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Recruiting Trends in Higher Education: Leadership Transitions Outpace Succession Planning

Greek-style architecture with the words "Higher Education" running across the bottom of an arch.
Shorter tenures and higher turnover rates are underscoring the need for proactive succession planning in higher education. Institutions can seize this moment as an opportunity to think critically about talent pipelines, career paths, and the recruiting and retention strategies that will ensure the success of new leaders.

In this interview, Lindauer Vice President Faith Montgomery reflects on the latest recruiting trends in higher education. The interview originally appeared in a special report by Hunt Scanlon.

Recent reports have said that there has been a large number of university presidents stepping down in recent months. Have you seen this as well?

Yes, we’re seeing more leadership transitions at the presidential level of colleges and universities. This is consistent with the American Council on Education’s most recent American College President Report. The report found that more than half of presidents plan to step down from their current roles within the next five years—and yet fewer than 30% of institutions have a succession plan in place to guide them through a presidential search.

I advise institutions to be as proactive as possible, not only to lay the groundwork for a successful presidential search but to anticipate building a leadership team that can support the new president and execute their vision. Transitions are an opportunity to take a 360-degree view and find alignment across strategic priorities, roles, and responsibilities.

Is this opening doors for diverse candidates?

More candidates from diverse lived experiences are pursuing and being hired for presidential positions at a range of institutions in higher education. The higher turnover rates at the very top of colleges and universities are creating an opportunity for these institutions to think deeply about how they might find, attract, and retain qualified women and people of color for leadership positions.

Building a diverse pool of candidates requires intentionality. It won’t happen organically. When institutions turn to their traditional talent pipelines, they’re more likely to appoint a leader who matches the profile of the people who have held the position in the past. Look at the career paths of today’s presidents: a majority rise from faculty and academic positions, which has the effect of limiting opportunities for diverse candidates. What might happen if more institutions opened their presidential searches to candidates who followed different career paths?

I also have to point out that recruiting diverse candidates for leadership positions is one thing; creating the conditions for them to succeed in their new role is another. This means dismantling systemic obstacles to DEIB at the board and executive levels. People of color are doing their due diligence to determine if an institution is ready to support their vision. They’re asking boards and search committees tough questions related to an institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. For example, they want to know about recruiting efforts for diversifying faculty and the student body, retention strategies for students of color, financial aid, and the general allocation of funds to create a climate of belonging for people of all backgrounds.

What are some traits schools are looking for in incoming leaders?

Schools are looking for leaders who can lead and manage complex institutions with both head and heart, who bring proven experience and emotional intelligence to working with people and advancing the goals of their institutions. The leaders who embody this type of leadership encourage risk-taking, creating a climate in which people have room to experiment and innovate. By focusing on rewarding success rather than punishing failure, these leaders motivate their teams while connecting them to a larger sense of purpose.

There’s also an emphasis on leaders who have an understanding and compassion for their staff as people. The most successful leaders today are sensitive to what is happening in the world and the resulting impact on colleagues individually and collectively at work.

In recent years, we’ve seen a groundswell of such ugliness—in the form of police killings and mass shootings, for instance—that has shaken most of us to our core. Many employees struggle to leave that at the door when they go into the office or participate in a Zoom meeting. Modern leaders pause and are willing to address these moments head on. They understand that different people experience these events differently, and they take an equitable approach to ensuring each person has what they need to be supported.

Recruiting for these traits is important. They may not necessarily come through in a resume or cover letter. Interviews are an opportunity to ask for concrete examples of how candidates have exhibited these qualities in the past. For example, “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national racial reckoning that followed, how did you support your team? How have you used a lens of equity to engage marginalized groups and bring them forward? What history have you brought into conversations regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?”

Faith Montgomery co-leads Lindauer’s Higher Education and K-12 Practice Areas and leads executive searches and talent management for a range of client partners. Her education clients include Howard University, Xavier, Rice University, University of Southern California, Princeton University, Stanford University, ­­­­­University of Minnesota, University of Washington, and numerous units across the University of Texas, as well as many K-12 partners such as The Lovett School Durham Academy, Harvard Westlake, Polytechnic School, Phillips Andover, Sidwell Friends, and St. Paul’s School.

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