Addressing the Leadership Gap: Lessons Higher Education Can Learn From Business

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on succession planning as an important function for organizations. The authors are Mike Fucci, chairman of the board, Deloitte, and Audrey Murrell, associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration and director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership.

Higher education devotes a great deal of resources to developing students as future leaders. You can see it in the wide array of courses, activities and leadership development programs available at most universities and colleges.

The irony is that while many institutions focus on leadership development for students, they often neglect to develop their own pipeline of talent to academic leadership. Commonly the result is a mad dash to address a chancellor or president stepping down, a long-tenured dean retiring, or an academic department losing its dedicated chairperson. Because of this, the individual who takes over a leadership role is often unprepared. They spend the majority of their time trying to learn on the job and earn the trust of faculty while key strategic decisions get delayed.

It’s typically different in the business world. For decades, many businesses have put a premium on identifying leadership candidates, grooming them by assigning strategic projects, and even measuring their effectiveness after they’ve landed a leadership role. This isn’t to say that business has everything figured out in leadership development and succession planning, but it’s been placed higher on the priority list with many organizations.

Higher education could learn from what corporations have actively been addressing through their talent development and succession planning initiatives.

In Part 1 of this series, we stressed the importance of leadership development and succession planning. From our perspective, no sector is in more need of a serious evaluation of its approach than academia.

Breaking down the barriers

What is causing this oversight on campuses? During faculty development programs at the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration, some faculty members have said there is an implicit bias against those who openly discuss wanting to advance into academic leadership. They have said that the more talented or successful you are in research or teaching, the less likely it is that you are identified or encouraged to seek out and prepare for academic leadership.

This is contrary to what you usually find in the business world. Many corporations actively identify, recruit and develop top performers for leadership opportunities. It’s often seen as essential at the highest levels of the organization.

Another barrier in higher education is the open search process, a part of the traditional academic culture. An open dialogue about succession can be viewed as pre-selecting individuals for leadership roles. While transparency is an important feature of an open-search process, the unintended consequence can produce an implicit bias that becomes an obstacle for effective leadership succession and planning. In addition, this emphasis on an “open search” can produce an implicit bias to favor external candidates over internal candidates. In fact, some faculty resist being identified as a “successor” because of concern that others will see this as a violation of the open, public-search process.

Successful corporations can serve as a model for effectively leading open-search processes for leadership that emphasize the need to identify the right set of skills and fit of the candidate, yet challenge the assumption that an internal successor is less valuable or violates the unspoken principles of the open-search process.

Lessons from business

Through collaboration and knowledge sharing, academia can work with business to adopt and customize elements of what has worked in corporations. Here are a few tangible examples to consider for improving leadership development and succession planning within higher education:

Get buy-in from the top: Without a commitment from the president and other institutional leaders, leadership development is unlikely to ever be a long-term commitment. Engage top faculty members to help maintain a continuous investment in leadership development.

Develop inclusive leaders at all levels: While many executives worry about top leadership, it’s the mid-level managers and entry-level employees who typically have regular contact with key stakeholders at the university. Academic advisors, alumni and development officers, and administrative staff interact with students, faculty, alumni and corporate partners every day. Capable and engaging managers and supervisors can drive performance, foster engagement and increase retention.

Identify priorities: Dig deep in a discussion about the institution’s top priorities. Based on the results of that dialogue, build a capability framework for selection, recruitment, assessment, development and succession that defines the leadership you need now and into the future.

Leverage a capability model: Build a framework for assessment, development and coaching. Many models are used by companies that can be adapted to the needs of higher education institutions. There can be value in keeping the model simple and focusing on implementing leadership models and programs.

Make leadership development and succession a priority: Reward managers and directors at the school for developing successors and sharing talent. Without a process to seed and feed the pipeline with the best, most diverse talent, your leadership investments will likely not deliver value.

Look externally for new leadership development opportunities: Work with peer universities, business partners, and nonprofit and government organizations to create a range of new leadership experiences. There is a great opportunity for engagement opportunities that not only develop staff and faculty capabilities but also offer learning experiences for students.

By taking a page from the corporate playbook on leadership development, higher education institutions can get up to speed quicker on identifying, grooming and evaluating institution leaders. We’re both committed to continuing the conversation on the importance of succession planning, and knowledge sharing between sector leaders is a great place to start.

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