Reaching for the seminal moment



For most of my professional career, I have believed that institutions, more or less, happen upon a seminal moment in their evolution. Indeed, when approached about consulting or management opportunities I typically first begin by looking at some combination of ethos, culture, board and management leadership, and cold, hard numbers to determine the possible. It all very much depends, of course, on whether pledges made about system change are kept by the parties who made them.

Recently, my attitude has shifted. I have come to recognize that seminal moments fall more ordinarily into two fairly distinctive categories.

The first is that which is foisted upon an institution. It may be crisis precipitated by a regional accreditation review, a change in leadership, admission or advancement numbers that tank, or public relations disasters, large and sometimes small. Every action causes a reaction and from bad institutional moments good policy can emerge. In the end, it’s an outcome likely from recent debacles at fine institutions like Penn State and the University of Virginia. The right leadership in shared governance and a sense of common purpose create a will of the committed to produce positive change. Or, at least, we hope so.

The second category is more nuanced. In this example, much of the preliminary work occurs behind the scenes. It also builds across leadership changes and relies heavily upon the work of dedicated middle management, faculty, and a progressive, prudent, action and outcomes-oriented board of trustees who view themselves as stewards whose job it is to create defined inflection points in institutional history. They understand the history and tradition, the level of competition, the centrality of the academic program, and the technology tsunami sweeping over higher education.

Most important, perhaps, is that boards of trustees appreciate what they do not know.

At the center of the maelstrom the best boards, led by thoughtful and determined chairs, recognize the importance of crafting a climate for the president’s success. The president is the public face of the institution. Presidents can’t “phone it in” as they reach out to the complex constituencies with which they deal. The fate and well being of the institution, and the ability to sustain momentum, depend on whom they choose to lead the charge. The biggest killer of momentum is when something goes wrong.

If something bad occurs, boards must first look to themselves to explain the source. Failing to do so moves boards into a protracted series of reactive strategies to do damage control in a situation that they often created.

The president must also be up to the task.

Presidencies can never be a “9 to 5” job, whatever other responsibilities exist. They are long endurance runs and an exercise in time management.

The president cannot borrow an institutional vision; in fact, the best leaders create it. Then, working with boards and faculty they “sell” it to those whom they can interest. They build the transparency and communication platform necessary to explain it. In fact, the comprehensive campaign is the last stage of the sale. Building credibility is critical to creating sustainable momentum. It takes years to do so.

In a sense, this is a cautionary tale. Institutions win their reputations slowly and they lose them even more slowly. But those who watch carefully know the signs, and it’s easy to predict that their next seminal moment will be borne of a crisis rather than created from within. What can be worse than the smug satisfaction of tired ideas propped up by old boy networks whose leadership remembers a world that never quite existed?

Whatever the financial resources, the institutions that will best succeed in the future are likely to be respectful, curious, nimble, creative – and, yes – scrappy. They see opportunity. These institutions define, reallocate and differentiate because they appreciate that the institution is a greater good than the sum of its parts.

As shared governance leadership sits in the middle of the storm swirling around them, boards must work within the new terms of engagement to develop a common vision. To start, boards must begin to build a vision by offering a simple, declarative “no apologies” statement of mission. Mission is borne of an ethos set in place by a common set of core values and beliefs. What is especially impressive lately is that many boards entering a strategic planning process take special care to define their core values.

It’s not a sectarian exercise; in fact, staged strategic planning is the first and best hope for most of them to separate themselves out from peer and aspirant institutions. Students attend, alumni enthuse and support, and donors give to an institution because they “know it when they feel it.” To put it starkly, you can’t brand the bland. If the mission, core values and strategic plan intersect properly, the rest will follow. The institution has created and reached for its seminal moment.

Whatever the chaos and uncertainty ahead, it is still possible to work to the great, quiet breakout moments in American higher education.