Successfully Manage Change through Leadership Transitions in Education Institutions

Janet Pilcher, Pat Greco

In Brief

5-Minute Read

From 2013 until 2019, the University of West Georgia led by President, Dr. Kyle Marrero, achieved records in enrollment, graduation rates, and developed new student-centered partnerships. Within his first year, UWG had a new strategic plan and established Engage West, their continuous improvement movement. In 2015 UWG was selected as the Institution of the Year and Marrero as the President of the Year by the Chancellor’s Service Excellence Awards.

Key Takeaways

  • Leadership transitions in education institutions will occur. Interim leaders maintain momentum and engage employees through leadership transitions by listening.

  • Analyze employee feedback and carefully select which changes should be implemented. Too much change causes additional disruption and stress for employees. Keep changes small and rooted in evidence to manage leadership transitions.

  • Establish a bench of leadership ready employees. Develop individual skills within leadership institutions aligned with a succession plan. Prepare future leaders to successfully manage and lead change.

UWG established a mantra: Be the best place to work, learn, and succeed.

In January of 2019, Marrero announced that he would transition from UWG to become the President of Georgia Southern University. At this time, UWG’s provost, Micheal Crafton stepped up to become the university’s Interim President beginning April 1, 2019.

What Happens When the Leader Leaves an Institution?

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The departure of a highly successful leader leaves gaps across the school campus. Often, top education leaders have influence over other employees. When one leader leaves the institution, several may follow suite.

The Age of the Interim in Education

A leadership transition can have a ripple effect causing engagement, performance and accountability to decrease. People feel uncertain and anxious about their jobs and the direction of the institution.

In UWG’s case, there were five other vacant leadership positions for various reasons at the same time. Vacancies don’t have to catch an institution off guard. An active succession plan enables an institution to successfully manage and lead change during transitions. Within UWG, there was already a sense of how people could come together as a team to respond to the departures.

The first step is appointing interims, but what else needs to be addressed? After Dr. Marrero left the University, the Engage West continuous improvement movement as a whole came into question. Employees were at a loss about what to do now that Marrero was gone.

What About the Engage West Initiative?

Some employees wanted to give up all together. Accountability to the movement decreased. Yet, UWG recognized it had the necessary tools of leadership and decision making to put into place.

A mindset of transformational leadership is critical while enduring change. Crafton knew that the employees needed him and other leaders to role model accountability. The University executive team met and decided they were proud of what Engage West had accomplished. The team also discovered the importance of maintaining that momentum while being open to making changes. This transition period became an important opportunity to care for and connect with their employees.

When the leadership team met with employees they focused on 3 objectives:

The opportunity for employees to speak freely was met with overwhelming support for the Engage West Program. People suggested minor changes that were easy to implement.

What Changed within the University of West Georgia?

To keep employees engaged during a transition, only make changes that are sensible and evidence-based. Too many changes made by an interim leader can further disrupt employees and the institution’s outcomes. Be cautious of voices that are taking advantage of the transition period by asking for unnecessary changes.

In some cases, needed changes aren’t obvious prior to a transition. However, once they surface, it’s a good opportunity for the interim leader to effect positive change.

The team at UWG realized three opportunities for improvements to their Engage West approach:

  1. Reduce the number of Leadership Development Institutes from 4 to 3 to accommodate the semester-based schedule. This shift contributes to better organizational alignment across the institution, as education institutions think in terms of semesters rather than quarters.
  2. Move the annual Employee Engagement Survey to every other year. Feedback from leaders indicated that they didn’t have enough time after the annual survey to rollout the actions and make improvements before employees were already taking another survey. This action aims to resolve that time crunch.
  3. Shift the currently biannual Employee Engagement Survey from the spring to the winter. This provides more distance between the survey and annual employee evaluations. UWG didn’t want evaluations to alter survey results.

Success Factors During Education Leader Transitions

  • Establish a Succession Plan – UWG had already implemented leadership development programs through Engage West, and over the years had made leadership development opportunities available to a larger number of interested employees. This was a massive operation to develop leadership skills across the institution. As a result, aspiring leaders were ready to fill interim roles. A bench of leadership ready employees is critical to moving quickly and maintaining momentum during a transition.
  • Open Lines of Communication – Beginning in 2013, university leaders met with 250 employees four times per year. Executive leadership communicates with leaders at all levels to show employees their value. Collaboration between employees and university leadership was encouraged. All executives are required to attend, giving employees the impression that the university cares about leadership.
  • Designate Time for Listening – Before, during, and after the transition, listening to employees remains a priority. Changes weren’t made for the sake of changing things. Before changes are made, employees have an opportunity to clarify the changes that are important to them. Employee voice matters.
  • Increase Trust, Connectedness, and Confidence – To increase trust and confidence, use effective communication with employees and only make changes that are evidence-based. Consistency of leadership practice across institutions generates connectedness and confidence that the team is moving in a positive direction.


To successfully manage and lead an institution through leadership transitions, leaders in education should
  • Think differently.
    Top performing leaders within an institution are highly sought after by other organizations. Consider this fact and whether the institution is adequately preparing individuals with the leadership skills required to replace top leaders as they transition to other roles.
  • Plan differently.
    Keep an up-to-date succession plan for all leadership roles. Align aspiring leaders with opportunities to develop leadership skills within education institutions.
  • Act differently.
    Listen to employees to lead through change with their support. Set aside specific time for listening and gathering feedback around what can be improved within the institution. Only make changes that are based in evidence, avoid the temptation to change for the sake of change.

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