By Lucy A. Leske
"Donna" called me last week. A senior administrator for more than a decade, she was excited about working with a new president, who had been hired with great fanfare and promise. It would be a chance to rejuvenate her career under a bold new leader. Donna had everything a new president might want: impeccable credentials, relevant leadership experience, goal-exceeding results. She had no reason to believe her job was not secure on the new leadership team.
Donna called me again this morning. The new president, wanting to start fresh, had created a team that did not include Donna. For the first time in her life, she was out of a job and never saw it coming. She was in shock: Was her career over?
As an executive recruiter in higher education for more than 25 years, I have had more than one of those calls. Higher education is no different than any other industry where, often, a new CEO decides that the existing management team is not the right fit, either with the chief executive or with the strategic agenda moving forward.
Usually, it’s not you. Sometimes cleaning house is necessary for a host of reasons, such as setting a new tone or eliminating underperformers. Occasionally there are symbolic, budgetary, or political issues that can only be resolved with a change in senior management. Lastly, no matter how skilled or competent a senior VP or administrator might be, there are times when the chemistry is just not there. Through no fault of your own, experience and evidence of success are not enough to keep you in your job.
One administrator I have known for several years, "Diane" (as with Donna, not her real name), just went through this experience only to land on her feet in a new, exciting position. When we spoke, Diane said she had seen her firing coming although she was still chagrined when it happened.
She didn’t panic. It helped that her ouster was done with grace — and with a substantial exit package that gave her time to plan her next move. Within a few months she had two job offers to consider, partly based on strong recommendations from her former organization. "This situation opened doors that I’m not sure I would have pursued without the time to really think beyond my immediate pathway," she wrote me in an email. "I didn’t let the situation get me down at all. It is very clear the issue was never about my performance or abilities. It was genuinely not a good fit anymore."
But it could happen to you. I asked another senior administrator — I’ll call him "Ted" — in a similar situation to reflect on his experience. At first, he recalled, he was in shock. In hindsight, however, there were early signs and a "growing sense of doom," he said.
This is not an uncommon situation, he noted. For better or worse, some presidents bring in a new management team as a matter of course. So be aware of your field’s turnover rate. And be prepared in the event of a presidential transition for the possibility that you will be asked to move on.
Ted is considering several job opportunities after some months of regrouping and getting his job search under way. There are things you can do in advance and after the fact to ensure that you are in a strong position after a transition. He recommends you play offense, not defense. Do not assume that the new CEO will accept the status quo or that your record speaks for itself.
Here is an example of what not to do: One long-tenured administrator I know took a one-month summer vacation a few weeks after the new president arrived. Bad idea: He lost his job soon after his return.
A new CEO’s history with you begins on the day he or she starts — not in your past, no matter how successful you have been. It is all about moving forward. Research the new hire and understand that you will be the one expected to adapt to this leader’s style, not the other way around. The new CEO may have a completely different management and leadership philosophy than you’re used to, may prefer daily briefings instead of weekly meetings, or may like brainstorming rather than decision-making meetings. If you cannot adapt to the change, you will need to formulate an exit strategy.
Who makes the first move? Maryanne Peabody and Larry Stybel, authors of a 2001 article in the Harvard Business Review, "The Right Way to Be Fired," advise senior leaders to "watch the exit signs" and "consider volunteering to be terminated before it occurs."
People who make assumptions that a long tenure will somehow guarantee them job security are missing an important aspect of organizational leadership, they write. Leaders are sometimes let go even though they haven’t failed — their skills, experience, and even leadership style may simply no longer align with the organization’s priorities.
If, after a new president starts, you find yourself being given less responsibility, getting left out of important meetings, or learning about decisions after the fact, those are possible signs that the new president is relying more on other people or preparing to make a change in your job.
Too often, people in that predicament wait for the ax to fall. Here are some thoughts about how to get ahead of the curve if the new president starts showing signs that the management team can do without you.
First, do no harm. You may well feel angry or betrayed. But both Ted and Diane learned that maintaining effective relationships with others in the organization — at the board and senior-leadership levels — is critical at this time. That does not mean you should lobby to keep your job, or do end runs around the new CEO. Keep delivering what you promise. Always do the right thing for the organization and communicate the accomplishments of the people in your department. That approach will redound to your benefit.
Keep your hands on the wheel. Do not overreact, but pay attention to your gut and the signals. If you know your days are numbered, don’t skulk. Make an appointment with your new boss and lay out the options. End on a positive note by offering a timeline for your departure and an exit plan. Also, be prepared for different outcomes, such as being asked to hand in your keys immediately.
Take the high road. Be gracious in public, work to effect a smooth transition, and never bash your institution. These people will be your references for your next job.
Take stock. As hard as this experience can be, you’ve got the chance for reflection and a new beginning. Think big. Ask people who know you well to offer their honest perspective and assessment. What are the job opportunities before you, and what strengths can you draw upon? What habits or behaviors — especially any that may have led you to this plight — do you want to change? A job transition can be transformative.
Talk to friends and allies. Maintain an active professional network both before and during a leadership transition so that you can tap into potential opportunities should the need arise. In the first few days after you get the bad news, try to be good to yourself. Take a break. Evaluate your financial situation so you know exactly how much time you can take to do your job search right. Breathe. Don’t panic or rush out and try to apply for every job. Most important, don’t contact recruiters or interview for other jobs until you have a plan and a spiel.
Craft your message. As a recruiter, I am attuned to job transitions on CVs and résumés that look odd — and search committees are, too. However, a strong career trajectory, broad and deep administrative experience, evidence of success, and leadership ability are valuable assets no matter what field of higher education. What you need is a reasonable and truthful explanation. A job loss after a new president comes in can be characterized effectively without disparaging your former employer or obfuscating. Examples include:
- "I was hired under the former president to complete a particular strategic agenda. With that success and a new president with a different agenda, I now have the opportunity to rethink/redirect my career."
- "In this financial environment, the arrival of a new president is the ideal time to evaluate every position. Several senior leadership positions, including mine, were consolidated and reconfigured, though I had performed well."
- "Our institution is changing direction. The new CEO and the board would like to have someone in the role I held whose primary experience is in [mergers/STEM/online/health-care/international/etc.], which differs from my background and experience. It makes sense for the organization to recruit someone with different expertise."
- "The new president and I have different leadership and communication styles. I could see that we did not connect, so I offered to move on. I am now actively pursuing opportunities that [fill in the blank]."
There is no doubt that being left off a new president’s team is an emotional, professionally challenging experience. None of us like to be told we are no longer needed or wanted, and explaining the situation to others can be awkward at first. Know that being ousted from the team doesn’t mean you’ll never play again. There is another team just around the bend where you and your background will be the perfect fit.
Lucy A. Leske is a senior partner at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. She has been an executive recruiter at the company since 1992, and has led a broad range of searches, including for presidents, vice presidents, deans, and provosts.