Step Up

October 17, 2017

Rapid turnover at the top levels of higher education administration is motivating institutions to increase their focus on succession planning, factoring in changes in demographics and workplace culture.

As the workforce grows older and competition increases for highly skilled professionals, developing a robust pipeline of future leaders is an increasingly important priority for colleges and universities. For instance, in NACUBO’s 2016 survey of business officers, nearly 44 percent of responding CBOs said that their next professional step is retirement, up from 40 percent in the 2013 survey. However, 37 percent of CBOs reported having no succession plan in place for their positions, and 49 percent believed that only an informal succession plan was in place at their institutions.

The challenge of rapidly approaching retirements spans leadership positions beyond the business office and across higher education institutions. In fact, 58 percent of college and university presidents are older than 60 years of age, according to the American College President Study 2017, the eighth edition of the most comprehensive study of the college presidency and the higher education leadership pipeline from all types of institutions. At Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Mo., three members of the institution’s executive cabinet have retired in the past five years, and more high-level retirements are expected in the coming years, says Marla Moody, vice chancellor for finance at OTCC.

As Baby Boomers continue to retire, fewer workers may have the necessary skill sets to fill those job vacancies, and employers will need to step up talent development efforts. Also, increased competition for skilled laborers and professionals will require employers to focus on retention and building talent from within, in addition to external recruitment efforts aimed at rounding out talent needs. And, an increasingly diverse population will place new demands on diversifying the college and university workforce not only to reflect the demographic changes among student populations but also as a point of competitive advantage for acquiring skill and talent from wherever it comes.

Association Support

A number of higher education industry efforts are underway to help assuage the challenges of filling current and future leadership positions. For instance, professional associations such as NACUBO have stimulated increased attention to helping prepare the next generations of leaders. The NACUBO Fellows Program, which recently launched its second cohort of participants, is a one-year leadership development program designed to provide support, education, and learning opportunities to individuals who seek the chief business officer position as their next role.

NACUBO also offers programming for the New Business Officer and Future Business Officer, in conjunction with its annual meeting. The NBO program is designed to provide resources, information, and guidance through an intensive two-day workshop. The FBO program focuses on business office staff members ready to gain the leadership skills and organizational perspectives necessary to become a chief business officer.

In addition to taking advantage of such industrywide programs, many institution leaders are renewing their focus on molding and preparing future leaders to ensure that they are prepared to meet staffing needs as demographics and workplace cultures change, stakeholder expectations shift, and the education marketplace evolves. “Higher education continues to change, work itself is changing, and the available workforce is changing,” says Mary George Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

“Strategies that we had used for years may not work in the future: Job descriptions that used to attract the best may not attract the best any longer. Top talent who used to stay in positions for five years or more, may not stay for very long at all,” she says. “We need to be prepared for the workforce of today—we know who they are; they are graduating from our colleges and universities. Our missions are compelling and we do interesting work, but we need to be more agile about changing things that don’t work, and we need to recognize the importance of good leadership and mentorship.”

This focus on re-examining how to develop and plan for future leaders is one of the many ways institutions are adapting to new realities. For several institutions, current adaptation strategies also include implementing effective succession planning strategies and creating initiatives to prepare for the leadership needs of the future.


Mentoring as Leadership Development

Most people who have experienced any career success can point to at least one mentor or coach who provided valuable advice, encouragement, or opportunities along the way. For Fred Rogers, who has served in leadership roles at several universities and now serves as vice president and treasurer at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., good mentoring led to his appointment as a vice president at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, at the age of 31.

“The people I reported to continually provided guidance and help to me,” Rogers says. “They brought me into meetings and conversations so that I could hear what the issues were and listen to them interact with others, which gave me a lot of context.”

In addition, Rogers had supervisors who gave him regular feedback on his written and verbal communications, which he took to heart. “I would get memos I’d written returned to me, covered with red ink,” he says. “But I was willing to edit them repeatedly, and I think that has made me a better writer and speaker today. I’ve learned that your technical skills get you in the door and your personal skills keep you there.”

Over the years, Rogers has repaid the mentoring favors he received by coaching and mentoring others—and he believes that strong mentoring relationships are a vital part of developing new leaders. “We have to be willing to involve people in discussions, not just because we need them, but because it’s helpful for them to understand what the issues are and learn from the discussions and other perspectives,” Rogers says. “And if I know someone is interested in being promoted, I have told them, ‘I’m willing to work with you to help you get there.’”

While Rogers says he doesn’t always know the position he’s helping a subordinate prepare for, he has seen a number of former low-level hires make their way up to a CFO position. “A lot of it is helping people get a broader perspective and providing feedback,” he says.

At Carleton, each new hire is assigned a current staffer who helps the recruit become oriented at the college. However, much of the important work of mentoring happens more serendipitously by managers and leaders who are committed to developing the next generation of leaders.

