The Tightrope Walk: Defining and Serving Our Key Stakeholders
Who are you answering to? A university board, the provost, your team as individuals and a unit, other schools or units within your institution, local employers, workforce investment boards, Department of Education, your students, your prospective students. You can probably continue this list to include several others.
One of our most significant challenges as leaders is balancing all of the competing priorities and expectations set both internally and externally. What type of decision-making process is in place to assist us in balancing it all?
At Brandman University’s School of Extended Education we try to keep top of mind that we need to walk the tightrope with every turn in the road. The university, rightfully so, expects that we will meet revenue expectations set during an annual budgeting process. The team expects to have—and should have—the resources they need to do their jobs and the ability to continually consider how they might work better. Our prospective students expect that they will receive answers to their questions within a timeframe that gets shorter and shorter as technology allows for instant gratification. Our students correctly expect a quality education. Our local employers expect that we are preparing graduates for the jobs and career paths they are creating.
It’s important to note that these expectations are not in conflict with each other, and that meeting all of these expectations is realistic. They are the reason we exist and can continue to exist. They should be the foundation for our decision-making processes when making determinations as to staffing, programs and partnerships.
How do we operationalize this tightrope walk as we make decisions as to next steps for programming and partnerships? At a core level, we must focus on ensuring the expectations of our staff, our customers (individual students and organizations) and local employers are being met.
Without an empowered, innovative staff that has the resources required to stay nimble and flexible, we have nothing. Our team is a driver that allows us to continue to build and deliver new programs, provide excellent customer service and develop new partnerships. Do you practice what you preach? We’re in the business of educating. Are we providing education and training for our team members? We are in the business of developing the workforce of the future. Are we listening to our frontline staff convey what they are hearing as needs when talking to prospective students and corporate clients?
Without a committed student population, we are not sustainable. Stand in the shoes of the student. In that role, what do you need? What do you want? Why did you pick this school, this program? At Brandman, our representative student is a working adult juggling family, work, school and other commitments. They tell us that they need practical, real world-focused courses with built-in flexibility. Our organizational partners—to whom we provide custom solutions/workforce development—tell us that they need practical, work applicable training interventions which will address business challenges without taking employees away from their desks for long periods of time. These needs must be top of mind for us and be a part of our exploratory stage as we determine whether or not to move forward with a new program. Why are we looking for a committed student population? The cost of retaining students and corporate clients is much less than the cost required to develop new students and convert new corporate clients. Returning students may become more than students. Their satisfaction with the education and services they are receiving may result in referrals of new students and organizations.
Without understanding the needs and goals of our local employers, workforce investment boards and others developing the jobs and career paths, we will not know if we are true to our mission—providing relevant education opening up professional and personal options. We need to be out in the community, partnering with employers and others, and recognizing that it is this external community that is defining the knowledge, skills and abilities required to successfully enter the workforce and to have opportunities along career paths. If we are not syncing up our career-focused programming with these sets of knowledge, skills and abilities, we are doing a disservice to employers and students.
We all have a lot going on. Many of us are leading Extended Education teams as well as working on other university initiatives that may not hit the bottom line for our own Extended Education unit. We need to be agile, nimble and quick. We also need to take the time to stop or slow down and make sure we are asking the questions that will continue to move the needle forward for our team, students and communities. Taking the time to ask the right questions will help us know when to change directions or shelve an idea or path.