Stop Wasting Time

Peter Eckel describes the often typical shortcomings of cabinets -- and how to avoid them.

June 7, 2017
 
 
iStock/enisaksoy

Now that the end of the semester is here, many presidents, vice presidents and other senior campus administrators reflect as individual leaders and as a collective on their accomplishments, as well as on any work left incomplete. Too often the latter category is the one that needs further reflection.

Given the variety and complexities of pressures on institutional leaders, and the dynamic environments in which institutions exist, it is extremely difficult to accomplish all that one sets out to do. But too may cabinets fall short on what they can and should be delivering as a group because of wasting valuable time and missing opportunities.

A recently assembled group of experienced vice presidents shared the following frustrations:

  • A cabinet meeting that lasted for three hours while the president and one of the vice presidents worked through a difficult situation that didn’t impact the work of the other assembled vice presidents. (“Wasted time,” said the V.P.)
  • Meetings with no prior agenda so vice presidents are rarely ready for the discussion and decisions. (“Can’t prepare; then have to play catch-up,” said the V.P.)
  • One-issue meetings where the first proposed topic captures the discussion, regardless of the importance and urgency of other potential issues. (“Wrong issue,” said the V.P.)
  • Meetings that become the only time vice presidents can get the overcommitted president to focus on their issues, so they become a battleground for attention. (“Must compete,” said the V.P.)
  • Meetings in which the president either vents about top-of-mind problems or vice presidents pick fights with one another, and nothing much else is accomplished. (“Don’t make eye contact,” said the V.P.)
  • A cabinet that hasn’t met in five months and each vice president operates mostly in a vacuum. (“Missed opportunities,” said the V.P.)

For many institutions, the dynamics of the cabinet are afterthoughts of busy presidents. In some cases, presidents bring with them practices used in their previous positions that may have worked in other settings but don’t fit well in the new institution. In others, they may simply be transferring one set of ineffective, unexamined practices from one institution to a different one.

The path to higher-performing cabinets consists of two elements: first, presidents and their senior teams must recognize that they are underperforming as a collective. Second, they should become increasingly intentional about creating decision-making structures and cultures that function well.

Examining the Unexamined

Presidents and their cabinets would benefit from periodically examining how their senior team is working, by looking in the mirror themselves or with the help of an outside eye. Summer is an optimal time to do this. They should ask themselves:

  • What types of decisions does the team handle well? What issues does it struggle with?
  • What are the dynamics of the group? Who initiates discussion and who cuts it off? What is the pattern of dissent (if any exists) in terms of moving the institution ahead, clarifying ambiguous and unclear issues, and bringing out the best thinking in the group?
  • How strong is engagement, and what is the level of energy in the room? On the reverse side, how often are there “meetings after the meeting” to make sense of what just happened or didn’t happen? To what extent do people feel disengaged? How much time is spent on the wrong issues?
  • What is the process through which decisions are made, and to what extent does the team revisit poorly made decisions to conduct what has been called a “blameless autopsy”?

Making time for such examinations admittedly is difficult, given the demands facing extremely busy college and university presidents and the crush of issues streaming through their cabinets. And rumors exist that some leaders won’t ask such questions because of hubris (although they are just rumors). But if presidents and their cabinets have the collective will to examine current practices, and then change underperforming habits, it can be time well spent.

Developing Intentional Efforts

In the course of my continuing work with senior administrators, as well as a specific consulting assignment for a president that involved interviewing cabinet members and trustees at that institution and other similar universities, I’ve identified three clusters of tasks that embody the collective work. They must:

  • Update each other to keep abreast of emerging issues and progress on those issues;
  • Make sense of challenging issues and consult the group for clarity and advice; and
  • Make decisions and act.

And to accomplish those tasks, presidents might think in terms of three things to create effective senior teams. Specifically, they should:

Intentionally develop the right structures for the senior team. Cabinets range in size from very small to very large. One cabinet in my project consisted of 18 people, and they can easily expand to 25 or more people. Such a large group can address well only one of the three tasks: updates. In contrast, small cabinets, four or five people, might be able to make decisions but often struggle with updates, as information isn’t readily shared with the array of people on the campus who might benefit.

The structure of cabinets depends on many factors, including presidential preference, institutional size and complexity, and institutional culture. There is no standard structure. But what is clear is that mechanisms need to be in place to address all three tasks.

