The Chronicle of Higher Education
Chronicle Careers
May 6, 2005


When and How to Leave a Presidency

The last gift a thoughtful president gives to an institution is a graceful exit

Some of the most animated conversations I have ever heard among peers in the college presidency were about tenure -- not about getting tenure or abolishing tenure, but about the length of tenure in the president's office: "When and how will I know that it is time to go?"

Few of us are certain of our answers to that question, but there are some things we can do to recognize the "when" and honor the "how" when they appear as choices. Having recently undergone the transition from president of Goshen College, a small liberal-arts college, to vice president for programs of the Fetzer Institute, a midsize foundation, I have reflected on the challenges and opportunities of saying goodbye in ways that respect the needs of both the individual and the institution.

I offer the following suggestions to the small but growing literature on best practices in presidential transitions.

Frame your commitment. When you accept a presidency, select a minimum length of time in which you will remain on the job. Do not consider other opportunities before that time elapses, no matter how attractive they might be.

Ultimately, the best career is not one that careens from opportunity to opportunity but one that chooses commitments wisely and then stays with them long enough to accomplish significant good. Before I became Goshen's president in 1997, I selected six years as the minimum I would serve before considering other options.

Read your internal compass. Know yourself. Are you a sprinter, a miler, or a marathoner? When you set a personal goal for the length of your tenure as president, make sure it is consistent with patterns from your past. At what point do you peak? How long do you usually sustain the learning curve without beginning to plateau or decline?

When I became Goshen's president, I selected nine years (then the length of three terms) as the maximum amount of time I could keep the job, based on my history of moving from challenge to challenge in the past. I ultimately served more than the minimum and less than the maximum that I had originally set -- just the right length, as I see it now.

We do not have control over the timing of new opportunities. We only determine our degree of openness to them when they arrive. That is why some internal compass is helpful. In my case, the opportunity to serve the Fetzer Institute came as an offer I could not refuse. Its mission of fostering awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community was, and is, a powerful attractor after having served at Goshen, where love, forgiveness, and the global community have also been abiding, passionate themes. I felt my compass move north when the offer came.

Keep your intended length of tenure to yourself. Boards often offer renewable terms as a way to give authority to the president and to offer that leader job security while still placing limits on time of service. One of the fastest ways to undermine that authority is to let it be known from the beginning of one term that it is your last. You will have a "lame duck" period of however many years the term is long.

On the other hand, I was in the beginning of a third term set to expire in the year 2007 when I announced I had accepted a new position in 2004. The reaction initially was surprise, shock, and even some grief because I was leaving before the community expected me to go. However, that reaction was temporary as it became clear that the college's leadership was moving forward. And it was far preferable to a long period of declining influence marked by confusion about roles.

Cultivate a strong team and clear core values. Make the formation of a strong team of vice presidents your highest priority. If you have a highly effective team trusted by the rest of the campus and the broader community, you can do almost anything, including resign. The team can carry the work forward if you have made strengthening the core values of the campus a high priority. Shared values transcend the role of a single leader.

The team in place at Goshen right now, led by John D. Yordy, the former provost who is serving as interim president, has not skipped a beat. They have deftly handled an accreditation review as well as the final stages of a new strategic-planning process. I am cheering them on from the sidelines.

Know your institution. Is planning for presidential transitions part of the culture of your institution? Will you need to take the initiative in conversations about the transition, or will that initiative come from the board?

This area requires great delicacy because interest in it can be easily misinterpreted. Many transitions are needlessly painful on one side or the other because neither side wanted to be first to bring up the topic, and hence when the transition came, both sides needed to improvise every move. An obvious time to consider new options for the president and the board is after one capital campaign has been finished and before a new one has begun, as was our case at Goshen.

Know your board. Don't expect to make all of the farewell decisions yourself. Ideally you and the head of the governing board have had good, candid annual conversations about performance, compensation, and what is going on in your heart, mind, and spirit. When you become open to a new calling, the head of the board should be among the first to know. That way, you both can help interpret the decision to the rest of the board and to the many other constituencies of the college. I was fortunate to have such a board chair.

Create a graceful exit. Once you have decided to leave, your only job is to say thank you over and over again to all those who made it possible for you to serve. Expect to be a lame duck right away after an announcement, and if offered the chance to leave early rather than hang around, take it!

You would not have accepted a new challenge if you were not excited about it. Work with the campus to create a graceful exit and then go. Nothing is sadder than seeing a departing president realize that he or she is no longer in charge even while sitting in the same chair.

Focus on the needs of the community. Don't worry about your legacy at the end. You don't create that in your last 100 days. You created it in the thousands of days before then. Focus on the needs of the campus, and your own needs will be met along the way. If you allow your ego to grasp for every ounce of power all the way to the end and beyond, you will end up with less, not more.

Good endings are bittersweet. They acknowledge the interdependency of leadership. They have in them the quality of mystery, especially when they do not come at a time anticipated in advance. That mystery should not be seen as an enemy but as an opportunity. We can leave what is over for us and for the institution while focusing on the possibilities in the future for both of us.

The last gift a thoughtful president gives to the institution he or she has served is a loving and graceful good-bye.

Shirley H. Showalter is vice president for programs at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich. She was a member of the Goshen College faculty for 21 years before becoming president in 1997.

Copyright 2005
The Chronicle of Higher Education Section: Chronicle Careers
Volume 51, Issue 35, Page C3