• Issue #27

Preparing for New Leadership

Glowing mushrooms in a dark wood.

Communications and digital strategy during transition times

Are you facing a leadership change in your institution? You are not alone. Dozens of higher education presidents have announced their plans to leave their posts this year.

According to Forbes, this high transition moment is partly due to the pandemic. Many outgoing presidents delayed their retirement to see their institutions through the COVID-19 years. And on the other side of things, COVID-19 put a new level of financial and governance pressures on institutional leadership. This caused a few presidents to decide to shorten their tenures.

Presidential and other high-profile position transitions pose many challenges and opportunities for communications and digital strategy teams. If you’re strategic, you can avoid the pitfalls and leverage the opportunities to support your team and your long-term goals.

Here are Bravery’s tips for navigating a leadership transition.

First, ask yourself some questions and make some lists.

‘What are the three most important things I want to see from the next leader’s communications efforts?’ Maybe you’d like to see them more visible on campus. Perhaps you’d like them to be more accessible via social media. Whatever your hopes are, have them clear in your mind and express them to search firms and committees when feedback is invited. It may help you advocate for the kind of leadership your institution needs for compelling storytelling.

‘What are three changes culture-wise that could help our communications to be more effective?’ When a new leader takes over, they can bring with them the energy and raw material for lasting cultural shifts. Does your team need permission to focus on well-being? How about professional development? Maybe your team is trying to do ALL THE THINGS, and you need time and space to develop specializations to increase your sustainable competitive advantage.

‘What are some reasonable accommodations you can make during the transition period?’ Sometimes a leadership change calls for disruption to business as usual. Your team may be asked to plan events, provide more public relations support, or put off filling open positions until the new leader starts. Knowing what’s possible and what you’re comfortable with ahead of time can set you up for success when these conversations come up.

Likewise, ask yourself, ‘What are your non-negotiables during the transition period?’ I know. You probably don’t feel comfortable insisting on anything right now. It’s team-player-time. But, you might be able to anticipate things that would cause your team or your outcomes to suffer. You also might be able to see a certain mix of tactics that could inadvertently send the wrong message. Keep your eye out for contradictions and potentially troublesome tasks.

Second, embrace transition communications.

Your outgoing leader will need special communications and recognition. This is a great opportunity to skillfully show appreciation, share wisdom, and contribute to the brand’s history. Don’t miss out on ways to honor the legacy of an outgoing leader. Be thoughtful about who provides quotes about the former leader and what stories you tell. Choose stories that exemplify and support your organization.

Transitions are conversations. Open up those feedback channels and set expectations for how feedback will be received and responded to. A leadership change can be a time of mourning or catharsis and can provide opportunities for re-engagement, transparency, and creativity.

Remember that all communication, especially transition communication, is internal and external. The things you say publicly will impact your internal teams. And, what you report to the institution will be more broadly known. Be honest and thoughtful no matter who your message is intended for.

Third, share your timelines and processes.

A new leader will focus on building their team, resolving pain points from the period of uncertainty, and establishing cultural and governance changes. Set yourself up for success by providing the information they need to trust you and your team.

In particular, be prepared to provide them with what they need on their radar. New leaders will feel confident in your ability if you can protect their time, share with them the big-picture strategy, and prepare them with the just-in-time knowledge they need to be effective.

This means

  • Preparing brief and purposeful conversations
  • Providing roadmaps and data-driven insights
  • Being able to speak about your team’s track record and successes
  • Generating talking points and fact sheets

Concluding thoughts

We all want to make a good first impression on a new leader. It comes down to three components for doing this well:

  1. Carve out time to be thoughtful about the messages you want them to hear and understand. A new leader will be inundated with meetings and materials. So, the more brief and strategic you can be about what you share, the better.
  2. Show care for the story of the outgoing leader and what the transition means for your institution.
  3. Be the kind of team that supports the new leader’s onboarding in a generous and savvy manner. Anticipate the knowledge they’ll need to sound prepared and confident.

If you do these three things well, you will set your team up for a strong supportive relationship in which the leader trusts you to implement your strategy, and isn’t that what every MarComm team wants?

- Kristin Van Dorn