On Leaders, Leading, and Leadership: Investing in Greatness

I just finished reading Leading Continuous Change by Bill Pasmore.  I think it was a book handed out at a retreat two years ago.  I don’t remember if we were asked to read the book before the retreat.  I don’t remember reading it – there was no time; maybe skimming it.  But, somehow, this weekend, it captured my attention.  These days, I’m immersed in Virginia Tech’s strategic planning work with seemingly millions of meetings; multitudes of ideas, perspectives, and thoughts; experts sharing expertise on students, faculty, research, infrastructure, evaluation, technology, data, and metrics.  I’m learning a great deal. Often, everything seems important and urgent.  It is all very exciting, but at the end of the day, there is a deliverable that’s due.  What is due is a guide for the future and next steps for the institution.  Getting to this outcome requires a continuous straddling between minutiae and the mundane, on one hand, and the miraculous and the momentous, on the other hand.  So, in the spirit of the rest step (http://menahprattclarke.com/2018/07/07/on-the-soul-and-the-spirit/), I paused this weekend to get above the noise, to get some advice and mentoring.

A candidate for a position on campus recently asked me in group interview, who is my mentor on campus?  Slightly taken aback, I said, “I don’t have a mentor.  I have mentoring experiences.”  I was proud of my answer that covered up a larger personal issue, but that’s another blog topic for another day — “On Mentors and Mentoring.”  But this weekend, Bill Pasmore’s book was my mentor.

The book has many good ideas related to leadership and working in a complex business world that demands a mindset of sink or swim, a ridiculously fast pace of competing with known competition, with potential competition, with unknown competition, for markets already tapped and those untapped, for better profits, for shiny products,  for more and more.  It is a different mindset than those of us in this elitist, somewhat snobbery world of academia and higher education — in the ivory tower of ideas, governance, reflection, and deliberative thought, where everything must be researched and justified and verified and validated, and able to be duplicated by others as a proof of the legitimacy of the idea.  It is a place and space that rarely recognizes the concepts of competition and competitors, products, customers, deliverables, timeliness, profit margins, and returns.  These conversations and ideas are almost exclusively the domain of the business school, and the classrooms of finance, accounting, and business management majors.  They are part of the jargon of business professors who often have never worked in the business world, at least not in the recent past and certainly not the present.

The question of a product, a customer, and profit margin in education has emerged in the world of for-profit education institutions, like the University of Phoenix – private, for-profit colleges and like the businesses that create and run charter schools, profiting at the expense of marginalized and disenfranchised communities, often in poor and racially segregated communities.  Those of us in sanctimonious not-for-profit higher education “land-grant” institutions often snub our noses at the for-profit model for education.  The mission, however disguised, seems antithetical to the purpose of education as a public good, with intrinsic value, not to be commodified, and treated as the production of widgets and profits, at the expense of students.

Yet, in reflection, I think we need to try to explore a middle ground and think about higher education as a business – a business that has to operate with an urgency and attentiveness to outcomes and accountability.  How do we create urgency in a culture that demands by its very nature, extensive deliberation in the place of urgency, even while many in meetings speak in urgent critical tones about what is not working and why and what must and should be done, while at the same time, calling for committees, workgroups, and workshops to make recommendations to another committee or another workgroup to review the recommendation and to make another recommendation for implementation  to another committee or workgroup or unit, that will then assign another workgroup to actually execute?

Pasmore argues that leading Complex Continuous Change (Triple-C) requires acknowledging a focus on four mindsets: think fewer, think scarcer, think faster, and think smarter.  It is about discovering, deciding, doing, and discerning, continuously and simultaneously.  See this chart (p. 46).

Essentially it involves four steps:  make sense, make choices, make things happen, make revisions.”  (p. 175).

I started to wonder what are the processes in place, the incentives, and the pressures to do this in higher education?  The incentives are often financial – there is less money:  fundraising that didn’t meet expectations, and/or state funding that was reduced.  Those events cause institutions to think fewer and scarcer, but not necessarily faster and smarter.

