Reimagining: Onboard Effectively

Hiring doesn’t end with agreement on a candidate. Institutions often miss the opportunity to position new leaders for success with effective onboarding. We believe a reimagined, intentional approach is required for today’s universities and colleges.

Hiring academic leaders is a challenging journey marked with interviews, months of discussion, selection committee meetings, and tough deliberations. Once a candidate has been recommended, it may seem as if the hard work is over. In fact, important work lies ahead — for both the organization and for the candidate.

Research indicates that organizations lose about one in six new hires in the first 90 days. One review of presidential appointments among Canadian universities found an estimated 20 per cent were unsuccessful, resulting in a president either leaving before the end of the first term or failing to meet the expectations and objectives set out for them. It is also worth noting that as institutions seek to draw on a more diverse range of candidates, they may face particular challenges in retaining these candidates if onboarding experiences are negative. A commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion must extend beyond the boundaries of the hiring process, with intentional and thoughtful support provided, particularly to trailblazing hires.

These realities lead us to believe that a reimagined approach to onboarding is required. How do institutions ensure that a new leader becomes a fully functioning member of the team as smoothly and effectively as possible? Our experience tells us that successful onboarding of leadership candidates is critical to hiring success — and that it starts well before the hiring process is complete. The essential work of establishing clarity on what kind of leaders an institution seeks and the strategic priorities they are expected to tackle should happen at the outset of a search. These competencies and priorities should be front of mind throughout the recruitment and assessment. The conversations, input, and reflection that occurs throughout the process will offer clues and cues about what factors to consider and steps to take when it comes time to welcome a candidate into their new role, intelligence that a search consultant may be particularly helpful in capturing and distilling.

It may also be presumed that a leader who has been selected through a rigorous process should have enough experience to know what to do once they assume their new position. Still, factors like organizational culture, traditions, and norms are unique to each institution and can be challenging for even the most seasoned leader — and may be even more challenging for leaders coming from different communities or regions. As well, there may be tremendous pressure to “hit the ground running,” and in today’s world, it isn’t unusual for new leaders to face immediate crises, challenges, or priorities that serve to reduce their opportunity to gain a nuanced understanding of their role, institution, and the environment within which they are now operating. It can be tempting for those in new roles to focus on immediate tasks at the expense of establishing key relationships, a misstep which can prove damaging in the long run.

So how can universities and colleges mitigate the risks associated with a change in leadership and improve the odds of a new leader’s — and the institution’s — success? Our work with institutions and newly hired leaders tells us that maintaining focus on a few key areas and questions can help facilitate success.

1. Provide clarity on the role and organizational objectives. A clear role description should guide recruitment and assessment of candidates, and that description will continue to be of critical importance as a new leader steps into place, providing important insight on where a candidate’s efforts should be focused. What key strategic and operational objectives and related outcomes is the candidate expected to focus on in the first year? What are their longer-term objectives? What evidence of success will be expected to show that they are on track? Making sound early judgments on the ground can have a positive impact on their credibility and support forward momentum.

2. Create clear expectations about leadership behaviours. Clarity about desired leadership style and approach should be articulated early in a search and revisited as a candidate embarks on their new role. Did the institution aim to hire an inspirational leader? A change-maker? A steady hand? While these labels are perhaps reductive, they serve to illustrate the range in leadership approaches — and the importance of being intentional in seeking a leader whose approach aligns with the needs of the institution. At the onboarding stage, providing insight to the new leader about the institution’s culture and recommendations specific to their leadership style on effective approaches to navigating it can be beneficial.

3. Identify and support key relationship-building. What are the key relationships the new leader will need to seek out and cultivate? This includes relevant stakeholders but could also include key opinion influencers and decision-makers internal and external to the university or college. Here, a sponsor can provide critical guidance and assistance in facilitating key relationships and ensuring that a new leader establishes visibility in the domains within which they will operate. It can be helpful to assist new leaders in creating a 360-degree map of key relationships: Who are they reporting to? Which peers, internally and externally, do they need to connect with? Who are their strategic external partners? Which are the key staff members reporting to them? What do they need to learn from each? What does each need from them?

Consideration should also be given to who a new leader can turn to for advice. Senior leadership roles, particularly that of president, can be lonely and demanding. A network that includes former or retired peers from other institutions can be valuable in providing a firsthand perspective on the challenges of the role. Board members, external advisors, vice-presidents and deans, and community leaders can also provide important insights. As well, an executive coach can be helpful with shortening the time until the leader is fully effective in their new role.

4. Provide feedback early and clearly. Universities and colleges often rely on annual compensation discussions or even mid-term reviews as the only formal opportunities to provide feedback. Our experience indicates that a proactive approach to providing direct feedback early in the process can assist in avoiding issues before they arise — and research tells us that new hires are most receptive to feedback in their first 12 months. Feedback as early as the 60-day mark can be critical in helping a new leader set the stage for success.  

Don’t leave the first year of a new leader’s term to chance. By having a customized onboarding strategy in place, universities and colleges can help to mitigate costly and disruptive turnover. Be deliberate about creating the conditions for success and providing support and feedback. The sooner a new leader can hit their stride in their new role, the sooner they can start making the positive impact that you expect.

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  • Anna Stuart, MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC

    Managing Partner, KBRS
    A Managing Partner and co-owner of KBRS, Anna Stuart leads the firm's national academic executive search practice. With more than 20 years of experience leading executive searches and coaching and advising leaders in the university, college, independent school, health, and public sectors across Canada, Anna has established a strong reputation for helping organizations and individuals realize their goals.


  • Jan Campbell, MBA, CPCC

    Associate Partner, KBRS
    Jan Campbell is a highly regarded leadership, strategy, and change specialist. She has over 20 years of experience partnering with leaders, teams, and boards in organizations globally to bring about transformative change in education, non-profit, government, and corporate sectors. Jan draws on her deep understanding of leadership and skill in facilitating critical conversations to support academic institutions throughout the search process and as an executive coach to their leaders.

Our team is committed to your academic leadership success.

KBRS (Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette) has been a strategic talent advisor to universities and colleges across Canada for more than 40 years. Our approach is shaped by four important principles: our deep understanding of academic leadership, our ability to facilitate strong committee decisions, our exceptional candidate care, and our commitment to successful long-term partnerships. Over the past five years, our firm has had the privilege of leading more than 150 leadership searches for universities and colleges nationwide.

One of Canada’s largest independently owned executive search and consulting firms, we pair the flexibility and focus of a boutique firm with the research and rigour expected of a multinational organization. Our team of partners and recruitment professionals focused on academic search are informed by an Academic Advisory Council of past-presidents of Canadian universities and colleges. We work in partnership with LHH Knightsbridge, which has 27 offices across Canada and is affiliated with Knightsbridge Amrop’s 80 offices in 50 countries, giving us both local presence and global reach.

Join the conversation

We are committed to working with our clients to improve the academic leadership search process ingrained in today’s institutions and know that change takes time and collaboration. We believe our efforts will be strengthened by the contribution of diverse perspectives, including yours.

We want to learn more about your experiences with the search process and to discuss ways to further improve the approach. What challenges are you facing? What successes have you had? What insights have you gained? We invite you to connect with our Academic Search Partners at Reimagining@KBRS.ca.

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