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How to Exercise Influence and Implement Ideas in Colleges and Universities

The EvoLLLution | How to Exercise Influence and Implement Ideas in Colleges and Universities
Successful postsecondary leaders need a confluence of four key areas plus a healthy dose of luck and timing.

The question I seek to address is: how can leaders be more effective and ensure successful implementation of goals?

Let’s begin with the question of leadership. While there are many theories of leadership and, no doubt, many different types of leaders, in my experience effective leaders engage in the following kinds of behaviors, activities and analyses;

  • They have a clear sense of (and are effective in communicating) what they want to accomplish and how these accomplishments align with the mission of their organizations;
  • They “manage” upwards, to those whom they report, laterally, to peers, and downward, to those reporting to them. Not only do they articulate the reasons why they are pursuing a particular set of goals, they also insist on metrics to assess progress and demonstrate why accomplishing goals will benefit key constituencies;
  • They engage in reciprocity (find ways to make allies of those who are adversaries, trade favors (in the best sense of the word) by identifying incentives for those helping them succeed, and they find ways to work around or neutralize individuals or groups who oppose their ideas;
  • They identify defensible decision-making criteria, and ensure such criteria are used;
  • They are tireless activists, who take risks and cultivate or instill a sense of loyalty in trusted aids and team members;
  • They reward and mentor others, are unstinting in their energy and time, they network continually, and seek to replicate success;
  • They prepare, pay attention to detail, delegate to trusted lieutenants, develop credible personas, and focus tenaciously on final goals which, they insist, must be measurable.

I would add that caution should accompany those placing too much emphasis on the leadership literature which can paint a naïve and altruistic picture of leaders or traits and qualities needed for success.[1]  It is my experience that leaders who engage in these general strategies and behaviors, succeed. However, luck also plays a role.

There remain four related issues to be managed successfully for effective leadership in academic environments. These concern administrative infrastructure, options and alternatives to those opposing efforts, governance and consultation, and financial resources. Permit a few brief points about each.

1. Administrative Infrastructure

Without those who will be assigned lead tasks, without committees to consider budgets, implement strategies and alternative options, without liaison individuals to various schools, departments or units, good ideas will never take root. Academic organizations are often personality driven and successful leaders know decision making processes and behaviors must be institutionalized. This means that ideas and the processes associated with implementing them must be managed, people held accountable and outcomes assessed and measured. Perhaps most important is the development and acceptance of decision-making criteria and replication of best practices which should include comparators to gauge success. Absent the management of processes identified here, particularly criteria for decisions, an administrative infrastructure needed to support ideas, goals and objectives cannot be sustained.

2. Governance and Consultation

This refers to a strategy and plan to steer ideas through what we shall refer to as the “academic bureaucracy”. A strategy is essential because in so many post-secondary organizations, accrediting associations, senate constitutions (approved by the board), labor relations agreements, and a host of other governance documents (manuals, handbooks, board guidelines, legislative dictates and the like) may require consultation and, in this respect, govern the decision-making environment. Navigating through these rules, regulations and guidelines takes patience and determination. Committees must be consulted and committee members engaged, lead individuals appointed and alternative options developed. As anyone knows who has tried, it is far easier to stop an idea or initiative in a college or university than implement one, particularly a new idea. The old quip “how you do something is as important as what you do” remains salient.

3. Options and Alternatives

Developing alternative ways to accomplish goals and options for those who may not support your intentions is necessary. The literature is replete with effective ways to shape and implement ideas, develop reciprocity, win over or neutralize adversaries. I would advise considering three overarching points. First, that followers as well as those to whom you report need to discern the utility and value in a new approach or idea before they support diverging from the status quo. Second, in order to be successful others must take a risk. It has been my experience that many in academic organizations are risk averse and perhaps less generous than they should be in taking actions that benefit others above and beyond themselves. For this reason those who seek to implement new ideas must either be trusted or feared (the latter is inevitably and always a short term advantage). Third, new ideas should be presented in a way that rewards or incentivizes change. Without options and alternatives (in rewards, assessment measures, decision-making criteria, etc.) one cannot change the behavior of others and without a behavioral change, new ideas or new ways to accomplish goals, will not succeed.

4. Resources

Simply put, without a budget line and resources to fund it, and without amending the budgetary process to include support of new initiatives, they cannot succeed in the long term.

Becoming an Effective Leader

These ideas and thoughts are meant to serve as guidelines for those who seek to be effective leaders. Not all will work equally well in all organizations. There is one final thought which may be worth considering. Support and trust of the board chair, president, provost, a direct supervisor, and the like, is important. The leadership process is made immeasurably more difficult if support and trust are not forthcoming. Such support is not guaranteed and must be continuously earned.

Perhaps it is of value to consider a biblical lesson in thinking about these ideas. While God enabled Moses to part the Red Sea and escape from Egypt with his followers, Moses was able only to see the Promised Land not actually reach it! Something to be considered by all who seek leadership roles.

This essay draws from ideas originally set forth in; Julius, Daniel J.; Pfeffer, Jeffrey; and Baldridge, J. Victor,A Memo from Machiavelli”, Journal of Higher Education, Fall 1999.

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[1] Jeffrey Pfeffer; Leadership BS. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 2015