One suggestion for a large, complex research university was to develop a three-tiered approach. The smallest group is a weekly strategy group consisting of, in this case, the president, the provost and the chief business officer. This group focuses on making decisions and addressing pressing strategic issues. It also creates the agendas for the other two groups.

The second group, what I labeled the executive cabinet, is a slightly larger group. It includes, for instance, the strategy group members as well as the other vice presidents, and it focuses on all three types of work when appropriate.

The last and largest group, the university leadership group, is an extended group of university leaders such as academic deans, the head of the university-related foundation and other key leaders with large staffs, along with members of the executive cabinet. This group might only meet monthly or twice a semester and focus mostly on communicating and updating information.

The other factor is the president’s propensity for one-on-one meetings. Some work may be accomplished there if they, too, are used well -- which unfortunately isn’t always the case. For instance, effective one-on-one meetings may eliminate the need for the above strategy group.

By separating the tasks and structures, time can be more intentionally allocated. The right people are likely to be in the room, and little of their time is wasted participating in discussions or working through decisions on topics that do not fall into their areas of responsibility. This approach also creates a rough way to categorize the type of work each group does.

All that said, three groups would be too much for smaller, less complex institutions. The major takeaway is that institutions should be intentional with the structures they create at the top and the types of work each group usually addresses. No cabinet is the perfect vehicle for all three types of work. Different structures can do different things.

Create a deliberate culture within the cabinet. A new structure matters little if the group’s culture is dysfunctional. The senior teams that reportedly worked best across different colleges and universities had presidents who set the tone for how the group would work and had clear expectations for group norms that they discussed and agreed upon as a team. Examples include:

  • Participants are university stewards and are to prioritize institutionwide perspectives over divisional ones;
  • No surprises, and “messengers will not be shot”;
  • Important and difficult decisions are brought to the cabinet meeting;
  • Any decision making is inclusive and works across divisions;
  • Confidentially is tightly kept, but participants are expected to disseminate relevant information immediately downward to key staff within their divisions;
  • Meetings stay focused and relevant; time is not be wasted; cell phones and emails aren’t permitted;
  • Disagreements are worked through openly and with candor and professionalism;
  • Vigorous debate occurs behind closed doors, and then decisions are fully supported publicly afterward;
  • Issues with institutional implications are brought to the cabinet, not to the one-on-one meetings between a VP and the president.

Such cultures must be intentionally developed and continuously nurtured. Although presidents set the tone at the top for their teams, best practice says that all cabinet members are responsible for ensuring that the agreed-upon tenets of behavior are adhered to consistently.

Spend collective time wisely. Many senior team members reported being unclear how key issues appear -- or do not appear -- on agendas and how time is allocated to key issues. Numerous approaches exist, and different universities have developed a range of processes to do this. Examples include:

  • Members of the strategy group meet at the beginning of each semester to identify the important and strategic issues for the coming months. They then plot them on cabinet and/or strategy team meeting agendas to manage time and ensure that the president can attend when key decisions are being made. At the same time, a degree of flexibility is needed to respond to emerging issues.
  • Effective teams work together to develop mechanisms, mostly coordinated by the president’s chief of staff, to craft meeting agendas. This practice avoids agendas being populated by whoever submitted an item first, is the squeakiest wheel, or didn’t get talk at the last meeting. Importance and urgency, not chronology of submission or some other less strategic criterion, dictate time spent in cabinet meetings.
  • The president’s chief of staff should clearly and explicitly delineate each item on agendas as either: 1) informational, 2) consultative/sense making or 3) for decision/action to help meeting participants understand the nature of the conversation they are to have and its intended outcomes.

Make Sure New Habits Stick

Such changes can be difficult to make stick. They often require developing new habits and overcoming entrenched ways of working (which might not really “be working”) and strong personalities. Developing a commitment by the president as well as members of the leadership teams to work on new behaviors is essential. Finding ways to periodically evaluate how well these new ways are working and the extent to which they are taking root also is important.

With such efforts, teams can avoid the pitfalls outlined at the beginning of this essay and, in turn, move their institutions forward much more expeditiously through collective and focused efforts. The bottom line: as the challenges institutions face become more complex, demand greater collective wisdom to address and are increasingly high stakes, the ability to operate well as a leadership team is all that more essential. No institutions have the luxury of wasting valuable leadership time and untapped capacity.

Bio

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and director of leadership programs in the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He co-directs the Penn GSE-NASPA Institute for Higher Education’s Future, a yearlong leadership program for experienced student affairs vice presidents.

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