The Process for a Successful Successor Search

By Emily Rogan

Finding a new president involves multiple stakeholders and a lot of transparency. ACCT’s Narcisa Polonio shares some tips for a positive presidential search.

When a community college president announces plans to retire or move on, the board is charged with what may be the most important responsibility they have: hiring a new educational leader.

The basic principles of hiring a new college president haven’t changed much since the 1970s, when the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) was founded, says Narcisa Polonio, the group’s executive vice president for education, research and board leadership services.

“Having a transparent process with integrity,” has always been a priority, Polonio says. “The biggest difference today is inclusion. There’s a real desire to have a diverse pool of candidates, in terms of race, ethnicity and background, to better reflect the student body being served.”

A good search takes time, she says. There should be ample opportunities for the candidates to get a sense of the college, the board and the culture. Stakeholders should also have the chance to interact with the candidates.

Suggestions to ensure a positive successor search, according to Polonio:

  • The search committee should reflect the whole college, including faculty, students, staff and board members.
  • There should be a national recruitment effort.
  • Confidentiality should be maintained for the first part of the process so that candidates are comfortable that they’re going to be considered before public disclosure.
  • Candidates should have multiple opportunities to visit the college and meet with the stakeholders publicly.
  • Candidates should have enough time with the governing board so that all parties involved get a good sense of one other.
  • Boards must do their due diligence in terms of background checks to find out candidates’ professional preparation, experience and track record and to gain a true sense of their values.

But even boards with the best of intentions can make mistakes, Polonio points out.

Factors that can derail the search process, according to Polonio:

  • The process isn’t transparent. The college needs to know the search start date, the steps for making a decision and the target date for appointment.
  • The final decision-makers are not clearly identified. Not knowing who’s going to choose the new president can cause confusion. If the search committee’s job is to narrow the choice down to the final candidates, and the board’s job is to make the final decision, that needs to be clarified in the beginning.
  • There is confusion about compensation. If you haven’t provided a salary range, then you may end up with candidates whose expectations are beyond the means of the institution. To avoid a deal-breaker, be clear about limitations and preferences from the beginning of the process.

The best candidates are those who offer a combination of preparedness and readiness along with emotional intelligence, says Polonio. “Well-prepared candidates with the right balance to motivate, encourage and communicate effectively do better, in my opinion.”

And Polonio suggests that when the job becomes personal, the new president tends to be more successful. “The visionary who falls in love with the institution tends to be a better leader. That person looks to the future and is a real student-centered individual.”

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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