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When Your Sweater Starts to Unravel

Caring for the college community with proactive leadership, not reactive followship
University Business, Apr 2010

We've all had that special sweater. The one that was comfortable, accommodating, and made us feel special. Then we snagged it on something. A little at a time, the hole got bigger as we kept wearing it, picking at the loose thread, snipping a bit here and a bit there. Soon the sweater was no longer wearable and we groused about how it had come apart as we threw it away.

A college community is a lot like that sweater. Properly cared for, repaired as needed, and looked after carefully, it continues to function as designed and makes the students, staff, and faculty feel special as they strive to be fully engaged in learning and contributing. When your work sweater starts to unravel, could it be that?

Do you find yourself using terms like "minimum standard," "not how I wanted it done," and "because it's your job" while faculty fulfill the requirements of their contracts and job descriptions? Could it be that they are in fact doing what they are supposed to be doing?

In his book Predictably Irrational (Harper, 2009), Dan Ariely explains that employees can be viewed and treated as family or as hired guns. What's the difference? In the context of business parameters, employees should do what they are hired to do. Every novice boss realizes employees should understand the basic premise that they can expect "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work." Under this mindset, you perform particular tasks to a certain standard for a designated compensation.

Focus on the benefits and contributions of working together as a concerted, harmonious group.

When faculty members develop a sense of "family" in the workplace, the paradigm shifts and they are no longer fixated on what is required, but focus on achieving what is needed. Their sense of inclusivity becomes a greater desire to do more than what is required to create success within the framework of "family."

Unfortunately, colleges can't have it both ways. Once you develop a sense of team with the faculty, you need to focus on the benefits and contributions of working together as a concerted, harmonious group. When they begin to gel into a smoothly functioning team, leave them to excel: emphasize their positive accomplishments; privately note their shortcomings with positive counseling. In short, treat them as the kin you are proud to be related to and remember not to start putting a price tag on everything they do or fail to do.

Once you revert to "that's what I pay you to do," everything becomes a matter of return on investment. Faculty start doing the math and quickly realize the greatest return is to do only what they are required to do, because there is no added value to working harder or doing more.

You know who I'm talking about. Pontificators are current and conversant with every management theory known. Quick to point out the management-flavor-of-the-moment, they decorate their offices with the newest motivational posters, buy and read the management book of the moment, and cite "who-done-what" chapter and verse. They quickly espouse the expert-of-the-moment's solution to improving every aspect of the business, provide examples ad nauseum (albeit ones which are usually not applicable), and incorporate bits and pieces of philosophical musings into every meeting, memorandum, and e-mail.

Unfortunately, these pundits are generally unable to put a single one into practice. They are puzzled when the theoretical discussions don't seem to take root and flower into significant successes. Often all they get are intellectual (ok, maybe not so learned) discussions, endless chatter and a sense that everything is improving because everyone agrees and is in tune with the expert's theory.

If you are relying on meetings, reports, and records for your information, you are sadly out of touch with your faculty.

One example where theorists fail to become practitioners is the persistently popular Fish Philosophy from FISH! (Hyperion, 2000) by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen. The four simple observations to improve the workplace are easy to understand, fun to talk about, easily implemented, yet never seem to flourish under the theorist. Instead, they turn belly up (as dead fish are wont to do) in a pool of stagnant expectations.

Stop studying what is being talked about and start doing the simple "boss stuff" that you used to do before you became another expert.

Theorists (see the section above) tell us what effective leaders should do. It seems that as we move up the academic hierarchy, we take on more and more trappings of power - the bigger office, the administrative assistant who keeps the minions at bay, demand more reports and records for our review, develop the need to summon the underlings to more and more meetings and the like. In fact, because we are firmly ensconced away from the classroom drones, we find plenty of time to send copious e-mails noting things of interest to us that everyone should read, invent more projects for others to research and "get back to us" on, and find an increasing need for more reports. In short, we have nothing better to do than increase the bureaucratic burden on those who actually have classes to teach, students to advise, and programs to run.

If you are relying on meetings, reports and records for your information, you are sadly out of touch with your faculty. The paper picture being painted for you is what those writing the reports think they need to portray to preserve the peace. Carefully scripted, they present facts skewed in a manner which casts credit on them and deflects fault elsewhere. Would you send your Provost a report citing him/her as the stumbling block to success?

Faculty won't begin to trust you until they have come to know you. You can rent their loyalty with their paycheck, but you can't buy their respect. Faculty who do the work of the organization and, in principle, sublimate their personal needs to the college's while they're on the clock are only willing to meet the work standard when there is no personal connection to the leadership hierarchy. To take one for the team actually requires them to believe they are part of it.

You're neither important enough nor so overwhelmed with work that you can't walk around and talk to your faculty. Ask specific questions and listen to what they say. Observe the state of affairs up close and personal, get a handle on intangibles like morale, show those looking to you for leadership that you care enough to come to the classroom and their offices (after all, you required them to have office hours, didn't you?). You may be able to fool yourself into believing that you don't have the time to get out from behind your desk, but to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, "But teachers ain't no bloomin' fools - you bet that teachers see!"

Change should be driven by need, not fad. When the college isn't good at the basics of what it needs to be doing, change is just another detour down a road best not taken. Colleges should focus on doing what they do best (academics), not on what or how others are practicing their core competencies. There is a reason (budget, size, market, economy) that underpins how you operate and the fact that other institutions of higher learning do it differently is not a reflection on the way you conduct business.

In an age of homogeneousness, you should stand out because of what you do better and not sink into the quagmire of sameness by being busy trying to copy others. Striving to do what other colleges have already become good at guarantees you will always be chasing someone else's success. You will not be a dynamic trendsetter; you will not be an academic leader; you will never attain the accolade "cutting edge" of anything. In fact, you will become a chameleon who fades into the background at every turn as you continue to emulate in lieu of innovate.

With a few simple steps, you can start mending the hole as soon as you find a snag in the sweater.

  1. The military has a superb and simple concept called "stand down." Simply put, when things are rapidly deteriorating, everyone stops what they've been doing and takes a deep breath. Examine the situation and find out what the cause is, determine the fix and implement it. Slowly ramp up operations to make sure it was the correct remediation.
  2. Get out of your office. Get away from your computer. Walk around and observe your faculty. Talk to the people you hired to actually do the work and see what they have to say. You might be surprised at what you learn.
  3. Practice preventive maintenance. It's a lot cheaper and easier to keep something from breaking than it is to fix it after it breaks!

A college can only be as good as the faculty who work there. If you haven't actually visited classes and talked to those who do the teaching, you just might be the snag that causes the sweater to unravel!

David Donathan is a professor of management at St. Catharine College (Ky.).


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