30 Jun

Send them on a cruise: How to deal with your predecessor

I recently attended a retirement dinner for Doug Bennett, who steps down this week as president of Earlham College after 14 years of exemplary leadership.  (President Bennett has one of the most eclectic and insightful blogs, The Observatory, of any college president.)  I was struck by one particular comment that he made during the evening: “The destiny of a college president is to pack his bags and leave town.”

President Bennett and his wife were great advocates for our town – Richmond, Indiana.  They leave an indelible mark on the community through friendships and outstanding service to a variety of nonprofit boards and organizations.  But Bennett made it clear that he would not stick around, and I admire that very much.

In a newspaper interview with the Palladium-Item, he said, “It was pretty clear to us when we came that leaving Richmond would be part of the plan.  That didn’t have anything to do with what we thought we’d find about Richmond. What we found was that we loved Richmond, but it’s a good idea for ministers and college presidents to move away and let their successors have a degree of freedom to steer things without somebody watching over their shoulders.”

Jerold Panas discusses this topic in The First 120 Days: What a New College President Must Do To Succeed, and I don’t think he could have said it any better than Bennett did.  Panas writes that many presidents seem unaware of the dangers of staying on too long and they find leaving extremely difficult.

How does a new college president handle the potentially delicate and difficult issue of dealing with his or her predecessor?  Panas has the answers (and humorously titles this section “Send them on a cruise”).  First and foremost, honor the past and respect your predecessor – no matter how you feel.  Remember, one day you will have a successor.  “Think of your predecessor (whether great, good, or otherwise) as a member of the same hallowed club.”  Never be negative about the past, but turn the focus of the trustees and others to the future.

All the presidents that Panas spoke with agree that having a predecessor serve on the board is a serious mistake.  Sometimes the person will be named chancellor as recognition for a long and successful tenure.  The chancellor (the former president) should then have just one responsibility: fundraising for the college – that and “being a roaring advocate for the president.”  However, keep in mind that if the person was not a successful fundraiser as president the same will hold true as chancellor.  Most importantly, Panas is adamant that the former president should not report to the board.  He/she should be a direct report to the president.

If there is not a clear understanding, the new president can easily be characterized as the bad guy.  Therefore, it’s imperative for the board to consult with the new president on these issues and address them in advance.

Panas suggests a quick transition – not several months – in terms of bridging the old and the new.  The two only need to spend a full day or two together, at most, for the successor to absorb everything that is necessary.  Moving forward, the new president will gain the information he or she needs by “talking to others, probing, and listening.”

Even if the predecessor remains in the community, there should be some distance initially. Bruce Heilman, former president and current chancellor at the University of Richmond, told the author, “It’s a good idea for the predecessor to be away from the campus for six months or so.  Perhaps take a trip.  The new president has all he can handle just to put his own imprint on the presidency.  You don’t want the former president getting in the way.  Even if he works hard to dissolve into the background and not interfere, he is a presence.”

Fortunately for the incoming president of Earlham College, Doug Bennett – in the best interests of the college – has made this easy.  Congratulations to President Bennett on his successful tenure at Earlham and the very best wishes to him and his family!


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