Case:  Institute of Higher Learning

Case Studies

Case: Institute of Higher Learning

A 7,000+-student institution of higher learning that uniquely specializes in the health sciences grounded in liberal arts education.

How would you describe the team you lead?

My team consists of 14 chairpersons and two associate deans. They are very important and serve as my link to the faculty and the student body. Interestingly, the chairs of various departments on my team were rarely, if ever, asked to think of themselves as a team. Academics tend not to think in these terms.

What caused you to reframe your thinking about what a team is and should be?

I attended a retreat for which Howard Guttman’s Great Business Teams was recommended reading. It had a big effect on my understanding of teams and the importance of alignment. As a new dean, I wanted to build during my first year the right tone for my relationship with the critical group of department chairs.

What specifically did you want to change?

I wanted this team to be much more than a body for information exchange, which is the typical role of chairs groups in an academic setting. I wanted the team to become a strategic-decision-making body. Fortunately, the team that I inherited was solid. That said, they did fall prey to the typical challenges of a group work environment: They often talked about each other rather than to each other; they said one thing in a group meeting and a different thing to me behind closed doors; and so on. But, as a group, they’re amazingly nondefensive and able to talk about these things honestly.

How did you raise the bar?

I want, say, the chair of the English Department to own the success of, say,  the Chemistry Department—and vice versa. I want everyone to be accountable for the success of other members of the team—and for my success as well. It’s a matter of striking the right balance between team members advocating and informing on behalf of their departments and feeling deeply responsible for the team’s success. Raising the bar is also about transparency. We need to resolve issues not behind closed doors but openly, in team meetings and in one-on-one conversations.

What’s the biggest impediment to moving to a high-performance team in an academic environment?

If there is any organization that is set up for silos and focuses on “my unit’s success,”it’s an academic institution, where a zero-sum game tends to get played, especially when it comes to the allocation of scarce resources. Department chairs often feel that success is measured by their ability to get the most they can: faculty, space, research money, etc. This is less an indictment of individuals than it is of the structure of academic institutions. I realize that I’m asking the department chairs to think and behave in different ways from their traditional roles. I have to say, though, they all responded with generosity and openness.

As your team went through an alignment this past January, I assume there was some skepticism, correct?

There definitely were skeptics who insisted that, “This doesn’t apply to a not-for-profit.  We’re not a business. It doesn’t work here.”

How did you deal with them?

I bit my tongue a lot! I was tempted to say, “This is obvious. It’s about setting goals and working together.” I also talked privately with a few of the people whose support we needed and who were initially resistant. That helped. Fortunately, we had a terrific facilitator who was able to help the team make the transition. I was patient and trusted the process and those team members who were ready for change. Every single member came through in a big way.

What was your biggest “aha!” as a result of going through an alignment?

The idea that we all carry “stories” about ourselves and others that can make it very difficult to work in teams. We must identify the stories that create core limiting beliefs about fellow team members and the administration. Also, it doesn’t matter if your story is true. The key question is, “How can you change that story in order to get past your grudges and work productively with those around you?”

What’s your advice to other academic leaders intent on moving to higher performance levels?

If you want to play at a high-performance level, you have to create a context in which there is transparency and honesty. I’d recommend having academic teams go through the alignment process just for that one accomplishment. I’ve instituted a series of 20-minute conversations with team members, where we have candid discussions of issues. It’s been very powerful. As one colleague noted, you can get a lot done in a 20-minute candid conversation.

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