Changes within higher education are creating a need for new ways to develop leaders, says Julie Wechsler, executive assistant to the president at South Mountain Community College. Among these changes are decreased funding, increased demand for accountability, and the proliferation of technology. In an interview with Academic Leader, she addressed how institutions should prepare their leaders to meet the demands of the future.
AL: What new sets of leadership skills do these changes in higher education require?
Wechsler: I think one thing to consider is that we may not know what’s really required in this new environment. The Center for Creative Leadership describes the emerging environment as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It’s more complex than saying, “Presidents now need to be fund-raisers” or “We need to think globally.” We may not know exactly what we’re going to need, but one thing we can presume is that we’ll need the ability to find clarity in the midst of contradiction and changing times. That’s not something we’ve focused on in the past. We will need the ability to turn dilemmas into opportunities and the ability to try something, see what happens, learn from it, and try again. And we’ll need to create shared assets. For example, we’re exploring new ways to partner with institutions beyond our own for funding and other needed resources.
AL: Can you give me an example of how your institution has responded to change?
Wechsler: We’ve implemented something called educational lean. Lean is a common approach in manufacturing environments, and the idea is to identify non-value-added activities and remove them from your processes and to always focus on the end user when you’re deciding how to do things. If something doesn’t have value to the end user, get rid of it.
We found early on that embracing educational lean not only provided us with new tools for process improvement and innovation, but it’s also really changing our culture because it requires people from diverse parts of the organization to come together and look at things differently.
AL: You advocate individual ownership of leadership development. What would that entail, and how can an institution encourage it?
Wechsler: It begins with asking people what they think they will need to reach their goals—instead of simply sending them away to attend a weeklong event that was designed a number of years ago. Then have people think about how they’re going to go about acquiring the knowledge, skills, and abilities they’ll need. It might begin with the identification of the “ideal’ self in this changing environment. Where am I now and what do I need to do to bridge the gaps between where I am and where I want to be? Who are the people who can support me? How am I going to get it done? This is what the Center for Creative Leaders describes as vertical learning—deep-down learning—as opposed to horizontal learning or the acquisition of a set of predetermined competencies.
I think we would be well served by people who are reflective, introspective, and emotionally intelligent. Without these qualities, it’s difficult to understand the impact we’re having on others. That’s a different way of thinking. It’s not that the competencies we’re familiar with won’t be important, but it may be that these other things will become important as well. It’s almost as if the art of doing is no longer enough. We need people who are also artful at being, who know themselves and can connect with others.
As an example of this, we have embraced strengths at our college. It’s a concept from positive psychology that says we all have natural talents and that when we use them in healthy and productive ways, we’re happier, more engaged, more effective, and more successful. And research shows that when individuals working in an organization understand and use their strengths, employee engagement goes up and measurable outcomes such as reduced turnover and increased productivity are positively impacted.
Over the past two years nearly 90 percent of our employees have gone through nine hours of training to learn about their strengths and the strengths of their colleagues. We build well-rounded teams based on diversity of talents. For example, it may be beneficial to team a person who is focused on the future and always thinking about new ideas with a person who thinks about what has worked and not worked well in the past. By using a strengths-based approach, we build teams that are more well-rounded and highly effective.
I think we have a lot to learn from business and industry about leadership and leadership development. We’re competing with for-profit companies. We’re operating in a global environment. The old institutional protection that we’ve enjoyed in the past may be disappearing. We have to be honest with ourselves. We need to have tough conversations and explore a lot of new possibilities.
AL: What do you see as obstacles to making these changes?
Wechsler: One thing is that although we talk about talent management, but we may not embrace it in the way we probably need to. Additionally, we may need to rethink our organizational structures. If we’re prioritizing our programs and only doing things that serve our students and our communities and that are cost-effective for us, then it’s very likely that the organizational structures that we’ve inherited won’t match. It’s also likely that the skill sets of people may not match the needs of the future. We need to acknowledge that and really allocate resources to address this issue, thinking outside the box, partnering with industry or at least researching best practices and creating new models.
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