Helping with leadership transitions

Editor’s note: This article is part of a monthly series by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an AACC-affiliated council.

More and more, community colleges are seeing frequent turnover in senior leadership. The role of president is no exception.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), there have been nearly 600 reported presidential transitions in the past three fiscal years. That means the process of searching for and launching a new president is on the agenda for about one-fourth of community colleges.

At every phase of a leadership transition, solid communication is vital. Not only will first-rate communication be required as one tenure comes to an end and another begins, but there will be important work around the search process. Involvement by the college marketing and communications team at each phase can help ensure success.

Preparing for a search

Just as you are searching for a president, prospective candidates are also searching for information about your college. As such, your college should be bringing its communication A-game. Your marketing and communications team should be involved to ensure the college brand is well represented.

  • Assert yourself. If marketing and communications is not invited to be part of the search, make the case to your leadership team about why at least one person from the marketing and communications team should take part in the process and at the table regarding discussions and plans that impact your workload.
  • Articulate what you need in a new leader. Get involved in whatever process your campus chooses to accurately articulate the qualifications and characteristics your campus needs in the future president. In doing so, try to avoid value-laden words that can create bias, but be coherent in describing what you need.
  • Help shape the search profile or prospectus. It’s possible this piece will be developed by a search firm or other outside entity, but marketing and communications should be involved so the college brand and culture are integrated. This piece should compel candidates to your presidential search the way you would expect a viewbook to attract new students.
  • Set up a web presence for your presidential search. Create a landing page on your website that provides convenient access to search information like the timeline, important events, the search profile or prospectus, and other relevant materials.
  • Make sure search information is easily accessible. Put a link to the search landing page directly on the home page of your website. Don’t bury it. The home page is your college’s virtual front door and the link should be there to welcome candidates. You should also make sure the in-site search tool is functioning properly.
  • Talk about the community beyond your campus. Create or borrow content that gives a strong sense of your location. Consider giving it a place both in your search document and on the college website since your future president will be part of the larger community, too.
  • Make sure your data speaks accurately. Data tells an important story about your college. Update data where possible and think about making infographics or other digestible visual data points to include with search materials.
  • Make sure personnel information is updated. Personnel changes are frequent. Be sure your directories and contacts are up-to-date and that organizational charts are accurate.
  • Audit your website content. Conduct at least a basic content audit of your website. Candidates will look at your site and you want to make sure they have the latest and greatest.

Navigating the search process

Once the search is underway, stakeholders will pay close attention and expect regular updates. Make sure the marketing and communications team stays involved even if you aren’t part of the formal search committee.

  • Set expectations and create communication plans. Work with key stakeholders to prepare for releasing information about the search and announcing a new president. This will help you avoid being surprised with extra work and ensure the release of information is timely.
  • Keep information about the search process updated. Work with the search committee or your campus leadership team to develop a schedule and ensure information about the search is regularly updated.
  • Help your board understand their role. Your board will likely help shape the search profile, select the consultant and ultimately select the next president. They may not, however, be as familiar with interviewing rules and hiring practices at your college. Work with your leadership team to make sure your board understands their role and the rules so there are no missteps.
  • Help make search-related events a success. Do what you can to make sure any events related to the search adequately reflect the brand and are a positive experience for all involved.
  • Spend time researching candidates. Whether you are doing it as part of the search or for your own information, spend time finding information about finalists. Get to know them and try to learn more about who they are as a leader.
  • Pay attention to the what’s happening on your campus. There can be lots of rumors and unease during a leadership transition. Keep an ear to the ground. Find ways to use communication to help keep people informed and the lines of communication open. Let your leadership team or the search committee know if there are things you believe should be addressed. Provide tools and information as appropriate.

Launching your new president

Once a new leader is selected, the marketing and communications team can play a critical role in ensuring that person’s success.

  • Revisit expectations and create a communication plan. However it is decided to release information, make sure the marketing and communication team’s role is clear and offer to help where you can.
  • Talk to fellow marketing and communications professionals. Reach out to your counterpart at the last place your new president worked to get insights about his or her style. You might also consider talking to another college marketing and communications professional who has recently gone through a leadership transition. Doing so can help you be more prepared and is an excellent networking opportunity.
  • Get on your new president’s calendar and hit the ground running. Your new leader is likely going to have a packed schedule, but set up a meeting as soon as you can. Consider emailing or talking before the new CEO’s first day. Ask basic questions about writing style preferences and materials he or she might need. Use that feedback to order business cards, letterhead and help your new president hit the ground running on day one.
  • Leverage public relations opportunities. A new president often provides occasion for lots of earned media coverage. If your new president is up for it, set up media interviews, speaking engagements and other events where he or she can not only offer a personal introduction but talk about the great work your college is doing.
  • Be ready to articulate the work of your department. A new president will have an overwhelming amount to do and absorb. Don’t go in with the expectation that he will immediately set a new direction for you. Offer a high-level overview of your department and your plans for at least the next six to 12 months so he understands the general work and direction of your area, then offer to make adjustments as he see fit or assist with any plans he might have.
  • Offer insight where you can. If there is a certain group on campus that holds significant influence, make sure your new president knows. If there is a college event where students expect the president to attend, make sure your new leader has it on her calendar. Anything you can do to help her navigate the culture of your college and become part of the community will help set her up for success.
  • Make time for your new president to connect and listen. There is often great anxiety around leadership transitions. Encourage your new president to create time for your campus community and beyond to get to know them. Use that time for people to share ideas, thoughts and concerns and mix and mingle with your new leader.
  • Ask how you can best help. The new president may not have the answer right away, but it can’t hurt to ask what he or she needs from you. It’s a way to establish some basic expectations and start your working relationship.

Every search will be different, and every marketing and communications department will have a slightly different place in it, but undoubtedly a time will come when the college marketing and communications team will be part of the search and launch process. Get involved where you can, pay attention and remember: you are the brand leader of the college. As such, you have an important role in making sure both the search and the resulting leadership are successful, and that each is the right reflection of your college brand and culture.

About the Author

Erin Edlund
is director of marketing for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and NCMPR director of District 5, which represents community college communicators in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, the Canadian province of Manitoba, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
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