You’ve heard of Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca who are lauded as change agents, powerful leaders, etc. So I had the privilege of knowing and briefly working for the Jack Welch of the Private University world. His name is Art Kirk and like those other captains of industry, he did some things you might want to consider if you’re trying to promote vision, mission, transformation, or change.
Briefly, Dr. Art Kirk was the President of Saint Leo University for 18 years. Having (literally) saved a dying college in NY, he set his sights on saving the Lions in the late 90’s. Utilizing his dissertation which was actually about how to save small, dying, private colleges as the backdrop, Dr. Kirk came in when the school was two paychecks away from closing their doors. The case study of Saint Leo and Art Kirk should likely be as famous as the Starbucks study or any of the other HBR stories that have become infamous.
As with other case studies, Art did a lot of things to change the organization. Strategic firing, new business models, new revenue streams, quality scorecards, and on and on; all were part of the plan. But there was one aspect of his leadership that I don’t often see in managerial roles across industry, nor in higher education, which I have witnessed bear tremendous fruit. People and organizations don’t seem to find or use the best research or analyses by which to hold themselves accountable.
Let me explain. Does it bother anyone else just how many books, with reliable, validated research exist that don’t seem to make a difference? Perhaps that’s too harsh. They make a difference in small pockets, but rarely at scale. Consider Dan Pink’s “Drive” book. He makes an extremely compelling case that most business models get compensation wrong. He can show example after example of organizations who do it poorly and suffer just as he can show examples of institutions who did it right, and succeeded as a result. While no case is “air tight”, this one is about as close as you might get. Yet…
How many companies, or perhaps a better question is to ask how many leaders have taken that information and implemented change as a result? Who has reconfigured compensation models based on the notion that additional incentives for high-cognitive work not only do not work, but the typical reaction is to achieve less? Do you see my point? And Drive is just one of fifty or one hundred (or possibly more) aggregations of research that give a blueprint for success. While everyone understands that the devil is in the details and implementation matters, it’s the savvy administrator who uses that research as a lighthouse by which to guide projects, people, and processes to victory.
Which is exactly what Art Kirk did. In his early years at Saint Leo, as people struggled with new ways of working, what success meant, and as they started to measure themselves in other ways, he helped form a 12-month, Leadership experience for administrators. Called Leadership Saint Leo, Art pushed the executives and eventually staff to look carefully at important works on success like Good to Great, Execution, Crucial Conversations, and more. His narratives and examples were consistently peppered with phrases like “flywheel” or “getting the right people on the bus” as he talked with the Saint Leo community. And much like the stories in those books, that narrative took hold as people started using the terms as a collective, then applying those same terms.
I’m writing a book right now regarding how to create a learning culture. One of the steps in the process involves narrative – telling your story. But it's crucial to do more than tell your story. It's crucial to listen for the moment when your metaphor, analogy, or narrative is spoken back to you by someone else. That’s one indicator that things are working. And that is what happened with Art and Saint Leo. Today, two decades after he began, most people at the university still know and use those terms, analogies, and metaphors. For veterans, they can tie specific examples to the metaphors, giving weight and consistency to the cultural narrative. Those footings helped people find commonality and drove community as they became institutional.
When I was at Saint Leo full time, I tried to do the same thing. Almost twenty years later, I created a mini-library of books that I asked my Directors and Assistant VP’s to leverage. Being an office of innovation, professional development, content creation, and the University library, the books needed to be deep and wide. But in the end, I would say it worked. How do I know? When Saint Leo took a cultural inventory (a survey taken every other year for two decades), my organization was the sole group at Saint Leo with a positive trajectory. My people were connected in purpose and positive factors for the school (customer service focused, student-centric, problem etc). I tried to push them to rally around concepts and ideas that are key to innovation, education, and communication, but are often absent from university contexts. I pushed them to expand their thinking around neuroscience (Brain Rules – Medina), learning research (How People Learn – Bransford), conation (Mindset – Dweck; Grit – Duckworth), Connectedness and Social Learning (Social – Lieberman; It’s Complicated – Boyd), and effectively using big data (The End of Average – Rose). We used Jack Foster’s work on How to Get an Idea regularly and I even gave out Steal Like an Artist (Kleon) as thank you gifts. And even after I left, I heard stories of designers creating experimental models to A/B test grit initiatives or data driving personalization.
So, here are two important take-aways. If you keep reading my blog, you’ll get a heaping helping of those writers, and a few more. Notice above that I did say reliable, validated research. I would add to that reasoned, logical analysis. It may even be theoretical, but it needs to have deep roots in pragmatism. There are a lot of theories out there, but I’m talking about people who can make a case regarding statistical significance, case studies of success, etc. After all, an anchor is only good if it's connected to something stable. Likewise, you need connected ideas as the bedrock before talking about how to implement, transform, etc. As you follow my work, I'll do my best to always provide meaningful references and citations, noting those that are weaker or stronger if appropriate!
But the second take-away is more personal. What are YOUR books, TED talks, or important articles? What research drives YOU, your company, or your management team?
If you have no idea or if you think your executive team does everything from their own perspectives and ideas every time, all the time, then it might be time to start asking questions. Or, if you’re an executive and you don’t have this supporting schema, perhaps it’s time to peruse some book lists on Amazon, Reddit, or perhaps the ones in this post. Or shoot me an email and let’s talk through it. Having been in both kinds of organizations, those with and those without underpinning, I’ll try to help anyone find their way.
Good luck and good learning.