On Saturday, I had the great honor of representing my alma mater at the inauguration of St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s seventh president, Dr. Tuajuanda C. Jordan. I’m a sucker for pomp and circumstance, so I was thrilled to don some academic regalia and spend a day celebrating this milestone with the St. Mary’s community. The ceremony was wonderful – full of warmth and personal touches and great excitement about the leadership of President Jordan and the bright future of St. Mary’s College.
The selection and installation of a new president is perhaps the most important inflection point for an institution—it offers an opportunity to reconnect with its many constituencies, to honor its distinguished history, and to lay out an exciting vision of the future.
If you haven’t been through a presidential transition yet, you likely will—data show that the average tenure of a chief executive in higher education is just about six years.
To take full advantage of the unique opportunity a new leader affords requires a lot of careful planning, beginning the moment a search for a new president is announced and running through the selection process, the announcement of a new president, right up to and through inauguration day.
Position yourself as a resource to the search committee. Beyond issuing press releases about the process, the search committee will need and benefit from your advice on how the campus community expects to be communicated with during this exciting time, as well as your perspective on how to best engage the institution’s constituencies throughout the process.
Use this time to take stock. Assess the successes and challenges you’ve faced with your outgoing leader. What wins have you had in thought leadership and media relations? Where have you struggled in positioning the institution or the president? What is needed to take the communications operation to the next level?
Keep it authentic. The announcement of your new president is a delicate balancing act of honoring the institution’s history, embracing its future, and ensuring that the rollout reflects both the values and the personality of the institution and the incoming president. As the communicator, you’re going to have important insight on these questions, so use the credibility you’ve gained with the search committee above to advocate for a central role in the planning of the rollout.
Take the time to think strategically. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you think about all the logistical details involved in pulling off a presidential announcement. But your institution and your president will be better served if you start thinking strategically from the moment the president-elect is named. Ask for copies of the president-elect’s cover letter and CV to get an idea of how he or she positioned him or herself in relation to your institution. Listen closely for the beginnings of a plan or area of focus and dig a bit when you hear them. Ask the open-ended questions that will enable you to start building a messaging platform around the new boss and his or her vision.
Think beyond the new boss. There are a lot of people who have personal, professional and emotional stakes in this announcement—be sure you’re thinking about all of them. Pay particular attention here to the outgoing president—she or he will likely be wary of stepping into the new president’s spotlight, but it is important for the institution to honor both leaders and to remember that the current president is still the president. Also think about what role the incoming president’s family might play. Is there designated time for students, faculty, staff and alumni to greet the president-elect? Do you need to find a role for elected officials, major donors, or other stakeholders?
Play to your strengths. Do you have a killer social media team? Let them loose on this event and encourage them to dream big—hashtags, selfies with the new president, Vine greetings from alumni and students. Do you have an incoming president with great personal warmth? Get her or him on video so that alumni far and wide get the opportunity to feel that warmth and share in the excitement of the big announcement. This is your opportunity to shine, as a communications team and as an institution.
Honor the past, embrace the future. A successful inauguration is a balancing act—the best ones honor the institution’s past (and the people who have led previously) and celebrate the future vision of the new leader. Find creative ways to nod to both in creating the platform party, selecting the speakers, and putting together the events that surround the actual ceremony.
Keep on trucking. My last piece of advice is to remember that the inauguration isn’t the end of the presidential transition period. Instead, think of it as an important midway milestone of your rollout of the new president. If the early stage focuses on introducing the person, and the run-up to the inauguration focuses on establishing the vision, then the post-inauguration period should focus on sharing the vision broadly among stakeholders both internal and external.
A presidential transition is an exciting and somewhat anxiety-inducing time, but with some advance planning and strategic thought, it can provide a fantastic opportunity to move your institution forward and to re-engage your stakeholders in the mission and vision for the future.