Practice Area Column
International Education Leadership

Seven Tips for Handling Change at the Top

Turnover in leadership on campus presents challenges for SIOs—and opportunities as well.
Navigating smoothly through transition helps the international program stay on track—and can even open up new opportunities. Photo: Shutterstock

Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. An international program can be running smoothly when, suddenly, a senior leader—or sometimes more than one—decides to move on from the institution. While the change is unsettling, it’s also natural.

“There’s a tendency to be afraid of transition, especially if the person is beloved and has been an advocate for your area,” says Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs at Lehigh University. “You need to recognize that leadership transition is normal. An organization that is doing good work is going to find its footing.”

Navigating smoothly through transition helps the international program stay on track—and can even open up new opportunities. Here are seven tips to help senior international officers (SIOs) cope with leadership change at their institutions.

1. Recognize that new leadership sets the agenda.

If you think that somehow your office won’t be affected when there’s a change in senior leadership, think again.

“It’s inevitable when you have leadership transition at that level that it’s going to impact you,” says Matherly. “Especially when you’re dealing with a president and a provost”—as was the case at Lehigh in 2020 and 2021—“they’re hired to set the agenda for the university. It’s inevitable that those within the international office are going to have to be prepared to navigate a new direction because that’s what leadership change means.”

Presidents and provosts are leaders who set the agenda and carry the institution forward; they need to be both visionary and practical for the overall health and success of the institution. It is critical to demonstrate how internationalization fits into the institution’s future and success.

“It’s important to give the new people the benefit of the doubt. There’s a lot they don’t know. ... Let’s not immediately assume the worst.” —Cheryl Matherly

Indeed, the first thing an SIO should acknowledge is that new leaders will have their own goals. “When a new administration comes in, they have their own priorities, especially at the very top,” notes Godlove Fonjweng, executive director of international programs at Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

Matherly stresses that during this transition, it’s important to not make quick assumptions as the new leaders as they roll out their vision. The assumption may turn out to be wrong, or the new leaders may simply need more education about the international program.

“It’s important to give the new people the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “There’s a lot they don’t know. People jump to conclusions that this person doesn’t like this area. When somebody is new, they are making decisions based on a previous frame of reference. Let’s not immediately assume the worst.”

2. Know whom you’re dealing with.

Knowing the new leaders’ background is critical to understanding how to build a relationship with them. The level of their experience with international education helps SIOs determine the best approach to working with them.

“It is essential to identify and understand what lens the new administration [or] leaders have related to international education,” says Marisa Atencio, assistant dean and director of global education at Oglethorpe University. Since 2020, Oglethorpe has seen a new president, a new provost, a new vice president for development, and a new vice president for student affairs, with a new vice president for enrollment management on the way.

A new leader’s past experiences are bound to influence their outlook. But the challenges are acute when they aren’t familiar with or don’t have a background or an interest in internationalization. Then it’s a matter of finding how something else in their past relates to the international program.

“If they’ve overseen an international program, that’s a good sign,” says Fonjweng. “If not, then I look at their other experiences and find connections.”

Sometimes that means relying on allies to help educate the new leaders.

“For community colleges, it’s especially challenging because we’re supposed to be serving a local constituency or service district,” says Vilma Fuentes, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Santa Fe College. (In the past 2 years, Santa Fe has had a new president, provost, and chief financial officer.) “It requires a long conversation to connect between local and global workforce development.” Fuentes recommends finding allies in local chambers of commerce and state associations to help underscore how internationalization is integral to the work of the institution.

All of this work should be happening under the umbrella of relationship building. “It’s developing relationship rapport and understanding how they work, what’s their style, how do they like to get info, how do they see their reporting lines,” says Matherly. Knowing those characteristics will help you build a better working relationship over time.

3. Remember your history—but keep looking forward.

New leaders can’t be expected to absorb all the details about the international office, but they do need a comprehensive overview. “The international office has a whole history of work, projects, and agreements with previous leadership; things that are in motion,” notes Matherly. “You have to help leadership come up to speed with the history of what the work is so that they have the information that is useful to them as quickly as possible.”

To that end, Matherly’s office put together a short electronic annual report for incoming leaders. “It looks like a very polished presentation, and we were able to do it in a document that is less than 10 pages,” she says. The report includes plenty of hyperlinks to additional resources, in case someone wants more information.

