Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence

How can academic leaders foster a culture of excellence in their departments and other units? Robert A. Easter, C. K. Gunsalus, Sebastian Wraight, Nicholas C. Burbules and Jeremy D. Meuser suggest some specific actions to take.

March 22, 2018
 
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Organizational culture is an often underappreciated force motivating behavior -- and thus individual and collective performance -- in an academic unit. In a previous essay, we described our AUDiT resource (snapshot here), which helps to identify and assess existing cultural elements in academic units by sorting them into green (vibrant), yellow (warning signs) and red (challenged) categories. Highly ranked units are almost always characterized by a culture that fosters excellence in student mentoring, instruction, research and service to the university and beyond -- solidly in the green column.

Such a culture doesn’t occur and endure by accident. Both administrative and faculty leaders must cultivate it through a particular mind-set and deliberate actions. There are no standard procedures to follow: units have their own group chemistry and traditions. Nevertheless, some factors are consistently associated with units regarded as excellent, whereas some factors that appear in the yellow and red columns are warning signs.

In this piece, we will describe important common features of strong, productive units, as well as suggest specific actions that leaders and unit members can take to foster a culture of excellence. (Leaders include those highly respected by other unit members, whether or not they hold formal positions of leadership.)

A positive mind-set. Are you as a leader, and are members of the unit, excited and energized by the prospect of new unit members who achieve at a higher level than already exists? Key actions:

  • In recruiting and assessing new colleagues, strive for a welcoming appreciation of those who achieve at the highest levels. The difference between widespread appreciation for excellence versus an attitude of “good enough” or even envy or jealousy often determines a department’s trajectory.
  • Articulate the value to the unit as a whole -- in reputation, in aspiration, in possibilities -- when one member soars. The way a unit excels and continues to improve is to welcome members even stronger than those already present. Jealousy is a reactive and counterproductive mind-set.
  • Point out the value to colleagues of being known as a place where excellence is the norm and welcomed.
  • At the same time, keep a level playing field in terms of behavioral expectations: achieving excellence requires maintenance of a culture that is respectful of all members of the unit and their distinct contributions.

Collegiality. Faculty members are true colleagues and mutually supportive of one another’s success. Leaders influence culture consciously and unconsciously through word and action and demonstrate collegiality at all times. Unit members are watching, even when you don’t realize it. Key actions:

  • Avoid personal behaviors that encourage envy, competition and strife.
  • Address sources of common frustration promptly and effectively.
  • Spend meaningful time getting to know each faculty member -- their work, goals and needs.
  • Encourage faculty members to do the same by supporting informal gatherings among them.
  • Conduct periodic retreats away from the campus that are rich with intellectually challenging content and that also build in time for informal, unstructured “bonding” conversations.
  • Build pride in the unit around truly important accomplishments through both internal and external messaging. Celebrate milestones of accomplishments and major projects.
  • Contextualize such achievements as improving the overall excellence of the unit and the direction of the discipline -- and always be as inclusive as possible. Do not fall into the trap of advertising only the accomplishments of a chosen few.
  • Demonstrate your pride in the unit and give senior leaders reason to do the same.

A shared vision of success. The leader must lead in establishment of a vision that the faculty own. Key actions:

  • Articulate a vision early in your appointment -- otherwise, the opportunity to do so can be lost. Creating such a vision can be a powerful tool for establishing credibility as an effective leader.
  • Establish a framework or goal and a process that gives the faculty a significant role in shaping that effort. It’s not a personal vision; it must belong to the members of the unit.
  • Seek opportunities to fully understand the trajectory of the discipline over a 10- to 15-year horizon and infuse it into the general dialogue. Excellent units anticipate change and seek opportunity to be a driving force behind the new trends in their fields.
  • Don’t allow debilitating debate to create a sense of winners and losers. Manage the tone of interactions forcefully if necessary, and always fairly, with the same rules applicable to all.
  • Openly and regularly discuss the importance and rewards of excellence to the unit, and to each of its members. Articulate how reflected glory can be both bright and uplifting for everyone.

Ample resources. Leaders are financial advocates for their units. Key actions:

  • Work tirelessly to bring resources to the unit.
  • Allocate those resources fairly, based on clear principles known to all. The faculty members whose work advances the reputation of the unit should receive resources based on achievement criteria and unit goals.
  • Seek ways to assist and enable individual faculty members to garner external resources to support their work.
  • Advocate for necessary staff, facilities, space and equipment -- always keeping members of the unit informed of the efforts you are undertaking. Invisible work is neither understood nor appreciated. Sometimes this work is “invisible” because it involves work outside the unit, which could include travel or building relationships with other units. If you don’t want this to be seen as absenteeism, make sure people know what you are doing, and why.
  • Do what you can to reduce the frictions of daily work. Where possible, provide support for purchasing, reimbursements, hiring and other items around which institutional regulations are likely to require significant investments of time from those people who are not intimately familiar with the systems. Clear clutter to let faculty members spend as much time as possible on their teaching, research and service.
  • Recruit star faculty. A creative, highly productive person who is willing to collaborate with less accomplished colleagues can have immeasurable positive impact on the excellence of the unit. They can become a role model and source of encouragement and constructive feedback for everyone else.

Appropriate rewards. Leaders shape cultures through how and what they reward. Key actions:

  • Think beyond money, salary increments and other financial rewards. They are essential but insufficient. Studies regularly show that productive faculty members seek and will move to environments where their work is appreciated, where colleagues are welcoming and where the friction factor for getting work done is low.
  • Recognize excellence with accolades, nonmonetary awards and academic honors. Highlight accomplishments in your communications (internal and external), professorships and chairs.
  • Ensure the unit has a robust process for nominating faculty members for awards by disciplinary and national honorary societies and academies. Devote time and energy to stimulating and supporting nominations for as many members of your unit as qualify -- including students and staff members.
  • Seek advice from successful people within your unit on important matters. Simply asking for counsel -- and heeding it, whenever possible -- is a powerful form of collaboration and recognition.

A supportive environment for revitalization and reinvention. Good leaders help unit members grow and succeed at all career phases. Key actions:

  • Provide guidance, feedback and encouragement for faculty members to see the long arc of their careers -- which go through cycles -- and help them periodically reinvent their work through incorporating new insights and directions.
  • Encourage junior faculty members to branch out from their dissertation projects into new areas -- and with new collaborators.
  • Help midcareer faculty members to understand the importance of revitalization and reinvention over the long haul.
  • Make sure revitalization and reinvention applies to teaching as well as to research interests.
  • Include staff members in the work of the unit. Seek ways for them to grow as professionals through investing in them and their growth.

A culture of excellence is easier to sustain than to establish. Enlightened leadership is essential in setting this tone and insuring collective buy-in with these aspirations. The personal benefits to faculty, staff and students of being in a unit with a strong productive, collegial and collaborative environment are significant and worthy of effort, and a critical mass of unit members must aspire to excellence. No leader can create this cultural shift alone. But at the same time, no unit can create or sustain this shift without committed leadership.

Bio

Robert A. Easter is president emeritus and dean of agriculture, consumer and environmental sciences emeritus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (NCPRE), professor emerita of business and research professor at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the university. Sebastian Wraight is a project associate at NCPRE. Nicholas C. Burbules is the Gutgsell Professor in the Department of Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership at the university, and Jeremy D. Meuser is the lead postdoctoral research associate at NCPRE. This article is based on materials available in NCPRE’s Leadership Collection.

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