Leaving the Presidency with Grace

Leaving the Presidency with Grace

By Tara S. Singer, Ed.D. and Margaret H. Venable, Ph.D. | April 2024

Within higher education, there’s a well-known anecdote about outgoing presidents passing on three envelopes of advice to their successors. 1. Blame your predecessor, 2. Reorganize, 3. Make three envelopes.

This story amusingly captures the complexities and responsibilities inherent in college and university leadership. When college and university presidents approach retirement, they should be thoughtful about the process of transitioning out of their role.

As executive search consultants, we focus on not only the incoming leader but also the incumbent in the transition process. We encourage presidents seeking to retire to focus on the guiding principles of self-management, successor support, and staff engagement so they may honor their legacy and ensure the institution’s ongoing success.

Self-Management

  • Appreciate the bittersweet. While you may be excited about not working 60 hours a week, our jobs have been our passions for many years. It is difficult to say goodbye to your role, team, volunteers, and even your income. Enjoy the celebrations in your honor but allow yourself to feel the loss and fear about moving into a new phase of your leadership journey.
  • Don’t take the matches. Often, it is how one leaves a job that is more important than how one enters a new role. Some people may want you to take the matches to burn down bridges and incinerate something. Avoid these final attempts to engage in something that may be advantageous for some but potentially disastrous.
  • Plan your new identity. Give serious consideration to what you will do with your time once the alarm clock isn’t ringing at 5:30 in the morning. Join a board in the community where you intend to live, evaluate your hobbies to determine a way to improve your skills, or seek opportunities to remain connected to the academy where your experience and mentoring skills may be welcome.
  • Brace yourself for changes. Once you announce your departure plans, you have relinquished control over the future of the institution. Your successor may well decide to reverse some of your decisions and chart a different course for the school. As the former president, your job is to be supportive of these changes to sustain the institution you loved and labored over.

Successor Support

  • Don’t engage in criticism. Your successor will struggle. You know this because you struggled when you were first in the position (and probably even after you had been in the role for several years). Even saying, “Well, bless their heart,” is not warranted.
  • Be forthright. Hopefully, the board has provided the final candidate with sufficient financial information, enrollment projections, and other pertinent details such as expected staffing transitions. However, if you sense that the incoming individual may appreciate your detailed explanation of campus nuances, share that information.
  • Encourage board support for your successor. Share with the board leadership what you wish you might have had at the beginning of your tenure: an executive coach, a trustee mentor for you and the members of your cabinet, or a clear description of how performance is to be measured and evaluated.

Staff Engagement

  • Document institutional knowledge. Sit down with your leadership team and identify what types of things the new person may want to have available in a reference guide. What were the things that surprised you or wished you had known before starting in the role? Engage your team in documenting the unique aspects of your campus or organization and help them prepare for that first one-on-one conversation with the president regarding their areas of responsibility.
  • Resolve the lingering challenges. Your pending departure is a good time to talk with your direct reports about their futures. Are your team members comfortable with change? Is this a good time for some individuals to pursue new opportunities? Your transition provides an excellent opening to talk about the future with your staff.
  • Enforce separation and space. Once your successor has come on board, provide that individual and your former colleagues with sufficient space. It is perfectly okay to show up for ceremonial things (keeping in mind that you are no longer perceived as an important person) but avoid conversations about operations, processes, and changes.

By embracing these principles of self-management, successor support, and staff engagement, retiring presidents not only pave the way for their future but also contribute to the lasting success of the institution. As presidents and other leaders bid farewell to their role, they should remember that their legacy is not just the impact they’ve made but also the legacy of how they left behind a thriving institution poised for even greater achievements in the years to come.

About the Authors

Dr. Tara S. Singer

Tara S. Singer, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant

Dr. Tara S. Singer has more than four decades of experience in higher education, including a decade as President and CEO of Omicron Delta Kappa. Raised on the University of Louisville campus, she developed a deep-rooted passion for academia. Her career includes roles in athletic academic advising, alumni relations, and university advancement at several institutions. Now a Senior Consultant at Academic Search, Dr. Singer leverages her extensive experience and network to guide individuals in their career paths, driven by her dedication to higher education and the desire to give back to the community that shaped her professional life.

Margaret Venable

Margaret H. Venable, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant

Dr. Margaret H. Venable began her academic career as a chemistry professor before moving into an administrative role, culminating in her presidency at Dalton State College. Under her leadership, Dalton State became the state’s first Hispanic Serving Institution, with a third of its students identifying as Hispanic. Focused on enhancing academic offerings and affordability, Dr. Venable dedicated her career to ensuring successful futures for diverse, often first-generation college students. Her extensive experience within the University System of Georgia, including roles as Vice President and Provost, equips her with deep insight into institutional challenges. As a Senior Consultant with Academic Search, Dr. Venable now leverages her expertise in identifying potential hires committed to education accessibility and excellence.

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