Onboarding any new leader successfully requires aligning people around expectations and then acquiring, accommodating, assimilating and accelerating them. It’s challenging under normal circumstances as 40% of new leaders fail in their first 18 months. After the way their previous president, Claudine Gay was forced out after just a few months in the role, Harvard is going to need to deploy a particularly disciplined and deliberate approach each step of the way.


Those involved with identifying, recruiting and onboarding Harvard’s new president should start by thinking through how the events around Gay’s congressional testimony, plagiarism charges and departure impacted the university. Which of the stories were confined to Gay? Which changed the way people think about Harvard itself?

After an exit like Gay’s, Harvard’s new president will be making a hot landing. This makes getting alignment particularly tricky. Maslow’s hierarchy resets for everyone. All existing leaders, faculty and staff as well as alums, donors, and community leaders’ first questions go to their own and loved ones’ safety.

What they’ll hear is “What’s going to be different with this new president?”

What people are really asking is “What does this mean for me?”

All their communication about this – and everything in any situation like this – should be emotional, rational and inspirational.

Emotional: They should be authentic, relatable and vulnerable as they empathize with how the situation has and is affecting them personally and the importance of keeping them and all safe.

Rational: They should lay out the hard facts and possible impacts of the current situation.

Inspirational: They should paint an optimistic view of the future of Harvard and how this new president can help all get to that future.


Harvard’s people can’t pretend to be one type of university facing one set of circumstances while recruiting a new president and then surprise their new president when they show up. They need to respect the people they’re recruiting by laying out the hard facts of their current situation and their aspirations. If the role is not for them and they’re not right for the role, it’s in everyone’s best interest to figure that out as soon as they can in the recruiting process.

They should play this out at every step of sourcing, recruiting, interviewing, evaluating and closing or not closing the right sale in the right way with the right new president all the way through enabling a complete and thorough two-way due diligence.


The need to make sure the new president can do real work day one. Always important. Even more important in a situation like this. They can’t afford extra baggage. Every tool they bring to bear, every person they bring into play has to help the cause every step of the way.

So, they need to help their new president put in place their own personal 100-day action plan. They need to get them set up physically and virtually so they can jump in to help on day one.


In any situation, and especially in a situation like this, they need to enable their new president to work with others. They can compress the timeline by helping their new president connect with people even before their first day and setting them up to be helpful on day one.

The trap is focusing internally. Harvard’s new president will have to spend 25% or more of their time working with the board of overseers, alumni, donors and the like. Then they’ll have to spend 25% of their time working with external stakeholders like congress and other community leaders. This means they’ll have less than 50% of their time to work with people inside the university.

A second priority in assimilating is learning. The bad news is that no one has the time to invest in teaching Harvard’s new president anything. On the other hand, everything is new for everyone. Everyone’s learning. All need to help the new president learn with others.


The ABCs of management apply: Antecedent – Behavior – Consequences. Don’t expect anyone to do what you hope they will do unless you prompt the desired behavior and then reward it while punishing undesired behavior.

Leaders onboarding in a situation like that facing Harvard’s new president should move from I) doing what they’re told to II) providing input to III) making recommendations to IV) making decisions. Those involved in onboarding Harvard’s new president should prompt their transitions from stage to stage, pointing out when they go too fast or slow and encouraging them when they get it right – which they will with help.