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Leading in a Fast-Moving World: Four Characteristics You Need at the Edge of Change in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Leading in a Fast-Moving World: Four Characteristics You Need at the Edge of Change in Higher Education
Leaders in business and higher education share a number of similarities. By contextualizing purpose, postsecondary leaders could learn a lot from their colleagues in the corporate world.

Author’s Note

The foundational research for this writing is the CEO Genome project, which is further elucidated in the Harvard Business Review article, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart.”

The ideas create a basis for adapting the characteristics of successful CEOs to the current landscape of change in higher education. For this purpose, I give historical and personal examples of success and failure which illustrate the points. Additionally, I clarify the needed contextualization from business to higher education. What are the differences, and how must leaders adapt if they are to succeed?

Higher Education Should Borrow from the Four Key Characteristics of Effective CEOs

Almost everyone agrees that higher education is being disrupted at every turn these days. Consulting companies, start-ups, for-profit conference organizations and internal corporate educational facilities all are vying to educate others—a role once left to universities.

Business education experts state emphatically that disruption can successfully spur innovation and positive change. For example, Professor Ed Hess of the Darden School of Business at UVA states,

“The science of adult learning is clear—individually we all are suboptimal learners, and we need others to help us optimize our learning and development. Collective intelligence is far better than sole intelligence. … Optimizing collective intelligence will be a strategic necessity and, in many cases … will require fundamental changes in human and organizational mindsets and behaviors.”[1]

A mindset of positive disruption is a common occurrence in business. On the other hand, it has been my experience that higher education leaders are particularly resistant to disruption and change. The reasons are complex.

To address this complexity, I’d like to challenge a few assumptions by looking at educational leadership through the prism of effective business leadership. A handy tool in this examination is the CEO Genome Project,[2] which considers what sets successful CEOs apart from those who aren’t.[3]

The CEO Genome Project researches the business community, elicits some surprises, and within context is extremely applicable to those of us leading in higher education:

“Our findings challenged many widely held assumptions. For example, our analysis revealed that while boards [which hire CEOs] often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors. We were also surprised to learn that virtually all CEO candidates had made material mistakes in the past, and 45 percent of them had had at least one major career blowup that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business. Yet more than 78 percent of that subgroup of candidates ultimately won the top job. In addition, we found that educational pedigree (or lack thereof) in no way correlated to performance: Only 7 percent of the high-performing CEOs we studied had an undergraduate Ivy League education, and 8 percent of them didn’t graduate from college at all.”[4]

Given some of the surprising results of this decade-long study, I feel the four main characteristics of the successful leaders studied ought to apply to higher education leadership:

  • Deciding with speed and conviction
  • Engaging for impact
  • Adapting proactively
  • Delivering results reliably

1) Deciding with Speed and Conviction: A wrong decision may be better than no decision at all.

Understanding the Concept:

Making decisions early, fast and with conviction: Being decisive is key to success as a leader. In the Genome study data, when “decisive” was a descriptor of people, those same people had 12 times the opportunity to become high-performing CEOs. Interestingly, every single decision was not required to be correct in the end. The key was to decide.[5]

This aspect even more interestingly relates to higher education, where high IQs are appropriately valued, and leaders are more likely to choose a decision-making tactic of investing in an extended and exhaustive study of the data, investigating many options. The resulting slowness may likely leave the impression of indecisiveness and result in the dissatisfaction of colleagues whose own actions may depend on the leader’s decisions. In the CEO genome study, a significant majority of study subjects who were fired, were fired because of indecisiveness, whereas only a third left their jobs because they made a wrong decision.[6] Especially in higher education—where the decision-making process slows down more often and more naturally due to curiosity about all the implications of data— the relentless search for support can easily cause a bottleneck, and that bottleneck more than likely is that very smart leader.

My Experience Here:

I had started in a highly visible position which was brand new to a university. Leading a revenue contributing division, an integral part of the success of my team relied on my creating a sustainable business plan. Similarly, an integral part of that business plan was a comprehensive, realistic financial model for the initiatives I proposed, and decisions about those initiatives had to inform the model.

