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IN HER OWN WORDS:
Moving Up or Moving On? Women & Succession Planning

The first step is an attitude adjustment. Women often don't think they're ready to lead.

By Dr. Gretchen M. Bataille, president of GMB Consulting Group and a Strategic Partner with ROI Consulting Group

Very few colleges and universities embrace succession planning. Indeed, the concept seems reserved for the corporate environment.

But even if leadership programs exist to develop current employees, the traditional practice of competitive searches and “going outside” to hire administrators is losing ground in academic circles.

In fact, a 2013 American Council on Education (ACE) study found that senior campus executives at four-year institutions are equally likely to have been promoted from within as hired from the outside, 50% in each category.

In part this is due to the incredible cost of external searches and, on a more philosophical level, institutions discovering that having institutional memory can enhance the ability of an administrator to do the job.

As these changes occur, women need to position themselves to be viable candidates for these internal positions.

The lack of opportunity at one’s institution often is the reason key administrators look elsewhere. Unfortunately those doing so begin to lose their sense of loyalty to the institution and instead spend their time figuring out where to go next. This is not good for the home institution.

It’s better if all employees believe that they can move up on their own campus or within a state system, an opportunity women need to seize.

This fall I spoke to a group of faculty and administrators who were participating in the University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s Leadership Institute. What struck me about the experience is that each of the participants was learning a great deal about her/his own institution and that each of them would be great candidates for future openings.

If the goal of the UNCG program and others is to develop leadership skills on campus, how should women respond?

• The first step is an attitude adjustment. Women often don’t think they’re ready to lead. They don’t have mentors or sponsors to coach them. They are often the “first” in their current position, a novelty that carries them through for a while, until they wonder if they really deserve the position.

• Women also put off progressing—whether because of family obligations or job security concerns.

When they finally decide to move up by applying to be dean or provost after many years as a department chair, others may question their authenticity—why now?

In fact, the first time many women feel they can give fully as an administrator is after their children are grown.

ACE surveys presidents every five years; its 2012 results show that women are 33% of presidents at community colleges, 23% at baccalaureate and masters institutions and 22% at doctorate-granting institutions.

Women presidents are more likely to be single and have no children than men (72% of women presidents are married compared with 90% of male presidents); women in science have it harder than women in the humanities; and mothers are less likely to hold tenure-track positions.

What is more telling is that the pipeline to these top positions does not bode well for more female leadership. A 2009 ACE report showed that 47% of women provosts are not interested in becoming a president, for example.

Women need to recognize these trends and find ways to respond to questions that will come from search committees about their goals and aspirations. Sometimes search committee members have inherent biases about women administrators as well as about internal candidates.

There are two approaches: How can campuses encourage more women to move into administration? And what can individual women do to move up on their campuses?

Campus support

Campuses need to follow the lead of places like the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Rollins College and the University of Arizona, where leadership programs are designed to prepare internal candidates for positions at that institution. Large systems are in a particularly good position to offer programs across an entire state.

When I was in North Carolina, the UNC system sponsored summer leadership workshops for chairs and deans across the 16 campuses. Some campuses have created “mini” ACE Fellows Programs, recruiting internal staff to shadow senior administrators.

This is a way women can learn about the issues of the institution and discover whether or not serving as higher level administrators is a realistic goal for themselves. Current leaders play an important role as well and need to be aware of the leadership programs offered by ACE, AASCU, HERS, Harvard and others.

They need to send particularly promising future leaders to participate. Such opportunities should be competitive. Those women selected to participate should receive appropriate support from the campus.

Each person’s annual evaluation process should include a conversation about future goals and how to attain them, but there also should be opportunities for professional development discussions outside the formal review process.

On campus, presidents and provosts can provide opportunities for aspiring administrators in doing fundraising, attending legislative meetings and interacting with the community to help them to see having a broader role.

Inviting a subset of chairs and deans to board dinners provides insight into university governance. When I served as president of the University of North Texas, we scheduled leadership breakfasts several times during the year, inviting department chairs and deans and faculty leaders along with senior administrators to hear from leaders in higher education, business, government and K-12 education. Not only do such activities provide information and insights to individuals, the participants become advocates for the institution because they are better informed.

Aspiring women

What should women do to position themselves for new leadership opportunities at their own institution?

First, take advantage of opportunities offered—internal leadership programs, lectures and presentations on campus by other leaders, or leadership opportunities offcampus. Within a system, women can volunteer for committees and let administrators know of their interest in these appointments. Leadership America has a national program as well as opportunities at the state level. Similarly, associations such as ACE have state, regional and national meetings that focus specifically on women’s leadership issues.

Learn as much as possible about your institution, its history, programs, funding and aspirations. Then when there is an opportunity to interact with others, women can use this information to demonstrate an institutional perspective and not just that of a single department or college.

Be pro-active about seeking out a mentor or find some sponsors, as Sylvia Hewlett (2013) advises in “(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track your Career” in Harvard Business Review.

Throughout my career I have been fortunate to have had mentors—both women and men—who addressed my strengths and weaknesses and who “pushed” me to consider opportunities. I have always considered mentoring graduate students, young faculty and aspiring administrators as part of my administrative responsibility.

Find someone who will do more than just listen to you— who will nominate you for positions and help you to prepare for your next career move.

Networking is critical, and aspiring administrators must reach out to colleagues in areas outside of their comfort zone.

Find out from colleagues how their department operates and go to campus forums where the CFO is presenting the budget or the vice president for research is providing guidance for junior scholars—even if these forums don’t seem related to your own work. You will meet new colleagues and learn about other divisions of the institution.

These activities provide a way to learn as much as possible about how universities work and how different areas outside of the academic environment do their business.

Talk to search consultants, even if you’re not thinking about leaving your current institution. Women are much less likely to talk to search consultants than men, and these consultants can provide invaluable advice about what institutions are seeking when they do searches. The advice will be similar for almost all positions and institutions.

As author Sheryl Sandberg advised in her 2013 book Lean In, women need to “lean in” and learn as much as they can to ensure that they are ready for their next career position. Then they need to go after it.


Dr. Bataille was the first female president of the University of North Texas and subsequently senior VP for leadership and lifelong learning at the American Council on Education.

Reach her at
gbataille9@gmail.com  or 480-331-1695


Bataille, Gretchen. (2013, December). In her own words: Moving Up or Moving On? Women & Succession Planning. Women in Higher Education, 22(12), 24-25. 

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