Succession Planning: Advice for the President, the Board, and HR

Yellow double lines in road

Is external search the best approach? The president and the board at least have an open and honest conversation about whether to pursue succession planning, asking whether an internal successor who knows the culture and has the trust of other key stakeholders would be better positioned to take the helm and affect change.

Lucie Lapovsky, president of Lapovsky Consulting and past president of Mercy College, recently spoke with us about the results of consultants Booz & Co.’s 12th annual CEO Succession Study (subscription required) released on May 30, suggesting some takeaways for higher education. Among the findings: In the corporate sector, 4 out of 5 new CEOs are hired from inside the organization, and in terms of their tenure, “inside” CEOs usually outlast outsider CEOs. What’s most interesting is why: “It takes a long time to really get to understand how a company works,” one of the consultants remarked.

“Insiders have a better ability to understand how to affect change within an organization than outsiders typically do.”
Per-Ola Karlsson, Managing Director of Europe, Booz & Co.

Lapovsky, who has written on succession planning in higher education, suggests that this is an important finding for leaders in higher education to note. “When you do an external executive search,” Lapovsky cautions, “and bring in an external leader, you often lose a year or more of time.” There is the 6-12 months after the previous president announces departure and during which that president often feels displaced, followed by the 6-12 months it takes to get the new leader situated. During this time, there may be significant disquiet and uncertainty among top leaders of the institution, as they speculate about their future working relationship with the new president or even worry over their own job security. “A lot of the institution’s senior leaders may themselves be looking around, keeping one foot in, one foot out the door. Productivity is likely to suffer during the 1-2 years of transition in executive leadership.”

Other issues that frequently arise:

  • If the institution has cultivated relationships between the president and top donors (rather than also cultivating relationships between top donors and the provost and deans), the departure of the president can cause discontinuity in the relationship. In some cases, the new president has to start from scratch.
  • If the provost, CFO, or another senior leader was also being considered for the position and is then rejected in favor of an external hire, the internal candidate will most frequently leave the institution — a loss of talent, knowledge of the institutional culture, and internal trust that can further upset the transition.

While many institutions cite valid reasons for an external search, Lapovsky suggests that the president and the board at least have an open and honest conversation about whether to pursue succession planning, asking whether an internal successor who knows the culture and has the trust of other key stakeholders would be better positioned to take the helm and affect change.

Questions the Board Needs to Be Asking

Stressing the importance of strong board leadership to ensure succession planning for executive positions, Lapovsky suggests that the board include questions related to succession planning during evaluation of the president’s performance and during other key conversations about the institution’s future.

The board needs to ask the president regularly about how he or she is grooming the institution’s senior leaders:

  • If the president were hit by a bus tomorrow, what three people would be prepared to succeed the president in an interim or short-term capacity?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of those three?
  • What deficits in skills or knowledge do the senior staff have, and how will the president help them address these deficits?
  • What specific actions is the president taking to develop senior staff for taking the executive role?
  • Who is best prepared to succeed the president in a long-term capacity?

Questions the President Needs to Be Asking

Similarly, Lapovsky recommends that the president hold critical conversations with the top staff: “Who do you want to be? What’s your next career move? How can I help you further your goals?”

“If they aspire to be a president,” Lapovsky adds, “then the president needs to take responsibility for making sure these top staff interact with faculty, that they have opportunities to do more fundraising and interact more with top givers. Help them prepare for the executive role. What organizations do they need to participate in, what professional development opportunities do they need to take advantage of? The president needs to help them prepare — without worrying about the security of their own job.”

Leadership Development at all Levels

“Human Resources needs to be about more than filling vacancies and ensuring regulatory compliance. HR needs to think strategically about managing the institution’s human capital.”
Lucie Lapovsky, Lapovsky Consulting

Succession planning and talent development is critical at the top, but also needs to become a priority at all levels of the institution — so that you can ensure a healthy internal talent pool that will keep your institution competitive and thriving.

If your institution does not have a leadership development program in place, consider collaborating with other institutions in your region to offer leadership development workshops, staff development seminars, or even a leadership development curriculum. Staff the program with business faculty from your institutions, or bring in resources from external programs such as HERS or Harvard’s leadership development program. “Sharing resources between institutions will ensure a diverse and interesting curriculum,” Lapovsky notes, “and a diverse set of participants will be able to compare notes about the leadership cultures at their different institutions, learning more from each other.”


If you’re one of our online members, we recommend our member exclusive, Developing Leaders in Higher Education, a report that provides a comprehensive overview of:

  • The skill sets needed by tomorrow’s leaders
  • Advice for rethinking the criteria for identifying future leaders
  • Examples of effective internal leadership development programs
  • Tips for building mentorship and horizontal career ladders within your institution