I had created financial models before, but this one was likely to be the most comprehensive ever, with very few guidelines as an initial foundation. As I was relatively new to the institution and its culture, little discerning assistance was directly forthcoming, particularly about the university culture as evidenced in its traditional financials. Rather, I found ideas informally from consultants, colleagues from other organizations and my own experience and training, which helped to introduce a very new concept. After the model was created, the framework itself seemed to encourage colleagues from within the organization to more easily suggest tweaks to mold the model to the institutional norms by providing specific feedback and suggestions. And ultimately, the result was good! I had made the decisions that got the ball rolling with something less than 100 percent clarity of the surrounding landscape.[7] If I had waited until new colleagues were comfortable helping me, I couldn’t have finished on time for higher level reports which were needed. Not letting my lack of perfect knowledge delay the process at least created the possibility for a positive outcome.

Applying this to Higher Ed Leadership:

At universities, the ultimate goal, and the necessity of deciding, must often take precedence over a perfect, collaborative, data-driven process. As was true in this example, the actual process of making decisions can be messy—and we should expect the messiness. Preferred style is sometimes elusive, but decisions must be made anyway. Forget the style and press forward, avoiding unnecessary upset but encouraging change where necessary. The goal is to get the job done.

2) Engaging for Impact: Your stakeholders all have varying incentives. You must hold them in a dynamic balance with respect to your organization’s and your own objectives.

Understanding the Concept:

This characteristic is one which I feel is much too often overlooked. The fact is that one of the definitions of leadership is that a leader’s efforts will inevitably impact many stakeholders, most with varying incentives and preferences. By this definition, a leader will never be able to make everyone happy. The skill is to hold the stakeholders in that dynamic balance where they all benefit the leader’s effort in ways that are meaningful to them. Again, actual hands-on application is easier said than done, and can be messy and discouraging. It must be managed through the messiness, with determination, even though some stakeholders cannot be made to be happy.

My Experience Here:

As is common at universities, new program curriculum must be approved or recommended by a committee of representative faculty members. Especially when considering programs comprising new structure, style or modalities, hard questions may be asked. In the example situation here described, which involved an approval body, while my team anticipated and prepared for questions focused on the curriculum, in actuality the questions we received focused on the university’s structural change. Because we were surprised by this approach—having not prepared for a discussion to be about structure—we could not immediately address the structural and political concerns and the proposal did not pass through the committee. Upon further reflection, it became clear that many unspoken stakeholder worries about change at the university were underlying the questions we received and had influenced the rejection.

However, for the success of the new initiatives, that rejection could not stand. By determinedly moving through a complex creation of opportunity, we earned a second chance before the committee in a short time. We rewrote the proposal to include a thorough explanation of the background, benefits and interwoven history of the new initiatives into the strategic plan of the university. This new direction helped answer the unspoken questions. Although still somewhat contentious, the proposal was passed. For that moment in time, that was all we needed.

Applying this to Higher Ed Leadership:

This initial withholding of an essential approval was undeniably a setback to my team’s initiatives, and I had to adapt immediately. The situation was embarrassing and untidy, but in the end it was not a failure. Eventual success was only gained by comprehending stakeholders’ varying incentives. As a solution, our academic team and I invested many hours in rewriting the entire proposal, an action which shouldn’t have been necessary in my opinion. Nevertheless, we created enough of a dynamic balance that stakeholders could move forward just enough to pass the proposal through the process. All these actions informed me about desires and potential actions across campus, which will inform future relationships as well.

The important point is not to give up that dynamic balance among stakeholders; hold it carefully, respectfully and sustainably. It’s also important to not make people angry unnecessarily. Although some will never agree, in my experience showing a little humility and taking responsibility for flaws can go a long way in developing real, sustainable alliances.

3) Adapting Proactively: As environments change, adjust as needed.

Understanding the Concept:

On this third concept, the CEO Genome study notes that “nearly 90 percent of the strong CEO candidates we reviewed scored high on dealing with setbacks.” Additionally, “adaptable CEOs spent significantly more of their time – as much as 50 percent – thinking about the long term.”[8] By separating out relevant impacts from broad information flows while contextualizing specifics to their organization, change is something these successful leaders can sense and adapt to.

