A President's Reflections

Some Reflections on Completing 15 Years at SNHU

Posted on July 23, 2018

Last month marked my fifteenth year here at SNHU.

A former college president once told me, “all college presidents should leave after eight years. Ninety-five percent of the good you will do happens in the first year and after that you are just on cruise control.” A second former president countered, “I was a president for 16 years and all my best work happened in the second eight years. It takes the first eight to set the stage.”

I find myself in the second camp, though worried that I may be rationalizing, since I obviously ignored the advice of the first colleague. Yet when I look back at my time at SNHU, so much of our transformation has happened in that second stage, and I am somewhat reassured. Three years ago I was less sure and at a dinner with our Trustees, I shared that we were growing rapidly but in many ways we were still built and managed as if we were the $50m enterprise I inherited when I arrived in 2003. Our systems were not as scalable as they needed to be, I was mostly handling the government and media relations work, we talked about diversity but had no dedicated diversity officer, we had too few people in compliance and legal for the amount of work, strategy was more in my head than in a well-wrought plan, and so on.

I argued that we had to build out the management structures, systems, and team that could manage our newfound scale and complexity. I had been very good at building, but was not sure if I would be the right person to lead the new SNHU, promising to let them know before they’d have to assess if that proved true. In the three years since that dinner conversation, we have built a modern organization, operating at scale, with the capacity to manage the business of the University, while extending our mission in new and exciting ways. The key has been talent.

So much of the innovation for which SNHU is known was created by applying the work of Clay Christensen, the famous HBS Professor, long time board member, and friend of 35 years. When asked to share our story, I often begin with Clay’s work and how we applied it.However, the one thing that Clay does not spend a lot of time on in his research is the talent factor. Yet as I lead SNHU into my 16th year here, perhaps my most important responsibility is finding talent, developing talent, and letting people much better in their areas than me do their jobs. It is an inexact science at best, as people are complex and human nature is messy. In doing this for a while now (and feeling pretty proud of the team we’ve built), a checklist of sorts has emerged for me. These are the traits I now mostly look for in people:

Mission – SNHU lives to serve students and most of our important decisions begin with the question, “Is this good for students?” We have an innate belief in the power of education to transform lives and to create opportunity, as a tool of social mobility and source of hope. If that mission does not fire someone up, they probably should work elsewhere. Because we are complex, we all have our other drivers and hot buttons. Title, office spaces, money matter and whatever journey we traveled into leadership roles will have its baggage, good and bad. However, I want people that first believe that “mattering” is a critical part of their work and, second, want to matter in the ways that SNHU seeks for itself.

Work Ethic – This one seems pretty basic, but a lot of success comes with showing up and putting in the time and effort. I often ask job candidates what their parents did for work and what they carry with them in their own professional lives. It’s a question that sometimes throws candidates – they suspect it is a sly way of getting at their class, I think – but there are no wrong answers and I find the answers telling. One candidate was uncomfortable about the fact that his father was a janitor and mother worked as a cashier in a convenience store, quickly shifting the topic to his own sophisticated lifestyle.  Not a guy for us. The answers I love to hear are about work ethic, not cutting corners, dignity and professionalism. About grit and resiliency. My parents had 8th grade educations. My father worked in construction and my mother in a factory. Most of the important lessons I carry in my role as university president I learned from them.

Curiosity – A second question I often ask is “What books are you reading?” or some variation. My intent is not to judge (Hey, I’m as happy as the next person to read a trashy novel.), but to see A) that they like to learn and are curious and B) what ideas and questions inspire them. It makes me doubly happy when the answer includes good literature, as I think novels are transporting and allow us to inhabit lives and places far different than our own, which expands our thinking and builds empathy. Non-fiction helps us understand the world, while fiction can help us feel the world or worlds of others. It reminds us that the way we think the world works is a construct of our own meaning making. Having some humility around the limits of our understanding and then seeking to stretch those limits is for me a sign of wisdom and desire, a quality I much value in others. Beware those who have no good questions.

Empathy – Because of where I sit in the organization, I hire people into leadership roles. They invariably manage people and work closely with colleagues, especially as we become a more interdependent organization in which teamwork and building consensus are prized traits. Those who lack empathy almost always fail. That simple, but powerful ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes is critical for leaders in our culture. It helps you motivate and develop your people, to build win-win solutions and manage team projects, to make better hires and treat people with more kindness when things do not work out.

What about technical competence? That is the unspoken “must have,” of course, and I’ve been lucky to hire people who are so good at what they do – far better than me at those things. A sign of immature leadership is thinking you have to be better at all the things your people do. That’s a recipe for failure or at least mediocrity. When I look at my Leadership Council, I feel like I have the Dream Team of higher education. It shows in our results.

So how would I answer that question of my own suitability for the work, for leading the institution we’ve built? With some sheepishness at the list of things at which I need to be better and ongoing struggles with things that will never be easy for me (an introvert, social settings remain challenging; public speaking occasions are usually preceded by a bit of stage fright; I hate workplace drama – all traits that seem to make me singularly unsuited for my job, I know), I am managing to recalibrate my role for this next stretch of my tenure at SNHU. It means focusing on talent, as I’ve described, driving strategy, being the primary flag-bearer for SNHU’s external relations, building partnerships, and being our story-teller-in-chief. If the Trustees will have me for a while longer, I will be immensely relieved.

Because for as great as these last years have been, I think the work of the next few years will be amazing and fun and powerful. We will be reaching new students across the US and the globe. We will harness new technologies to transform educational delivery models, pedagogy, and programs. We are pushing our work around access to be more focused on equity and the ways deeply marginalized populations need to be supported for success. We will reach more substantially downstream into workforce development and upstream into secondary education and serving youth, building a continuum that starts to look more like a platform or learning ecosystem. That ecosystem will include more credentials in more fields with greater granularity and programming from more partnerships. I would hate to miss it.

2 thoughts on “Some Reflections on Completing 15 Years at SNHU

  1. Judi Rhines says:

    A true leader admits his shortcomings and works to overcome them. Paul, you are a great and innovative leader and SNHU is lucky to have you at the helm. Best of luck on the next 15 years. I know they will be equally transformative.

  2. Tom Barker says:

    This was an inspiring read Paul. I had this same inspiration reading “the letters you wrote to yourself” which was a primary reason I moved from Oregon to work at SNHU. I have appreciated every minute of my time here and am continuously amazed by how much there is to learn from the great leadership around me. Thank you for sharing these great sentiments.

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