MY ADVICE TO THE HARVARD PRESIDENT SEARCH COMMITTEE (and to any organization seeking a new leader)

Scott Gilly
5 min readAug 14, 2017

Harvard University’s recent email announcing the search for a new University President stated, in effect, that the person selected must be a brilliant and talented leader who will help the school navigate technological changes and financial challenges while keeping the faculty and donors happy.

Those, of course, are a lot of boxes to check. Then again, the role of a university president, at Harvard or elsewhere, is infinitely more complex — and the tenures consequently shorter — today than ever before. Higher costs, lower budgets, smaller enrollment, faculty resistance to change, campus politics, and public disenchantment are just some of issues higher education leaders face.

As a Director of the Harvard Alumni Association, as well as an alumnus, I have more than a passing interest in which candidates the University should consider for its next president. But, more importantly, as the founder of staffing and recruiting firm Pivot Management Partners, I’d advise Harvard, along with any organization recruiting a new leader at the chief executive level, to keep in mind the following five thoughts during the search process:

1. Involve the predecessor in the successor search

Whether a university president or a Fortune 500 CEO, great leaders have a vested interest in seeing their successors succeed (leaders who don’t probably weren’t truly great to begin with). Involving successful outgoing leaders in the search process helps with the transition,improves staff morale, and enhances brand reputation. Further, particularly with a leader as successful in her tenure as Drew Faust has been at Harvard, their experience in the role is an invaluable resource to tap when evaluating candidates. They can both advise candidates on the opportunities and challenges of the position and the board on the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Incumbent leaders can also serve as mentors and advisors to those eventually chosen for the role.

2. Don’t hire a clone

Organizations, particularly successful ones, often hire a successor who is an archetype of their current leader. But every leader is different, and the expectation that someone new will step into the role and have the same success in the same way as the incumbent leader often leads to disappointment. Indeed, digital disruption means that new leaders need skills that are vastly different from those of previous leaders. At Harvard, for instance, the new President will assume the leadership of a university that is very different from the one President Faust was appointed to more than a decade ago. The key question to ask is whether the candidate is the right person to lead the organization now.

3. Look backward to see forward

There are two types of companies: those that promote to the C-suite exclusively from their own ranks, and those that are open to external candidates. Management theory about which model is preferable has fluctuated over the years. A strong indicator of which approach is right for an organization is its history. Search committees should compile relevant data — stock price increase, profit growth or, in the case of Harvard, success achieving the University’s priorities in education, research, etc. — to gauge how successful past leaders were when they came from inside or outside the organization. Then they should analyze those results, bearing in mind to what extent circumstances are different or similar today. Search committees should also be mindful of the unique culture of the organization and how new leaders might assimilate, and also how they might change the organization to drive engagement and growth

4. Emphasize your organization’s competitive advantage

Harvard is an institution with many competitive advantages, so it’s natural to think the candidates have to sell the search committee on why they are special. However, it’s equally important that Harvard, or any organization seeking a new leader, do the same in return. Search committees need to sell potential leaders on their organizations’ competitive advantages, because odds are if you are recruiting a candidate with the profile to assume leadership of your organization, someone else is too. Moreover, any C-suite executive is taking a reputational risk by leaving a position where they have been successful to join a new organization where they might not be able to replicate that success. Research suggests modest evidence that operating performance improves more significantly when an outside CEO is appointed, after controlling for operating conditions at the organization when they were hired, according to the Corporate Governance Research Initiative at Stanford Business. We do know, however, that struggling companies are more likely to hire an external CEO. Therefore, it is imperative for search committees to emphasize, with reference to their organization’s strongest competitive advantages, that the person being recruited will be set up for success rather than failure.

5. Quickly address options for internal successors not selected

Behind every great leader are others looking to take his or her place. And it is not uncommon for those who are passed over to leave. The secondary challenge of any leadership search is figuring out how to handle internal candidates who lost out on the role. Pay raises, new titles, and greater responsibility can help soothe hurt feelings. But they are counterproductive if those passed over might create friction with the new leader or lack faith in the new strategic vision. And they are less effective than personal touch in retaining the next generation of talented leaders. Search committees have to weigh carefully how internal candidates not selected for the top role will react and decide which ones to retain and which ones to let go.

As commencement of Harvard’s search for a new University President reminds us, succession planning is one of the most important factors in an organization’s long-term success. But it is also one of the most common areas where organizations come up short. Only a third of employees report being satisfied with the outcomes of their organization’s succession planning efforts. Using these five tips can go a long way toward increasing your workforce’s satisfaction level and your organization’s ultimate success.

Scott Gilly, a graduate of Harvard College, is a Director of the Harvard Alumni Association. He is Founder and CEO of staffing and recruiting firm Pivot Management Partners and the legal-tech software company DirectDep.