My Experience Here:

Part of my job is to create partnerships with various academic units at the university in order to deliver successful educational programs in innovative ways. Given the high demand for partnerships with our team, evaluative conversations and market research can become sensitive and somewhat competitive at times. My financial model sets up the partnerships in a way that my delivery team and the academic team have equal skin in the game, and fail or succeed together. It’s a brilliant structure in concept, but in execution it can, once again, be messy.

My goal is to choose the very best academic resources the university can produce for my team’s partnerships. Early on, an obvious unit meeting my criteria houses one of the top programs in the world in their area of scholarship. However, this unit was experiencing significant change and, understandably, thus avoided engaging the additional change these new initiatives would incur for more than a year. Recently, one of their faculty members helped me to see the landscape of their work more broadly, and he and I were able to create an area of exponential growth, but not in a university setting. So, our partnership in that area of study may be not at all what I had originally planned, but for the university it may become even more of a “blue sky” initiative with high rewards and potentially also high risks. Choosing a programmatic structure which yields the appropriate amount of risk for the optimal rewards for the students and the university will be essential, as has been my ability to tolerate timing inefficiencies until the stakeholders align for action. Only then is it time to move.

Applying this to Higher Ed Leadership:

The idea of making mistakes is less viable at universities than in other organizations. After all, getting good grades has traditionally been the goal in education through the decades. For over a year, in regard to the above relationship I lived with a mindset of slight failure (definitely less than an “A” grade) in that I couldn’t figure out how to create a desirable partnership with that highly ranked unit. In the end, accepting help at the right time in order to understand the larger landscape of this area of study with which I was not familiar enabled an innovative partnership, and an educational product heretofore not even anticipated at my university. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that a typical academic mindset would have been more traditional in categorizing the options, and missed this opportunity. At its inception currently, we will see how it pans out in the end.

4) Delivering Results Reliably: The basics.

Understanding the Concept:

Delivering results: It seems an obvious requirement for a leader. In the CEO Genome project, the most successful of those studied delivered results year after year, consistently. They were strong organizers, and they established systems which made processes run smoothly. They also surrounded themselves with strong teams.

My Experience Here:

One of the reasons I was hired into my current position was my record of delivering strong annual financial results. By contrast, the current job in its initiation stages has focused on developing the relationships, building the organizational support and creating the processes that will enable reliable results on a much larger scale. This landscape of work is similar but different than those I’ve experienced before. I am forced (in a good way) to hire the best people and rely on my team.

Typically my style has been to lead a coordinated team and push through toward a goal quickly with tenacity. My current position requires me to build more slowly and inspire not only a team, but an entire university in order to meet our big goals and deliver results over time. The sustaining thought for me is to remember that I’ve delivered reliable results before, and my team and I can do it again. I also have great appreciation for my boss, whose thoughtful, steady guidance shines light on specific situations regularly.

Applying this to Higher Ed Leadership:

This work that I’m doing now will deliver results in several years, and the current results I’m delivering are not monetary. Instead, they are evidenced in strategies, processes, financial models, agreements and partnerships. Academic work can also be more erudite than that in business. For example, long-term research projects take years to complete. In this way, university partners can relate more easily to the story I tell of the type of preparatory work my team and I are doing, and more people will understand this concept in a similar pattern to prepping for a research publication or report.

Ultimately and most importantly, I must produce results. At first, the results in this job are preparatory, and ongoing, sustainably contributing to academic life and ultimately to the students we serve. Thus, for the current job, “deliver results reliably” is in some ways the most relevant characteristic to apply to leadership in higher education.

Conclusion and Applications

Effective leadership in business and higher education share strong similarities. Understanding the context of each area results in the best application of knowledge, and ultimately leads to the best results. The abilities to make decisions with careful haste, to keep stakeholders in a dynamic balance, to adapt proactively, and to deliver results reliably are no less important to educational leaders than to those in business. The key is to contextualize, draw and communicate similarities and differences, and in the end, just get the job done—a result as desirable in the classroom as in the boardroom.

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[1] Edward Hess and Kazimierz Gozdz, “Becoming a Hyper-Learning Community: The Future of Business.” UVA Darden Ideas to Action. January 25, 2018.

[2] CEO Genome.

[3] Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell,Stephen Kincaid and Dina Wang, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart.” Harvard Business Review.May-June 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Author Perspective: