Successful onboarding requires honesty, transparency

Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, and Mary Graham, AACC board chair and president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, participate in a panel on "onboarding" presidents to a college. (Photo: Adam Auel Photography)

DALLAS — A smooth transition when a community college board hires a new president requires transparency, honesty and respect, according to a panel of seasoned college leaders who discussed “onboarding” during a spotlight session at the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) annual convention.

Much of their advice about best practices in onboarding — the process of transitioning a new president into a college — is  spelled out in a new monograph published jointly by AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). “Executive Leadership Transitioning at Community Colleges” is available online.

An effective transition starts with a plan developed by the outgoing president, said AACC President Walter Bumphus. That plan, covering the first 90 days, should outline the burning issues facing the college, the college’s budgetary situation and a list of who the new president should meet in the community.

One of the best transitions Bumphus has seen involved Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio. Then outgoing President Jerry Sue Thornton worked with the board to help establish a good relationship with the new president, Alex Johnson, who asked Thornton to stay on for a few months as an advisor.

When Thornton learned who her successor would be, she only said positive things about him, Bumphus noted. It doesn’t always happen like that. “I’ve seen more bad transitions than good ones,” he said.

When a transition is done badly, “it results in great damage to careers and great damage to institutions,” said panel moderator Artis Hampshire-Cowan, president of the Leveraged Leadership Group LLC, an executive search firm.

Stay positive

To create a positive transition, board members need to have a solid handle on the status of the institution, understand what they want in a new president and be able to communicate well to the search team, said Mary Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. She also serves as chair of the AACC board of directors.

Boards should be proactive, not reactive, said Emily Yim, ACCT board chair and a trustee at Edmonds Community College in Washington. Simply hiring a search team is not enough.

Board members should be on the same page when it comes to setting goals for a new president, Yim said.

“Honesty and transparency have to be at the heart of this,” said ACCT President Noah Brown. Boards should have an agreement for a new president that lays out the rules of engagement, he advised. “While boards don’t like surprises, neither to CEOs,” he said.

A couple of years ago, ACCT’s advisory committee of presidents raised a concern that boards were describing outgoing presidents as being failures. “It’s not always a failure. Sometimes it’s a bad fit,” Brown said.

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the search process, Brown advised boards to think through what went well in the presidency, and “if they want institutional change, don’t throw that person under the bus if it gets messy.”

The search process is different now than it was in past years, Bumphus said. Before, a search firm might have received 200 candidates; now they’re lucky to get 10 or 15, and those candidates might not have a lot of experience.

However, Bumphus noted that he is encouraged by the outstanding new presidents introduced at the annual Hail and Farewell luncheon at the AACC convention.

Bumphus called on boards not to be negative about a departing president, as it harms their lives and their families.

A negative board also reflects badly on the whole campus, Yim added, and it could jeopardize efforts to seek grant funding and the college foundation’s efforts to secure investments.

People always want to know if a president is retiring voluntarily, she said. She urged boards to deflect that conversation to focus instead on “the incredible next phase of the college.” A new president should “honor the work the previous president did,” she added.

Mentors and coaches

When Graham was named president, she was an internal candidate and was mentored for six months by the president before taking on her new role. That’s atypical, but it is something presidents should consider, and they should also prepare their board for the transition, Graham said.

Board members should understand that a new president doesn’t know everything, Bumphus said. He applauded what’s going on in Minnesota where all new presidents are given a $25,000 stipend to hire an executive coach.

He noted that AACC offers an executive search service that matches new CEOs with an expert who can help with board relationships, fundraising, or any other aspect of the job.

“Everyone should be honest about what they don’t know,’ Brown said. Boards should be willing to hire an executive coach, because “why not invest in and support their new asset?”

If a board asks an outgoing president to mentor their replacement, that should not be a surprise, however, Brown said. Boards should advise finalists if that’s their intent. It’s not likely to work if a president doesn’t know that’s going to happen.

A new president should understand if they’re offered an executive coach, it doesn’t mean they’re not competent, added Hampshire-Cowan. “Boards sometimes don’t understand how complex, difficult and lonely the job is.”

Personal relationships

Graham called on sitting presidents to help boards understand the importance of the role of a president, the extent of their responsibilities and the need to prepare the board for the next generation of presidents.

“A lot of new presidents try to operate under the mushroom management theory; they keep them (board members) in the dark and feed them something,” Bumphus said. Instead, presidents should educate board members – “take them to meetings, develop a personal relationship and expose them to best practices.”

“We overcomplicate this whole situation,” Brown said. “At the heart of the matter, a board/CEO relationship is a human relationship.” Brown encouraged presidents to get to know trustees as individuals.

“When the relationship is a good one, there is natural respect for the roles, and things go smoothly,’  he said.

Problems are most likely to arise when a board directs a president to make changes, and then a new board comes in, Bumphus noted.

At her college, Graham said, she meets with new board members to go through the policy manual and make sure they understand her role as president.

“The most important thing is to have great lines of communication with every member of the board,” Graham said. “Never let them be surprised by what they see in the news media.”

When audience members were invited to respond, Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College in Maryland and former board chair of AACC, mentioned a situation that happened when there was no transparency or honesty: A first-time president only learned after being hired that the college had a $41 million deficit.

AACC Board Chair-elect Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said one of the greatest challenges she faces is “when the board speaks with multiple voices.” That leads to confusion and disfunction.

“We try to get the board leadership to understand that it’s best when the board speaks with one voice,” Kurtinitis said.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.