The challenge and opportunity of navigating leadership changes in the middle of a campaign

Anyone who works in higher education knows that leadership changes are inevitable. The average tenure for college leaders was roughly 6 ½ years in 2016, according to the most recent American Council on Education’s higher education leadership survey. That’s down from about 8 ½ years just a decade before. The trend appears likely to continue considering more than half of the leaders who participated in the survey planned to step down within the next five years.

Given that median capital campaign is about eight years, leadership changes during the course of a campaign are far from unusual. I’m all too familiar with this reality; I worked with seven chancellors (including interim leaders) during my eight-year tenure at University of Missouri.

Throughout that experience, I learned some hard-won lessons that helped smooth the leadership transitions during critical times such as a capital campaign. To help you navigate your own leadership changes, I’ve detailed some of the most effective techniques that helped me steer through these transitions.

Get to know the leader

Every leader is different, with his or her own unique strengths and weaknesses. I recognize that may seem like an obvious point. Even so, I still had to recognize that I—and the new chancellor—would only thrive if we found ways to effectively leverage their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

The process of determining a leader’s strengths and weaknesses begins during the interview process when I would ask about his or her fundraising experience. In evaluating his or her response, I’d attempt to assess how he or she would perform in several different situations that we often ask our presidents and chancellors to assist:

  • A one-on-one conversation with a key principal gift prospect or donor.
  • An off-the-cuff conversation with a small group.
  • A keynote address.

While each scenario is important, one person may not thrive in all three. As a result, I was most interested in one-on-one relationships. Luckily, that’s also the easiest to evaluate by examining if he or she listens and asks questions, whether he or she actually answers your questions, as well as whether he or she keeps his or her ego in check.

One way to assess how a leader will perform with donors is to ask him or her to describe his or her vision. How a leader responds can tell you a lot. Some will quickly offer a 50,000-foot-view of an idea such as “curing cancer,” which can spawn initiatives such as the need for endowed chairs or new facilities. Others will default to tactics, such as “We need new buildings.”

I’d pay particular heed to hear how and why he or she would dive into his or her big picture idea because the vision is what inspires donors. No donor is likely to care that you need a building. Instead, donors want to know what you want to do and impact of that initiative. That’s what I call the “Who the hell cares?” question. With all the global needs such as hunger and literacy, why would a leadership donor care about our big idea?

The introduction

Once a leader was chosen—and before he or she began—I’d reach out (with permission) to congratulate him or her on the new role and to discuss areas where advancement would like to partner with him or her.

I’d follow the call by preparing a transition package that included all the crucial information he or she needed to know about our department. That might include a number of documents covering a number of key areas:

  • Our department budget.
  • The makeup of our staff.
  • Short biographies of our top 25 principal gift prospects that detail who they are, what they have given, and why they give.
  • Introductions to friends and alumni of color to provide him or her with diverse voices and perspectives.

Those documents would prepare the leader for the day of the announcement of his or her hiring when we would work with the university’s leadership team to set up brief phone calls with key principal gift donors (we’d also fill in calls with other key principal gift calls in subsequent weeks). The calls aimed to make the donor feel special that the chancellor would take time on his or her first day to speak with him or her. To relieve pressure on the new chancellor, I’d also be on the call to field questions that he or she couldn’t answer.

Once we had contacted all of those key principal gift donors, I’d work with the leader to try to get travel time at least once a month for face-to-face meetings with key donors and prospects to start to get them to connect. As I mapped out those trips, I’d try to include what they call in the South “Y’all come events” in which we’d invite all alumni in the area for a big event so that they could also get to engage with the chancellor in person. If possible, we’d also arrange small dinners for prospects who might not make sense for a one-on-one to enable them to also spend quality time with the new leader.

Getting to work on the big ideas

In a campaign, donors give big gifts for big ideas, which is why it’s important to find ways to map the new leader’s big ideas into the broad campaign vision that’s already been developed. That’s not as difficult as it may seem given that capital campaigns—regardless of leadership transitions—often need to evolve over to reflect the reality of the world.

Weaving the new leader’s ideas into the campaign begins with a high-level perspective. For example, if the big idea is to help cure cancer, that may require new research centers and chairs to help attract talent. That high-level perspective is crucial when talking to donors. After all, rather than focusing on the need to build a building you can articulate the big-picture goal—we are trying to cure cancer—and then map out the various initiatives involved in that effort. That enables the donor to respond with what he or she is interested in. For example, he might not be interested in a building but would be interested in funding research.

All successful advancement leaders need to be understanding, particularly in the wake of leadership transitions. Investing the time to understand who your leader is will undoubtedly pay off because it will position you and your team to take advantage of his or her strengths and set him or her up for success.

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