In some cases, mentoring or coaching is available in a more formal capacity. For instance, the University of California, Davis is one of the few universities with a dedicated career counselor just for staffers. Each staff member is eligible for two individual career counseling appointments per fiscal year, and those appointments can include a variety of services, including one-on-one career counseling, exploration of career options and goals, and assistance with an individual development plan.

In addition to these career-focused sessions, UC Davis also encourages managers to hold “coaching conversations” with subordinates on a regular basis, and operates a “very robust group mentoring program,” says Carina Celesia Moore, director, talent management, at UC Davis. “If we hire talented people, we need to keep developing them through coaching, counseling, and other opportunities so they can grow with the needs of the university. We believe our staff can come to one employer and have many careers here.”


Building a Pipeline

About five years ago, HR executives at the University of California, Davis realized that the institution’s greatest risk of a talent shortage existed in the pipeline leading to chief administrative officers. “Because of so much clustering of departments and divisions, many midlevel positions were going away and fewer people had leadership experience in administration,” says Carina Celesia Moore, talent management and development director at UC Davis. “Looking at the demographics of people in these chief administrative officer positions, we realized that the pipeline was drying up and we needed to refill it.”

As a result, Moore’s team created a competency model for successful administrative leaders, based on input from focus groups that included leaders from across campus. Based on the core competencies included in that model, UC Davis developed Administrative Officers for the Future (AOTF), a seven-month training program that accepts 24 to 30 participants each year. Potential participants must apply for acceptance to the program, which meets two days per month and requires the completion of a long-term project.

Through AOTF, the university is “building leadership in that pipeline that could lead to higher-level positions for participants,” Moore says. “We’re also unbundling the traditional silos of higher education, helping participants to learn about opportunities and career pathways outside their current areas.”

Similarly, the University of Arizona’s Academic Leadership Institute (ALI) is designed to prepare administrators, faculty, and professionals to be successful leaders, says Allison Vaillancourt, vice president of business affairs and human resources at the University of Arizona, Tucson. The program offers a series of leadership assessments, content that builds strengths in critical competencies, workshops that increase knowledge about how the university works, and opportunities for participants to build a strong network of professional connections. So far, four university deans and a large number of academic department heads have emerged from the ALI.

While it’s crucial to create opportunities to practice leadership for those who are considered potentials for high-level appointments, there are a number of ways to do that well, Vaillancourt says. “The nuts and bolts of leadership strategy seem less important than a strong sense of self-awareness, a deep and broad network of support, and an understanding of political dynamics,” she says. “Bringing people together on a regular basis, and offering them an opportunity to lead in relatively low-stakes situations—such as search committees or project teams—tend to build political and organizational muscles that serve them well.”

Grooming Replacements

While focused leadership training at some institutions yields potential replacements for a number of key positions, other schools are creating succession plans that identify and prepare specific individuals to take on precise positions.


Strategic Value of the CHRO Voice

In the private sector, HR chiefs have become increasingly valued as members of the executive team, utilizing data analytics to improve recruiting and other functions that leverage talent and build greater organizational value. However, in higher education institutions, the value that a CHRO can provide is rarely embraced or acknowledged, according to “CHROs: The Missing Link in the Higher Education Management Structure,” a recent white paper from executive search firm DHR International.

“In some institutions, the CHRO role doesn’t exist,” DHR writes. “In others, it is significantly underutilized.” For instance, nearly half of chief HR officers report to their school’s chief business officer, and only about a quarter deal directly with the president, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR).

Given the great need for strategic focus on talent development and cultivating a strong leadership pipeline across the higher education industry, a high-level focus on talent and leadership development efforts is more important than ever. And CHROs are the executives needed to provide that focus.

“Having the HR voice at the senior level is important,” says Mary George Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “During times of change, it is very important, particularly as resources become constrained and choices become more difficult. For instance, when difficult financial decisions are made, it is really important to have the people strategy considered right from the start.”

At many campuses, strategic partnerships among other campus executives are essential for developing and running talent development and leadership programs. For instance, at the University of Arizona, the HR division partners with the office of the provost to run its Academic Leadership Institute; the office of the chief information officer to run the IT Leadership Academy; and other executives to advise on other HR initiatives, says Allison Vaillancourt, vice president for business affairs and human resources. “CHROs tend to have a good sense of what kinds of qualities and characteristics work for leaders and which do not,” she adds. “Given this, we are well-positioned to design programming and experiences” to develop leaders across the institution.

CHROs don’t just offer valuable perspective and expertise to other institution leaders; they also gain important knowledge from them as well. As a chief human resources officer with a seat at Cornell’s executive table, Opperman is able to learn “how all the pieces of the strategy fit together, and it helps me understand and get perspective on decisions,” she says. “By not being involved in those high-level conversations, the HR person misses out on the discussion and the opportunity to understand the organizational framework within which decisions are made.”


