Leadership Development in Higher Education

The 2017 American Council on Education's American College President Study found that 54 percent of higher education presidents or chancellors plan to leave their current positions within the next five years. Moreover, the study indicates that, due to an increase in the average age of college presidents, an increase in retirements is likely on the horizon. This trend extends beyond presidents, as well. A 2013 survey conducted by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) revealed that nearly 40 percent of respondents expected to retire within four years. Without adequate leadership development and succession planning, these findings portend a serious gap in qualified institutional leaders. 

How can college and university boards and leaders ensure their institutions are prepared for leadership transitions?

Identify Internal Candidates for Future Leadership Positions
Higher education leaders must exemplify numerous, diverse characteristics that will lead the institution to success while aligning with its culture. A leader must be adept at financial management, relationship building with various constituencies, and shared governance, to name a few. It is likely that institutions have potential leaders in their midst who can excel in these arenas, though they may need preparation and guidance to fully embrace and succeed in a leadership role. 

In my dissertation research, I identified several institutions that are offering on-campus leadership development programs (MIT's Leader to Leader program, the University of Pennsylvania's Leadership@Penn program, and Stanford University's Leadership@Stanford offering). All of these programs provide leadership training in the unique context of each institution and are considered by institutional leadership as complementary to outside leadership programs. In addition to building a pipeline of leadership talent, program goals include instilling campus culture and fostering connections and professional relationships across complex enterprises. 

External Leadership Development Training 
Off-campus leadership development programs allow future leaders to hone their skills over time, learn from a variety of experts in the field, and network with peers outside of their home institution. Programs such as the Center for Creative Leadership's "Leadership at the Peak" program and other institutes that are offered through higher education associations can be valuable experiences to continue to build leadership skills and to learn from professional peers in a broader context. One-on-one leadership coaching with a professional coach is another complementary activity that allows for a more customized approach to each individual's leadership development. 

Continued Learning
As higher education continues to evolve, leaders must be agile in their decision making and approach to issues as they arise. While one-time training, or even a six-month program, can be effective in building leadership skills, leaders (and the institution) will benefit most from a continued learning model whereby they have ongoing access to mentors, online learning programs, conferences, and other platforms for growth.

Leadership development is a sound method by which to prepare emerging leaders and institutions for the future. As an executive search professional, I am always pleased when a candidate pool includes both talented internal candidates with established relationships and a solid knowledge of how to achieve success in the institution and external candidates who bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to leadership opportunities. Search committees can benefit from an expanded pool of high quality, diverse candidates as they assess whether an internal or external hire best meets the position's current opportunities and challenges.