatical “dash” between the date of appointment and the date of separation . . . e.g., Timothy P. White, California State University, Chancellor (2012–2021).

How a leader approaches the “dash” sets the stage for the inevitable transition. The university will survive long beyond our own tenure, and it is important to recall that as personally difficult as the decision to transition out of the chair of leadership is, we must put the interests of the institution and the success of the successors at the forefront of a transition. Our dash in the history of a campus may be summed up with a portrait or a building, but our legacy will be establishing the foundation for those that come after us, leaving the university and the role better than we found it and of better service to the community we serve.

About the authors


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Leadership Transitions Benefit by a North Star Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Timothy P. White and Dr. Lars T. Walton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.