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Let’s Talk About Succession Planning in Higher Ed

Missed Opportunities.

Is your college or university actively working on succession planning? Two missed opportunities are shockingly common in higher education. Please don’t make one of these mistakes!

The first one is when colleges and universities have strong pools of external applicants (due to their location, their reputation, and/or the compensation they offer) so they don’t make efforts to prepare their talented employees to move up the ladder. They forget that by not investing in their employees’ professional development and careers, they miss out not only on creating strong leaders but also on a chance to increase employee performance, satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty. Not making growth a priority hurts morale and often leads to higher turnover. The cost is much higher than most institutions realize.

The second one is the opposite, when colleges and universities do not have a strong workforce to draw from and have limited choices when it comes to hiring leaders. When a senior leader approaches retirement, it’s often expected that one of their direct reports will take their place, whether they are ready or not. The future retiree delegates more tasks and responsibilities to their future replacement and tells them what to do to continue to lead and manage the same way they did. Instead of fostering improvements and innovation, the new leader is taught not to change or even question anything. That person may experience discomfort for having to be someone they are not, they may deal with paralyzing self-doubt, and lack important leadership skills. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

Five steps to successful succession planning

Succession planning should be part of every college’s culture. While I do not believe that hiring an internal candidate is always better than an external one, showing your employees that you see potential in them and helping them grow is undoubtedly a good strategy. But it has to be done right!

Step 1 – When a senior leader’s retirement is expected, examine his or her job responsibilities to identify the skills, expertise, experience, and talents that their replacement should have. Also consider the college’s vision, mission, and culture to know what personality traits and values to look for in candidates.

Step 2 – Evaluate who could be strong candidates to replace the soon-to-be retiree. It would be ideal to consider two or three people to avoid identifying only one, who might feel entitled to the position. The process needs to be fair and transparent.

Step 3 – Identify what each of these individuals need to learn to become ready to move up the ladder. It is extremely important to differentiate the technical skills and job-specific knowledge that the future retiree will have to teach, from general leadership and management skills that are not job-specific.

Step 4 – Do not over-burden the future retiree by expecting too much from them. Make sure they understand their role is to teach job-specific and context-specific knowledge, but not to “brainwash” their replacement to become their clone.

Step 5 – Offer professional development training and executive coaching to prepare employees identified in step 2 to move up in leadership. Please think far beyond basic management and supervisory skills. The world is moving fast, much faster than higher ed does. Tomorrow’s leaders should be willing to embrace change and do things that their predecessors never had to do in the past.

Higher ed. needs Transformational Leaders

Older models of leadership such as transactional leadership are no longer appropriate. It’s time to develop employees to become transformational leaders. If you are not familiar with the term, please take a look at last week’s article here.

Let’s briefly summarize Bernard M. Bass’ 4I’s of Transformational Leadership.

1. Idealized Influence (II)

Transformational leaders embody the characteristics and behaviors they want to see in others, are respected and admired, inspire and trust, and foster loyalty and dedication.

2. Inspirational Motivation (IM)

Transformational leaders motivate employees by communicating a compelling vision and purpose, make expectations clear, demonstrate commitment to goals, and show positivity, optimism, and enthusiasm.

3. Individualized Consideration (IC)

Transformational leaders genuinely care about the needs and feelings of their team members, give personal attention, empathy, support, and encouragement, provide individualized solutions such as training, mentoring, or coaching, and keep communication open and safe.

4. Intellectual Stimulation (IS)

Transformational leaders encourage creativity, improvement, and innovation, solicit ideas and feedback, question assumptions and look for new resources and solutions, reframe problems and situations, and challenge team members to higher levels of performance.

Make it easier on your leadership team

If you think developing employees to become transformational leaders is not easy, you are right. In higher education, few employees with potential have a business degree and/or extensive experience in management and leadership. In some cases, they may lack exposure to inspirational role models. They also have to learn to navigate politics in the context of participatory governance, tights budgets, fluctuating enrollment, unions and contracts, heavy workloads, and many other constraints.

It doesn’t make sense to try to do it all in-house. Use external resources available to you. You need someone who will not introduce bias and who will guide each person to develop a leadership style that is appropriate for who they are and for an institution of higher education. Take a look at my Transformational Leadership Coaching Program for Higher Ed Leaders here. Your future leaders will develop crucial competencies including strategic planning, employee motivation, interpersonal relationships, effective communication, emotional intelligence, self-confidence and executive presence.

What will you decide?

Please don’t ignore succession planning, thinking you don’t need it. You do. Every institution does.

Please don’t just make someone job shadow and learn how to copy the person about to retire.

Please realize that people are your greatest asset and leadership development should be a top priority.

Institutions of higher education tend to move slowly and attract employees who enjoy stability and predictability and resist change. More than ever, you need transformational leaders who are not afraid to raise the bar, improve processes and outcomes, and demonstrate high emotional intelligence.

Send me a message or schedule a complimentary call with me to discuss how I can help you prepare tomorrow’s leaders to thrive in higher education. Talk to you soon.


About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset. For more information, visit

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