How can an institution, whose culture is embedded in the values of governance, reflection, engagement, conversation, discussion, feedback and input, think faster and also act faster?  It is almost as if in an environment focused on learning, understanding, and knowledge, we forget to act, to take steps, and to create movement, because it is almost as if we can afford not to do so.  In the absence of a “crisis,” the students seem to keep coming, they seem to keep graduating, faculty seem to keep teaching, staff and others seem to keep working.  What is left to do?

How do you create urgency for change when all seems good?  How do you motivate an institution to challenge itself to accelerate its profile, ranking, ability to attract talent, and to compete in a competitive global marketplace?  Marketplace?  Can we use that word in higher education?  What does that mean?  Marketplace in the context of education?  What is our marketplace?  Is it the marketplace of ideas?  The marketplace of training leaders? The marketplace of creating college graduates?  The marketplace of producing transformational research?   And then, once we define this marketplace, we have to ask who are our competitors in the marketplace and why do we choose these competitors?  What is it about them that is “competitive”?

It is as if the idea of competition is often limited to sports and athletics.  We want to compete in college athletics.  We want to find the best athletes. We want to win competitions. We want to win bowl games and we are willing to pay for it.  We pay college coaches more than college presidents, more than star faculty.   Universities invest in facilities – practice fields, stadiums, academic support centers, dining facilities – to support athletics.  They invest in the coach’s team:  assistant coaches, recruiters, trainers, academic advisors, etc.  They also invest in scholarships to attract the best student-athlete.  There is na investment in processes to support greatness.  There is a special process to recruit coaches and their leadership team; and there are special rules to recruit students.

In the world of athletics, exemplified by college sports (but not limited to the collegiate environment) — there is an investment in the structure of “greatness” – in the people, the place, and even the processes.

Is this a helpful analogy for the world of higher education outside of college athletics? What does  investing in the structure of greatness look like? What does competition look like outside of sports and athletics?  It must look similar:  finding the best people and having the best place for them to actualize their potential.  It is about making an investment in people, places, and processes.

Higher education institutions must invest in people.  We need to be able to attract the best faculty, scholars, staff, students, and minds to work at Virginia Tech.  These minds have to come from around the world, and have to bring a diversity of thinking, of ideas, of backgrounds, of perspectives.

What do we need to do that?  We need to provide an environment and place for people to maximize their potential.  We need quality facilities – classrooms and labs and space.  We need quality infrastructure:  technology, policies, practices, procedures that facilitate outcomes. We need to provide competitive compensation. The salaries for faculty and staff, while not the sole determinant, become important factors for recruitment and retention.  And we need to invest in scholarships for students, like we do for our star athletes.

This focus on “greatness” and investing in “greatness” also requires us to challenge and interrogate our perceptions of “the best.”  Many who have become great were not considered great and many who were considered “the best” never lived up to their potential.  Much of the “talent” today is often not given the opportunity to actualize their potential because they don’t fit our stereotypes about “fit.” Steph Curry, for example, given his height, should not be a “great” basketball player.  Serena Williams given her gender, skin color, and cultural background should not be a “great” tennis player.  Outliers, as opposed to those within the bell curve, are often those with the greatest capacity for “greatness,” because they have learned to think, to do, to be different, outside of the norm, and to do more with less.  They see the world differently which increases their potential for greatness.  The mindsets of many with power cause them to make decisions about talent that result in mediocre masses managing mediocre projects with mediocre effectiveness.  This is not “investing in a culture of greatness.”  We must invest more time in identifying potential, cultivating and nurturing it, and supporting it.

What does it mean to “invest in a culture of greatness?” This question need not be limited to the greatness of an institution.  It can apply to the greatness of an individual life, our own lives.

Today’s mentor says, “Step away from the buffet of life choices” to see the big picture; distill a clear vision; decide what is most important by recognizing what is working and what isn’t; prioritize, design, and execute (p. 174).  Make sense, make choices, make things happen, and make revisions.  Good advice for life, for leading, and leadership.

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