Charting future leaders. At Ozarks Technical Community College, HR leaders developed a grid to be completed by each member of the executive cabinet, which includes vice chancellors and campus presidents. Completing the grid required each leader to identify people who could be possible replacements for their respective positions, including their current skills and any competencies they need to develop in order to perform well at that higher level. The succession plan also includes a strategy for getting each individual up to speed for a potential promotion, Moody says.

While the basic premise is the same across the institution, the actual succession plan plays out differently for each key position. For example: Moody plans to retire in the next five years and, while she identified three middle managers in the finance area who could be potential replacements, none of them was interested in the top job. While those three staffers remain in line for future leadership positions, Moody’s team recruited an individual from outside higher education to become the associate chancellor for finance.

“Hiring someone now allows for individualized coaching and training in many aspects of college interactions,” Moody says. “The others in my department were ready for senior management and routinely handle a variety of my duties during my absence, but did not want to take the final step.”

Considering multiple scenarios. Cornell’s plan for replacing senior leaders includes three levels. For each key position, leaders have identified:

  • An emergency replacement (the person who would take over in the case of a leader’s sudden death or, on a happier note, a lottery win.)
  • An interim replacement, who could handle the job during a search process.
  • Finally, a “bench,” or a group of individuals who have potential to fill that position.

Once executives have identified subordinates who are on the bench, they work to deliberately involve those individuals in ongoing training, new experiences, and committee assignments to provide them with the experience they are lacking to effectively assume the executive position. “We are working with every administrative executive to identify their top talent and create development plans and paths for them,” Opperman says. “This is an ongoing process.”

At Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio, leaders are about 18 months into a two-year planning and implementation process for succession. As a smaller university, Franklin is focusing less on lining up one specific person to fill each key position and more on equipping several leaders to be able to handle different facets of a potentially open position. As the senior vice president and chief financial officer, Marv Briskey has about three staff members who could each handle parts of his role in case of an emergency, he says.

“We are working on helping our middle managers become more cross-functional,” Briskey says. “For instance, the accounting folks don’t have deep knowledge of information security, so we might get them to serve on an IT committee. We’re looking at natural gaps in knowledge and working to fill those gaps.”

Developing Leaders at All Levels

In addition to creating a strong pipeline of potential top leaders, forward-looking colleges and universities are also paying attention to leadership development across campus. “The corporate sector tends to treat leadership development very seriously, but this is not always the case in higher education,” Arizona’s Vaillancourt says. “In colleges and universities, there seems to be a sense that, ‘We hire smart people, so they will figure things out.’ I think we have plenty of evidence to prove that this is not true.”

Instead of relying on new leaders to “figure things out,” Arizona offers several leadership programs for employees in various areas and at various levels.

  • The IT Leadership Academy was designed to build leadership strengths among IT professionals in colleges, divisions, and the university’s IT division.
  • The Management in Action Program prepares midlevel managers to be more effective in leading teams and individual contributors.
  • The New Heads workshops provide new academic department heads with the resources, information, and connections they need to successfully navigate their roles as academic leaders.
  • The Success Supervisor Series is a hands-on, practical approach to providing supervisors with the tools they need to hire talent and manage performance.
  • The Managing the UA Way program orients new managers to the university’s commitment to leadership and provides an overview of management tools and university policies.
  • Because organizations that receive federal funds are obligated to engage in a competitive search process for most positions, Arizona doesn’t consider its programs to be “standard succession programs,” Vaillancourt says. “Our goal is to position participants to be prepared to succeed in a competitive process, and they do. More than 50 percent of our Academic Leadership Institute participants have been promoted since completing our program and 85 percent have remained at the university—a remarkable number for a program targeted at high potentials.”

At Cornell, a Leadership Academy includes tracks for people at all levels of university employment. For instance, Turning Point offers leadership development for frontline staff; the Harold D. Craft Leadership Program is for supervisors, managers, and senior leaders; and Leading Cornell is a capstone program for staff who are nominated by their dean or vice president to attend. “We believe that every staff member is a leader and that through experiential learning, the employees gain the skills necessary to grow and lead,” Opperman says.

At Franklin, the Vital Learning program is available for people who have been in supervisory roles and want to move up, Briskey says. Participants complete one module monthly over the course of a year. Another program, “Getting at the Heart of Our People,” allows university leaders to review steps and tools that could be utilized to cultivate employee engagement among their team members. “We’re a knowledge business,” says Franklin’s Briskey. “We take education very seriously.”

