I had the privilege of serving in the US Army for 35 years, retiring at the rank of Lieutenant General. After I retired from the Army, I was equally privileged to become a leader at one of our Nation’s universities for a couple of years. Those years gave me insights into university operations.
I tell folks all the time that I think the two most important groups in our society are the members of our Armed Forces who protect our freedoms and our way of life, and our educators who guarantee our future. As a result of that, I am always looking for ways to improve operations. I think all would agree that we have some work to do in improving university operations.
From my time at a university, I came to believe we are struggling across America within our institutions of higher learning. The reasons for that are numerous. A major issue is constrained (and unpredictable) resources. Another is aging infrastructure. In my view, the most troubling one is less than effective leadership.
In the US military, we spend a lot of time focused on leader development. We tried to always ensure that leaders were prepared to be effective in their new positions. The development took place in three ways: self-development, organizational development and institutional development. I can’t recall ever being placed in a position that I wasn’t prepared for. We must do the same for our Nation’s university leadership.
In many cases in universities, folks are placed in leadership positions without any leadership preparation. Members of the faculty are made department chairs, department chairs become deans, deans become provosts and provosts become university presidents. The leadership characteristics of the new position must be carefully defined, and then individuals must be selected and developed to meet those requirements before being placed into positions. That takes time, and a deliberate leader development program.
As I review university operations, a major issue is the lack of trust throughout the organization. I think that lack of trust is primarily a function of the emphasis on individual performance within a university. Rarely does the conversation revolve around what is best for the university. Generally, it is more about “what is in it for me?” It is well established that organizations are much more effective if they are built on a foundation of trust.
Another issue is the lack of incentives for faculty and administration to make adjustments for the good of the university. Throughout my military career I always asked three questions: (1) Are we doing the right things (2) Are we doing things right, and (3) What are we missing? Those three questions gave me, and the other leaders within the organization, a format to ensure we are always on the right path. If university leadership would ask those three questions today, the answers would probably be less than comfortable.
I understand the rationale behind tenure, but tenure cannot become an excuse for not doing the right things for the university. Rarely are there incentives for faculty to change behavior and share the risk. In general terms, the problems of the university became the sole problem of the President. No one wanted to help, primarily because there were no concrete incentives to help.
In all of my commands, I emphasize the importance of communication. I highlighted the fact that constant communication is critical. Strategic communication is best defined as consistent themes and messages delivered at high frequency over multiple media. In many cases within the university setting, I found communication to be lacking. Many times folks were confused because they weren’t aware of what was going on.
I also found many cases where folks were promoted outside of their comfort zone, and that led to micromanagement and lack of delegation. Folks would naturally return to their comfort zone and spend time doing the jobs of those folks in positions they previously held and were most comfortable with.
I was taught that you “can’t roll up your sleeves while you’re wringing your hands.” It is not helpful to list problems without identifying potential solutions. In that vein, allow me to offer up some recommendations.
Build a formal leader development program. Place someone in charge of leader development and talent management. Clearly define leadership prerequisites at all levels. Require self -development . Sponsor routine conversations among the university leaders on specific leadership topics. Take advantage of existing courses to send folks off to improve leadership skills. There are many of those kinds of courses in existence today, but folks don’t take advantage of them due to cost or time constraints. That is a short-sided mindset. We must invest in the future. Have a plan internal to the university to build leaders by assigning them to developmental positions. Identify up and coming leaders and start building the bench, just as corporate America does.
Improve communication. Leaders at all levels should host “town hall” sessions to allow folks to interact with them and ask questions. Use social media to post information, thoughts and ideas. Actively solicit feedback. The more senior you are, the more you must repeat yourself. Just because you mentioned an issue to one audience over one media doesn’t mean that everyone got the message. And, always remember that 70% of communication is in the hands of the listener. Give leaders instruction on how to become a better listener.
Improve trust. Be transparent in all endeavors. Show folks that you have their best interests at heart. Most importantly, demonstrate that you trust the folks you lead. Give them broad general guidance and allow them to figure out how to accomplish the assigned task. Do not micromanage. Show them that you value their contributions.
We are all living in a resource-constrained environment. To be effective in that environment, we must concentrate on efficiencies. Effective, adaptive leadership is essential. For our Nation’s universities to thrive, we must focus on leader development. Our future as a Nation depends on it.