So far in 2019, the In Trust Center has reported on 26 executive leadership transitions at theological schools. By the end of 2019, we’ll probably have reported that more than 10 percent of theological schools have named a new leader – in most cases, after a board-led search process.
If your school is in transition now, or if you've recently completed a leadership change – or even if you are not even considering one – the issue of leadership transition ought to be a part of regular board discussions. Organizational succession planning is the board's work.
One of the critical components for any discussion about leadership transition is to articulate what you need in a new leader. Sometimes position descriptions for presidents read like a laundry list of the usual skills – innovative thinker, strategic planner, visionary leader, proven fundraiser, administrator, spiritual leader, and excellent communicator – without distinguishing what you need now at this particular time in this particular school.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “What Presidential Search Committees Look for Today” (an excerpt from their report The Successful President of Tomorrow – the 5 Skills Future Leaders Will Need), the authors suggest that boards and search committees move beyond the typical attributes and focus on what’s unique about the leadership position at their school.
Specifically, as suggested by John Isaacson, founder of executive search firm Isaacson Miller, it’s important to focus on questions like “What is the hardest work your president must do?” This gets to the heart of what your school really needs from its leader. He then suggests the follow-up question, “Who has done some of this hard work?”
Consider engaging the board, and perhaps your entire community, in conversation around the key issues facing your school both now and in the future. Articulating strategic challenges and potential opportunities that the new leader will address leads to an “issues-driven search” as described in “The Pick and the Process: Leading a Presidential Search in the Digital Age” (Trusteeship, November/December 2015).
Getting clear about what type of leader you need now is critical. Getting clear about what priorities that leader must tackle first is critical too. Leaders of theological schools are called to be both business-minded and academic, but some schools require change agents. Some require culture-shifters. Most require leaders with soft skills.
Consider reading more about presidential searches in the Chronicle and Trusteeship articles referenced above and consider sharing them with your board.