Monday, October 24, 2016

Succession Planning in Law Schools

Succession[by Rick Bales] In business, one of the principal responsibilities of a leader is to groom a successor. At General Electric, for example, CEO Jeff Immelt spends about 40% of his time on developing the company’s future leaders. At Eli Lilly, half the variable compensation for senior executives is tied to mentoring skills and leadership development.

The impact of succession planning in business is often obvious and public. On the negative side, consider Sumner Redstone, who is having a King Lear year as family and confidants publicly grovel for his affection and fight among each other over his media empire even while he’s on the right side of the grass. On the positive side, consider Proctor & Gamble, where for 175 years every CEO started a career there as an entry-level employee.

In law schools, and higher education generally, the impact of succession planning is equally dramatic, if less public. Universities drift; law schools become internally dysfunctional. Moreover, the change in skill sets required as one moves up the higher-education ladder are at least as significant as in business. A great faculty member is strong in the classroom (which requires lots of solo class prep) and a gifted researcher – mostly solitary work; a successful dean must be visible and social and a consensus-builder. Likewise, a great associate law dean is detail-oriented and knows precisely how the train works; a successful dean envisions future destinations and can raise money to lay the track.

The average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO is 4.6 years – longer than the 3-odd-year tenure of an average law dean. Yet, though succession planning is institutionalized at most large companies, in law schools and higher education generally it is haphazard at best. Consider, for example, the number of  searches in which there is not a single viable internal candidate.

The institutional benefits of succession planning are myriad. The most obvious benefit is to avoid catastrophe if, for example, a leader gets hit tomorrow by a bus. But succession planning is important even in a planned leadership transition. For example, a poor succession fit, or a long delay, can derail strategic planning or new initiatives – consider the effect of a Trump presidency on President Obamas’s health care legacy. Poor succession planning can cause major disruptions of work, overstretch unprepared administrators and staff who must step in to fill a leadership void, delay transformative projects or innovations, cause a lack of confidence in the department or institution, and bleed internal talent.

Succession planning benefits not only the institution, but also the individuals who are mentored. It is always possible, of course, that they will take their new talents to different institution. Yet companies face the same risk, and invest in their employees anyway. Such investments build loyalty, and can pay off not only when an employee moves up, but also in the employee’s ability to take on new leadership roles in her current position. And even if the employee does leave for greener pastures, he will reflect positively on his future institution for years to come.

Effective succession planning must be inclusive. Anointing a chosen successor will breed resentment, and will not accomplish the goal if The Chose One leaves for another institution. Succession planning should be a shared process – one that fits squarely within shared governance – and its goal should be to create a large, diverse pool of folks who are well-prepared to fill multiple leadership roles at the institution.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every open position should be filled with an internal candidate. All institutions benefit from the fresh ideas that come from hiring outsiders. But hiring outsiders comes at a steep cost – it takes at a minimum 1-2 years before an outsider learns the institutional culture, gains the trust of key stakeholders, and figures out how to work the photocopier. If there is not a single viable internal candidate applying for a position, that’s a pretty good indication that there are deeper problems at the institution.

So what does effective succession planning look like? First, it should permeate the institution – everyone should get the message that upward mobility is possible, encouraged, and facilitated. Second, it should go beyond professional development, which is focused on the current position, and train or mentor for the next position. Third, the process should be open, because otherwise it’s likely to lead to posturing and infighting. Fourth, it should involve delegations of significant responsibility, ideally on discrete projects that permit accountability. This, of course, presupposes leaders who are neither power-hoarders nor micromanagers. Finally, it should be people-oriented. One of the hardest things about moving into a new high-level job is getting to know all the new people – learning their personalities and motivations and earning their trust. Early exposure cuts the learning curve. It also has the benefit both of being institution-specific and of eroding the silos that are all too common in higher education.

A well-thought-out succession plan benefits both the institution and its future leaders. It also benefits higher education as a whole. As our industry faces rapid changes in how teaching is both delivered and paid for, we need leaders who are equipped to face these challenges. Leaders are not born, but made, and higher education is uniquely positioned to make more of them.


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