• The Gamble of a Presidential Transition

    by  • March 26, 2013 • On Public Relations Management

    Looking forward to participating in a panel discussion on presidential transitions at the annual meeting of the Counselors to Higher Education section of the Public Relations Society of America on April 17 in Washington, D.C.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to survive a number of leadership changes during my career, and I know it can be an unsettling time for public relations executives at colleges and universities.

    The best presidents I have worked for have combined self-confidence with a marked sense of humility. They were really smart and savvy, but they were also open to other viewpoints and perspectives. They respected and appreciated the professionals who worked for them. They did not pretend to know everything. The worst exhibited none of that.

    I distinctly remember leaving a weekly meeting of the president’s administrative support staff a couple of months into the tenure of a newly appointed president. It had been another slog through some clerical and logistical details, and the inevitable monologue from the president.

    “That guy,” one of my close friends and colleagues said as we left the president’s office, “always needs to be the smartest guy in the room.”

    Because of his lack of self-confidence that president felt compelled to demonstrate he had the answers to all of the questions. There are a good number of these kinds of leaders in higher education because many of them are appointed to presidential positions without adequate preparation for the challenges and responsibilities they will face.

    There is no training ground for higher education chief executive officers, though experience as a provost is a major asset on the resume. It’s on-the-job training for a lot of college and university presidents. The best understand that. The worst do not.

    Adding to the problem is the fact you really cannot count on boards of trustees or regents to select the best candidate for the presidency. Most board members do not have the depth of involvement or experience to understand what it takes to lead in the arcane world of academic management. For those who live in the corporate world where there is a level of “command and control,” the negotiation and compromise inherent in running an academic enterprise are sometimes difficult to comprehend and evaluate.

    It’s like that box of chocolates line from the film, “Forrest Gump.” You never know what you’re going to get. Some of us have been fortunate enough to be so engaged with our boards to have some input in the selection process. Often, however, public relations folks get called in when it is time to make an announcement.

    In watching and reading about presidential successions over the years I have discovered one consistent element that further adds to the trepidation for PR pros. It is the rare president who during the introductory press conference does not vow that during his or her tenure the college or university will do a much, much better job of “getting the word out” and finally revealing to the world what a phenomenal institution he or she will lead.

    There are so many factors to consider when a change is made at the top of a college or university, and it is important for PR professionals to be prepared for all of the exigencies. It should be a lively conversation on April 17.