“The contextual history is important, but as new senior leaders join, the history can be less of a focus than bringing forth new ideas, new organizational structures, and synergies between the values of the new leadership and the vision for international education.” —Marisa Atencio

While new leaders need historical information as they are transitioning into their jobs, Atencio cautions about being too wedded to the past. As they become more comfortable in their positions, leaders’ attention will be focused on the future, and SIOs should be following their example.

“The contextual history is important, but as new senior leaders join, the history can be less of a focus than bringing forth new ideas, new organizational structures, and synergies between the values of the new leadership and the vision for international education,” she says.

4. Look for quick wins.

Of course, one way to get the new boss to like you is to make them look good. That means finding a quick win.

At Lehigh, the international office invited the new president to its first in-person event: a celebration of the international internship program, which had gone virtual because of the pandemic.

“That’s an example of something that really demonstrated the kind of flexibility, creativity, and student-centered response we’re known for,” says Matherly. “He got to meet a whole lot of interesting students along the way, and it took about 25 minutes of his time.”

Within the first week of meeting her new president, Fuentes invited him to engage in a federal grant program that she’s codirecting. “The president has become very enthusiastic about our international efforts” as a result, she says.

“I articulate how they can get a quick big win,” says Fonjweng. “If you could just approve this program by the end of next semester, you can put this in your annual report.”

5. Think strategically.

The new president or provost is besieged with requests for time and inundated with information, so being strategic in your approach is critical. First and foremost, emphasize the connection between your work and the mission of the institution.

“If you have defined your work and connected it with the mission, they will listen,” says Fonjweng.

With that as a foundation, SIOs can make sure that they make the most of opportunities as they arise. Atencio notes that new leadership often means new structures as the administration adjusts its priorities.

“Seek out committee [and] leadership opportunities that are often created [or] developed by new leaders to increase face time with the new administration and build new partnerships with colleagues,” she recommends. 

“If you have defined your work and connected it with the mission, they will listen.” —Godlove Fonjweng

Atencio also says that SIOs should position themselves as advocates for the changes leaders may want to institute to support the new administration but also to further the international program.

“Share data and narratives widely to support the story you want the new administration to remember about how international education contributes to its goals; [that way, you’ll] receive support to advance your goals,” she says.

6. Think positively, and keep the competition to a minimum.

Change is stressful, but the sooner the international office embraces it, the better off staff will be.

“Align yourself with people who are positive about the changes coming,” says Atencio. “You likely won’t be seen as a team player if you’re known for spending time with those who are most resistant to change.”

While everyone is going to try to make the best impression upon new leaders, it’s important not to do so at the expense of your colleagues.

“When there’s a lot of leadership transition at an institution, it can create upheaval where it looks like people are jockeying for position,” says Matherly. “Some of that is inevitable. Everybody who has been through a transition has seen that happen.”

However, says Matherly, if anything, leadership transition is the time for collaboration across departments. Speaking from a unified position is far more likely to make an impact than a quarreling staff.

“When you have good working relationships, it allows you to speak in a coordinated, collegial frame to the new leadership,” says Matherly. “You’re all giving shared messages. It helps with speeding up transitions, so the person isn’t getting multiple messages.”

7. Don’t forget your staff.

Change is just as hard on international office staff as it is on the SIO. Making sure that staff feel supported throughout the transition is essential to keeping the program running smoothly—and to instituting any changes that will be coming.

“It’s important to help the staff feel comfortable and understand the implications for them,” says Matherly. “Be open with them about information, which also means being open when you don’t know something.”

Atencio says that staff are also an essential resource for helping the SIO manage the shifts that inevitably result from a leadership change. She recommends that SIOs “develop champions within the team who can model having a positive outlook about the new expectations or processes that come with new leadership.” Such peer champions can serve as a positive influence on staff and help expedite the changes that come with a new administration.

An Opportunity to Rethink

Transitions are never easy. There are times when, despite the SIO’s best efforts, it’s clear that the direction of the new leadership is simply not going to work. “If it gets to the point where you can’t do your best work in that environment, it’s more important to do good work than just keep a job,” says Fonjweng. “It’s not a good option, but it’s always an option.”

Still, more often than not, the change is a chance to give programs a fresh look. “Sometimes it’s easy to work on autopilot,” says Fuentes. “It’s an opportunity to rethink what we do and why we do it.”  •

About International Educator

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