Mentoring and Succession Planning in Higher Education

Mentoring in Higher EducationJust as higher education Presidents and their Boards of Directors have looked to private sector business models to improve processes, increase efficiencies and find cost savings, more and more Colleges and Universities are recognizing the need and importance for mentoring and succession planning. With an increased number of baby boomers looking to retire over the coming years, the need for continuity in key executive positions is critical to maintaining stability and ensures the long-term health of their institutions.

Higher education is embracing mentoring programs to encourage and support its next generation of leaders and to guarantee continuity and balance it with the need for growth and change. But, Colleges and Universities are different from private business. Their mission which focuses on serving students and the wider community seems in stark contrast to private sector corporations whose primary concerns are improving productivity, generating revenue and driving bottom line profits.

Higher education also has a vastly different culture, with a greater number of stakeholders to satisfy. Multiple stakeholders means multiple inputs when it comes to selecting a candidate for a specific position. While businesses have both the flexibility and streamlined hierarchy to identify talent and formally mentor a successor, the presence of so many stakeholders - President, C-Level officers, Boards of Directors, Faculty, even students and parents - taking such an approach raises more questions than it answers.

Still, while different in many ways, businesses and higher education face the same problem, increased competition for talent. Not only are both looking at a smaller talent pool from which to draw, they are often fishing in the same small pool. This is particularly true when filling jobs such as Chief Business Officer and Chief Information Officer, where the skill set is easily transferable and breadth of outside experience is desirable. Higher education has traditionally turned to the “nationwide search” as a way to find fresh talent and bring new perspectives to their institutions. This approach too can have its downside, when for instance a new hire proves to be a bad fit culturally. The big question for higher education may be how can they adopt or modify formal mentoring and succession practices and still best serve their multiple constituents?

A Middle Ground

Formal mentoring has its own challenges. Even if the culture is receptive, mentoring - grooming and coaching a protege - requires time and attention. Sharing the spotlight with a subordinate means putting ego aside. The size of the institution plays a part as well. Smaller institutions with more limited resources don’t always have the time or flexibility to provide the attention needed for successful mentoring. One fear regarding mentoring in a small college or university situation is that the newly trained mentee will seek employment elsewhere where they have a better chance of advancement.

A less formal approach would be to identify and mentor talented individuals as a matter of course. After all, doesn’t it make sense to encourage talented individuals to stretch and grow by taking on special assignments despite the risk that they may take their talents elsewhere?

Still, such an informal approach to mentoring may work best for Colleges and Universities who must address multiple constituencies when filling open positions, unlike private businesses who may only need to consult with HR, executives and their Board in making hiring decisions.

Makings of a Successful Match

Successful mentors develop a relationship of professional respect, trust and transparency with a mentee. A strong mentor, like a strong mentee must possess certain, almost innate skills in order to make a successful match. First and foremost they impart the need for shared goals and collaborative practices that are best for the institution as a whole. A strong mentor makes it their business to understand an individual’s goals and aspirations and to monitor these throughout the mentee’s development. More specifically, a strong mentor offers their charge opportunities to learn and grow not only within their jobs, but within the organization. He or she challenges their mentee to take on special projects, to work with other departments, outside consultants, other campuses, even to engage with the community at large should the opportunity present itself. A good mentee is eager to understand processes and procedures that may lie outside their current purview. In other words, a good mentor doesn’t just give their mentee things they themselves would prefer not to do. Instead, he or she delegates choice assignments, something that will challenge and offer their mentee greater visibility within the organization and deeper insight into the politics and culture of the campus as a whole. Such a breadth of experience offers the mentee a deeper understanding of the institution, its culture and the community it serves, that would otherwise be impossible to experience.

A truly successful mentor mentee relationship becomes, over time, a partnership. A strong mentor should have an open door policy, encouraging open communication and transparency among subordinates. Such generous behavior will invite talented and ambitious employees, to step forward and work harder. A strong mentor can encourage such competition while promoting collaboration to build a strong team that works together. The resulting “bench strength” assures the institution of strong viable internal candidates to draw from when a position becomes available.

Search vs. Promotion

While the recommendation of a successful higher education executive with a reputation for mentoring outstanding workers can go a long way when it comes to considering the mentee for a promotion, or even as their mentor’s replacement, the reality is that mentoring doesn’t ensure the mentee will get the job.

When it comes to filling key roles, Colleges and Universities often choose to “cast a wide net.” This is particularly true in the case of hiring a President for the institution. A number of considerations must be factored into choosing a successor for key executive roles. There is a need for balance, skill set, experience, diversity, cultural fit. These things don’t have to put an internal candidate in a bad light. In fact, a search that encompasses a larger and more diverse pool can often bring an internal candidate into focus, drawing attention and respect to their achievements.

Formal or Informal

In 2008 the search firm Witt Kieffer conducted a survey of college and university presidents and board members. With 135 responses, or an 8.4 percent response rate, 74 percent of those responding indicated that “their institutions practice succession planning in some capacity.” Of those responding institutions who want to begin succession planning or expand what they’re already doing, 71 percent are most likely to focus on board members, and presidents and chancellors. These respondents “believe the culture of their institutions is most likely to support succession planning at these higher levels.” Succession planning for senior administration positions was identified as a focus by 55 percent. While only 49 percent saw succession planning as viable for the chief academic offices and deans.

While the results of the survey clearly reflect the concern of senior executive and their boards regarding anticipated turnover at all levels over the next five years, a number of concerns regarding formal succession plans arise. In addition to allowing enough time for leadership transitions, revising and refining methodologies for searches and development of an on-boarding process for new leaders, respondents cite:

  • The need to recognize that “shared governance,” those multiple stakeholders which according to one respondent make it “impossible for any administration to do the sort of succession planning that is common in private organizations.”
  • The need for succession planning to be transparent and participatory as part of overall professional development
  • The need to balance succession planning with a commitment to diversity
  • The belief that open searches must continue to bring new ideas and a high standard of leadership to the institution

According to one unnamed university president respondent, “There are three keys to successful transitions. The first is to have strategic plans that are tied to current performance metrics and goals, but focused on long-term objectives that enjoy widespread support throughout the organization and for which there is a sense of common cause and ownership. The second key is to develop internal candidates for leadership roles so that there is always a high standard of capability within the organization against which to measure the qualities of outside candidates. Third, it is important to have a culture that embraces a common sense of purpose and aspirations in which there is not only no cult of personality, but a genuine appreciation of people who put the community’s success ahead of their own recognition.”

The Bottom Line

All good bosses should make it their goal to identify and encourage talented individuals. Offering challenges, sharing knowledge and experience, can only encourage growth, both personal and professional. A capable leader and good communicator with strong self-esteem builds trust and loyalty not just in and to themselves, but to the institution and the culture. Such a generous mentor can build a strong team from which to choose the next generation as well as develop individuals who are ready to continue successful careers at other institutions.

If your institution seeks a formal mentoring and succession plan, to be successful you’ll need the buy-in of the Executives, Board of Directors and Human Resources at the very minimum. You will need a program that is inclusive as opposed to exclusive. Today’s changing demographics must be a key consideration when making the open search required to better reflect the diversity of your student body. No matter which you choose to have, a formal or informal plan, the longevity of your institution will depend on open communication and an ongoing process to identify and grow internal talent.



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