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About a year ago, I started a new position as the enrollment manager at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia. It has been a fascinating time to start on this kind of new adventure. As the institution begins to recover from the pandemic and braces for the much-discussed demographic cliff, it is confronting, like many liberal arts colleges, significant challenges. Watching how it deals with those challenges has given me the opportunity to see change management at work.

My touchstone for change and successful organizational culture has always been Jim Collins’s classic Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t. I have read many books on leadership and success since I first read Collins’s work 20 years ago, but nothing else explains true organizational transformation as clearly or convincingly. I’ve realized that in some ways, I have spent most of my career searching for an institution that is trying to follow the model that Collins laid out.

That is what has made my first year at this university so engaging. While I think change here is still in its infancy, I see evidence of the Good to Great principles at work, which reinforces my belief that those principles can work for higher education institutions and not just companies. Here are a few of the observations I have made.

Key Collins Principles

Most liberal arts colleges—in fact, many colleges of all kinds—are facing some tough realities. Acknowledging those realities is crucial to moving into the future as healthy institutions. According to Collins, any organization that wants to become great will have to develop a habit of confronting the brutal facts. The only way to make the right decisions and create needed change is to cultivate a climate of honesty, develop strong feedback loops and analyze problems without assigning blame.

Another idea from Good to Great, and perhaps the most famous, is the Hedgehog Concept. The Hedgehog Concept is what differentiates your institution—the thing that you can be best at, that you are passionate about and that drives you economically. When this concept becomes the core competency of an organization—and allows you to say no to other motivations—is when the organization achieves breakthrough. Lynchburg, for instance, is in the midst of clarifying its Hedgehog Concept. The focus is on leveraging experiential learning to unlock human potential. We are working to become a value-added institution, helping students see who they are and imagine whom they could become.

In addition, Collins’s great companies have “Level 5 leadership”: people at the top who are humble and understated but determined to help the organization reach success over their own personal success. Such leaders are quick to take responsibility for things that go wrong and equally quick to give the credit to others when things go right.

I’ve experienced Level 5 leaders at my institution as people who are committed to transparency and open communication and provide many opportunities for it. I’ve seen a willingness among them to be learners who can admit they don’t have all the answers and a commitment to getting honest feedback from outside sources and putting it to good use. Such leaders are able to focus on a long-term goal with quiet determination and not be distracted by what the competition is doing. Most of all, I have seen Level 5 leadership in people who hold others to high standards but continually encourage them as they make progress.

Collins also stressed the need to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off it. This can be a challenging step for colleges and universities. After all, educational institutions are about people, and they often have very complex processes that make it difficult to relieve people of their duties. But that is a crucial piece. People who are capable, experienced, self-motivated and committed to the vision don’t improve your results just incrementally—they do so exponentially.

Our institution has started getting the right people on the bus by setting clearer expectations of job duties and instilling more accountability. Leadership has spoken more intentionally about the type of community we are building and what it will take to get there. That gives people a chance to think about whether they want to be on this particular bus. Some people have decided they don’t, and they have been able to move on to other good positions. Sometimes a gentle exit is not possible, but it is better to make the change if it needs to be done than to keep damaging morale by continuing with something that everyone knows is not working.

The Challenges for Higher Ed

We have a long way to go to reach Collins’s definition of great, but I am encouraged that we at the University of Lynchburg are on the road toward it and look forward to seeing what the future brings. The big question for me is “Why don’t more institutions embrace the Good to Great framework?” In my experience, many people give Good to Great lip service, but few organizations actually try to live it out.

One of my favorite movie quotes is from the 1999 film The Matrix. One of the main characters says, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Many of us at colleges and universities know from the research that the Good to Great path works, but we have chosen not to pursue it. Based on two and a half decades working in higher education, I’ve concluded that the reason we don’t choose it, even though it makes sense, is because it conflicts with the values we often hold as a sector.

  • Rather than confronting the brutal facts, we often protect our self-image at all costs. How many institutions have avoided making vital changes until financial necessities have forced their hand? We have been watching the demographic cliff come toward us for over a decade, and what have we really changed to anticipate it? Too frequently, we do our siloed work and pretend it will happen to someone else. We resist working together across disciplines, even when it is necessary for survival.
  • We struggle against submitting to a single Hedgehog Concept. Why? Because that would mean submitting our personal or departmental agendas to the goals of the whole institution. Even though we know that all areas would benefit from a stronger overall message, rarely does anyone want to be the first to lower their defenses or allow another area to gain some perceived advantage. Besides, it is more comfortable to stay in the critic’s chair, where one can never be wrong, than to support the people in the arena trying to make things better.
  • We don’t value the quiet, effective, humble leadership of Level 5 leaders. Our leadership choices have too often been based on an exclusionary, elitist mentality. A recent study about prestige hiring demonstrates this point—it found 80 percent of faculty members with a Ph.D. in the U.S. trained at 20 percent of the institutions. And a Ph.D., even one with no relevance to organizational leadership, has often been the price of entry to top positions. This club mentality has kept out great thinking from understated potential leaders with experience from the front lines.
  • We are not committed to getting the right people on the bus. We like to think of ourselves as morally superior to corporate America and its willingness to fire employees, so we allow people to get stuck in complacency—whether they are being successful or not. Again, we tend to hire based on pedigree and promote based on longevity—not based on experience and results. We don’t provide the professional development to help people succeed. Rather, we just don’t hold them accountable.

These entrenched yet seldom discussed values are holding much of higher education back from achieving greatness. But I am still optimistic that the Good to Great model can work for colleges and universities, and acknowledging these weaknesses and how they hold us back from greatness is a start.

Change is hard, but change is also in the air at this moment in time. Good to Great has shown us the path, but we must now decide if we are willing to walk it.

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