Published on 2021/02/01

People-First Leadership: The Right Response to the Pandemic

Although shaken up by the pandemic, this became an opportunity for higher ed leaders to come together, establish trust and create a better future for higher ed. 

Since the pandemic, we have kept people at the center of every decision and will continue to do so as the future remains uncertain. Looking back at our response to the pandemic, there are some things that have gone right and that we should continue into the future. 

In early March, we announced that all employees would receive normal pay for normal work through June 30, 2020 and that everyone would stay employed. This removed a huge potential for anxiety for our team members. In planning the new fiscal year, we removed nearly all capital and focused spending on retaining personnel. We provided a 2% pay increase with performance bonuses across non-union team members. We also successfully negotiated a new faculty contract, which includes 2% pay increases each of three years and improved healthcare benefits.

Our leadership team remained intentional in conducting regular check with team members. They would ask, “How are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you? Are you performing self-care (being active, getting rest, etc.).” The team knew that their most important job was maintaining themselves, and there was a lot of grace and empathy during this time period. This was just the beginning. 

Redesigned leadership team

Ohio Governor DeWine announced a state of emergency in March. He felt so strongly about our need to change that he personally visited community college leaders a few hours before the announcement. After that, we redesigned the leadership team by expanding the cabinet from 8 to 13 people; we called this team the Ops Cabinet. We added the director of facilities, director of IT, the police chief, communications director, and the foundation director. We also flattened the org chart and made it so every team member reported directly to either myself or to the president. 

This new structure offered a few advantages. First, we met daily for a tactical discussion (what needs to be done and who is doing it). Each team member provided a 3 to 5-minute status update. Everyone was empowered to make a decision and report it to the group at the next convening. Each team member had direct access to either me or the president if they needed something. We were able to take quick, decisive action for anything that arose. 

Uncertainty breeds anxiety, so we tried to remove as much uncertainty as possible. We crafted weekly messages to employees that encouraged self-care and provided status updates about the college.

Strategy is still strategic (Alternatively: “Strategy is still important”)

We have several strategic partners—EAB, ACE, HERDI, CHE, to name a few. We leveraged these partnerships to gain the knowledge and understanding to navigate this time frame. One thing we learned is that whatever was strategic before the pandemic is still strategic. Bearing that in mind, several significant strategic initiatives continued through the summer and fall terms:

  • We finalized the 2020-2023 strategic plan (April 2020) and built 2020-2021 college goals.
  • We were awarded our first TRIO SSS grant.
  • We joined Achieving the Dream.
  • We launched a new mobile-friendly website for the college.
  • We completed an organizational restructuring plan to provide a more consistent learner experience.
  • Too many items to continue to list.

Established trust  

One of the main reasons for our success this year is understanding that the most important currency in a time of crisis is trust. So, we strengthened our relationships with internal and external stakeholders. In finalizing the fiscal year 2021 budget, the board of trustees had trust in administration to grant us $1M of reserve funding to balance the budget, allowing us to keep all personnel on staff and avoid layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, etc. Since summer and fall enrollments were better than expected, and state funding was not significantly cut, we were able to put $1M back into reserves at the October board meeting. 

We asked our staff to trust in each other and in their leadership. With some working remotely and others on campus, it is very easy to begin doubting the others’ efficiency. Faculty, staff, and students all trust that our campus is a safe place to be. We are performing all of the recommended safety protocols (social distancing, masks, frequent cleaning, physical barriers where distancing is not practical, etc.). Community partners trust in our ability to continue to serve.  We had a virtual graduation ceremony at a community partner’s location, where eight students earned an automotive credential.

So, although the pandemic has largely disrupted the higher ed space, it’s important to acknowledge the advantages it has created. We were able to reshape our leadership and focus on what matters most: the people. Our team became more empowered to make decisions and leadership became more accessible, strengthening our overall communication. This enabled us to continue our strong, strategic initiatives and strengthen our relationships with stakeholders. With this done, we can move forward into a better higher ed experience for both staff and students as we head into a new normal. 

Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Impact of Online Shopping on Higher Education

Learn to implement eCommerce best practices and create a positive learning experience.

Read here