Redefining the Career Ladder

One of the reasons leadership development has become so important is that today’s workers are more interested than are previous generations in the ability to do work that interests them and that they find meaningful, according to the ADP Research Institute’s Evolution of Work report. Because today’s workers—and those to come in the future—will demand different things from their jobs, institutions must be prepared to offer such opportunities. For instance, it may no longer be enough to offer stability and a lengthy tenure of doing the same job year after year. Instead, many of today’s workers want to regularly face new challenges and perform work that represents more significance to them.

“The younger generations are different, and they will change the complexion of the workforce,” Opperman says. “That’s not negative; every generation brings new, good things. It just means we have to be agile and understand that some of the things that have worked well in the past, such as consistency in higher education, may not work anymore. We’re going to find ourselves needing to listen to talent, and what they want—not just today but in six months or a year—and what their goals are.”

For many talented staffers in higher education, an eventual goal may be to switch from a current department or area to try something new. At Cornell, some of the employees who are “on the bench” for a potential leadership position “have interests beyond their current vertical,” Opperman says. “We are working to share their talent horizontally so that people across campus know about the talent they don’t see regularly. This may be done through participating in a project or on a committee; it’s an evolving process.”

At Lipscomb University in Nashville, Associate Provost Steve Prewitt spent 18 years in the classroom teaching English literature before gradually moving into an administrative role. He agrees that institutions can best equip staffers to prepare for leadership positions by providing them with access to leadership opportunities and relationships with leaders. For instance, Lipscomb offers a Presidential Faculty Fellow program, in which a selected faculty member assists the president with special projects and research initiatives that relate to the university’s academic program, as well as to strategic planning. Faculty can also serve on standing committees outside their areas of expertise, or participate in faculty senate committees, or job-shadow in areas of interest, which allow them to learn more about potential leadership opportunities and the inner workings of the institution.

“When faculty have the opportunity to get involved in the process, by serving on administrative committees or having meetings with the provost or other university officers, they can gain invaluable insights into how problems get solved and develop diverse contacts that can help them along the way,” Prewitt says.

At Franklin University, the emphasis on building knowledge across functions not only ensures that staffers could take over a key position in an emergency, but it also helps “eliminate silos” across the campus, Briskey says. By building a deeper understanding of the needs and competencies of other departments, staffers are becoming more aware of potential opportunities across campus. For instance, Franklin has former academic staffers who now work in accounting and other departments.

Looking Ahead

With talent and leadership shortages expected to continue, forward-thinking colleges and universities are acknowledging the need to seek diversity in staffing. As college student demographics change, leaders should reflect those changing demographics. At Franklin, for instance, the student body is more than 50 percent female—and the leadership team is 60 percent to 70 percent female.

However, across the spectrum of higher education institutions, female leadership remains low. According to a recent CUPA-HR research brief, women are equitably represented in administrative positions as a whole; however, there are fewer women in higher-paying leadership positions. Although there has been a trend toward hiring more women into each type of position since 2001, the percentage of women in top executive positions remained less than 30 percent in 2016, up just four percentage points from 2011.

Men outnumber women more than two to one among presidents and chief business officers; four to one among chief information officers and chief athletics administrators; and more than nine to one among chief facilities officers. The only position in which women occupy the overwhelming majority of positions is that of chief HR officer, where they outnumber men nearly three to one.
Minorities also remain underrepresented in higher education leadership—and by overlooking minorities, colleges and universities are likely missing out on strong leadership talent. Whereas one in four college graduates is from a minority group, just one in seven higher education administrators is, according to a CUPA-HR report. Positions with better than average minority representation include the chief officers of legal affairs, human resources, and student affairs. In fact, the chief student affairs officer comes close to parity representation with the percentage of minority college graduates. The position with the worst minority representation is chief development officer, in which only 6 percent represent minority groups. However, the minority representation gap in higher education administrative positions is not narrowing. It has been fairly consistent for the past 15 years; if anything, it is widening.

Even institutions that are already excelling in succession planning and leadership development often still have work to do. “We place a high priority on retaining and promoting the most talented and diverse workforce,” says Cornell’s Opperman. “We are in a rural environment and so we need to partner with our local community to create a welcoming place for our diverse employees to live as well as to work. We are continuing to create and offer programming aimed at addressing these issues, we have increased our recruitment efforts, and we have put additional emphasis on our colleague network groups. But we know that this will be an ongoing priority and area of emphasis.”

As the higher education environment continues to change, colleges and universities will need to continue reassessing their leadership pipelines and adjusting their approaches to building and retaining leaders. “We need to be thoughtful and flexible about how we define jobs, and we need to be better at changing work to keep top talent engaged,” Opperman says.

“We need to have leaders who want to be leaders and want to put the time into leading others, not just ascend as a way to grow their careers. It will be more work to retain talent in the future—they will want to grow and gain new skills and have new experiences—and we should want that, too. But that puts pressure on leaders. So, we need to choose leaders carefully and give them time to lead.”