Current Issues

Clarifying an earlier posting

Posted on December 1, 2009

A recent blog post entitled The Roles We Play interestingly touched a nerve for many people.  The reactions:

  • A number of people either e-mailed or said to me, “It’s about time some one says what you did.  I’ve felt this way for a long time.”
  • Someone used the anonymous function in the Q&A web site to berate me for “whining’ and said that I am “unable to thoughtfully deal with problems.” 
  • There was some “water cooler” grumbles that I was indirectly indicting the nine people who lost jobs and that seemed really unfair.

Perhaps a little follow up and clarification is in order.  First though, I apologize if my poorly framed concern offended anyone.  It was meant as A) a call to action and B) it reflected a general desire not to have another fall like this one, not as recrimination of any kind.

I’ll start with the last bullet, since it is a point of most obvious confusion.  The point I was trying to make is that when we miss our enrollment goals, as we did in a number of places, there has in the past been few consequences.  In this tight economic time, when we fail, good people lose their jobs.  I was not pointing a finger at those nine people, however obliquely, but pointing a finger back at all of us who didn’t get it right.

I use “we” and “us” quite purposefully here.  What sounded like whining to one reader was really my ill-muted unhappiness that all of us who have been trying to turn around SCED have failed to get it right.  That we have watched a steady slide in CE enrollments for years and talked about at length, but found no effective strategy to buck that trend.   To connect the dots, my point is that all of us involved, whether someone in a Center not using Datatel correctly and thus making it harder to generate accurate reports and projections, or VPs and a President unable to develop effective strategy, contributed to an unexpected $1m shortfall and an employee not remotely involved in CE ends up being affected. 

Working in reverse order and going to the second point, we have a pretty clear strategy in place for working through the problems.  I’ve talked a lot about it, but it can’t be said too often:

  • Build capacity;
  • Expand online;
  • Stem the bleeding in CE;
  • Get back to 2000 in UG Day (and reposition us vis-a-vis our tough place in the market);
  • Trim where we can to make the investments we need to make in the above;
  • Build our surpluses and reserves.

To quote from an article I read this morning:

On the eve of the Great Depression, Kellogg and Post cereal companies were neck-and-neck competitors. Post chose the conservative route, but Kellogg chose to snap, crackle, and pop! Kellogg continued to invest and went boldly forward. By the end of the Depression era, Kellogg was the undisputed ready-to-eat cereal leader and has been ever since.

In today’s quagmire, presidents have a similar choice to make. Should your institution adopt a conservative approach and weather the storm, or should it invest and in what areas?

Warren Buffett once remarked, “When the tide goes out, you can see who has been swimming naked.” Well the tide IS out! And a sizable number of higher education institutions will need to invest in new swimsuits.

Our goal is to come out of this period better positioned and stronger. 

Going to the first bullet, my real point is that all I have just listed requires that we collectively step up our game.  We have so many people doing so much good work, yet we have lacked a good system for better defining expectations, assessing performance against those expectations, having the difficult conversation when those expectations are not met, and helping people address those issues.   Our tendency is to simply say everyone is exceeding expectations (vivid evidence: out of something like 530 FT employees all but about 14 received merit last year and our average performance assessment was a 4.5 ) and not address small performance issues when we might constructively and positively fix them.

That lack of systematic improvement then settles into a kind of cultural acceptance of (and even elevating of ) “okay” performance when okay may no longer be good enough.  Someone once told me that to lead an organization is to be its chief cheerleader externally and its most hard-nosed critic internally.  I see this blog as almost entirely an internal platform for communication (really, if you are outside SNHU and reading this you have to get a better life; someone would say that’s true if you’re inside the university) and a place to share with my co-workers and colleagues a kind of informal and insider thinking that i would not put in a campus memo.

The main point I was trying to make in the earlier posting and trying to clarify here is that for all the systems, process, and marketing investments we make, there is a set of powerful cultural norms that are just as important in becoming a stronger institution.  Culture, as a reflection of collective practices, is something that is difficult to change, but wholly in our power to change and we haven’t talked enough about it.

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