Leadership Transition in Times of COVID-19

Maite G. Latorre - 23 June 2020

The importance of leadership transition was never top of mind for me, even after participating in a variety of organizations, clubs and committees that have gone through changes in leadership. But when I started my Stretch Experience with Halford Consulting Inc., a specialized leadership transition organization, the projects I worked on required me to do extensive research on what leadership transition actually was, and the impact it has on post-secondary institutions.

It was shocking to learn that approximately 40% of executives who change jobs, or are promoted, “fail” within the first 18 months (Fisher, 2012). In other words, these unsuccessful new hires were deemed a poor fit, were unable to deliver on expectations, or were otherwise unable to adjust to the demands or circumstances of the new role (Bradt, 2012). In the past decade alone, at least 18 Canadian university presidents have not completed their first mandates (Cafley, 2015).

A presidential transition has a major impact on the life of an institution, and with a consistent failure rate in North America for over 15 years, organizations and institutions of all types, including universities and colleges, incur significant costs, delays and risk due to an unsuccessful change of a key leadership role. Hundreds of post-secondary presidential transitions take place globally each year, and when they are not carefully orchestrated, they can scar both the institution and the president (Sanaghan et al., 2008). Therefore, practical, time-efficient actions by leaders who support the president (e.g., the president’s office, board, vice-presidents, deans, and other campus leaders) can accelerate the new president’s ability to add value to the institution. Purposeful action also decreases organizational risk by anticipating transition challenges and developing proactive solutions.

In mission-driven organizations like universities and colleges, the success of new leaders and presidents further supports and enables the achievement of the institution’s purpose. In other words, institutions can continue to positively impact their community regardless of a change in leaders. But what happens when the leadership transition happens during a global pandemic? How will COVID-19 impact these upcoming and critical transitions in post-secondary institutions across Canada?

It is a pivotal time for many Canadian institutions as more than 14 post-secondary institutions are going through presidential transition in 2020. Boards and leadership teams are mostly relying on digital connections to welcome and onboard new presidents. Further, principles such as identifying how the transition team can support their new leader still apply regardless of the scenario (Soulfront with Scott Riddell, 2020), but how this support is provided will look significantly different.

Great leadership transitions require effective communication. Therefore, it is essential to “over-invest in communication and find new ways to create connections. Communicate with credibility and optimism, be realistic but be positive” (Nevins, 2020). With most institutions now working remotely, even when moving into the fall semester, it is of utmost necessity to set up multiple and new ways to keep in touch during transition planning and welcoming the new president. For example, many digital platforms have developed means for plenary and breakout room conversations. This feature has allowed the transition teams, board members, presidents, etc. to have extensive dialogue to varying audiences, from their homes. Presidents, boards and staff can improve the transition success even if they only have weekly 15-minute conversations with each other. Who is doing what? How can we move forward? etc. Having the opportunity to connect and reflect together on the future will send a positive message to the new leader, letting the new president know they’ll be supported by their team (Soulfront with Scott Riddell, 2020).

The University of Alberta is welcoming a new president on July 1, 2020, a new Chancellor was installed on June 18, and the board chair is in the first year of her term. This transition is happening in the midst of critical financial challenges within the institution and the province, significant pressures on the oil and gas economy and, of course, the public health challenge of COVID-19. Our new leaders are all incredibly impressive and dedicated people - but their success depends on strong support from the institution - from the executive team, the board, staff, faculty, and students. Communication and engagement will be crucial - on everyone’s part - if they are to succeed. The University’s future depends on it.

Maite is an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Education and a PLLC scholar.


Bradt, G. (2012, February 15). Executive Onboarding: The Key to Accelerating Success and Reducing Risk in a New Job. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/georgebradt/2012/02/15/executive-onboarding-the-key-to-accelerating-success-and-reducing-risk-in-a-new-job/#2691181b21ab

Cafley, J. (2015, September 8). Why have so many Canadian university presidencies failed? University Affairs. https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/why-have-so-many-canadian-university-presidencies-failed/

Fisher, A. (2012, February 17). New job? Get a head start now. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2012/02/17/new-job-get-a-head-start-now/

Nevins, M. (2020, March 19). Leadership In The Time of COVID-19. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hillennevins/2020/03/19/leadership-in-the-time-of-covid-19/#6ba95765e4e3

Sanaghan, P. H., Goldstein, L., & Gaval, K. D. (2008). Presidential Transitions: It’s Not Just the Position, It’s the Transition.

Soulfront with Scott Riddell. (2020, May 5). Ep 4 – “The Importance of Leadership Transition” with Jane Halford Founder of Halford Consulting [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWocSfTyTB8

Return to Articles