3 Higher Ed Innovation Leadership Skills I Need to Develop

Read enough books on behavioral economics and you will internalize the observation that we consistently overrate our own skills and abilities. Wikipedia even has an entry for this phenomenon under the heading "illusory superiority."

December 2, 2012

Read enough books on behavioral economics and you will internalize the observation that we consistently overrate our own skills and abilities. Wikipedia even has an entry for this phenomenon under the heading "illusory superiority."   

Eight in ten people rate their driving skills above average. Less than one-in-ten professors believe that they exhibit below average teaching skills. The only people who seem to be able to accurately judge their own abilities are the clinically depressed.

Our cognitive bias to overestimate our own abilities should not be viewed as a cause for depression. We learn from the literature on learning that our intellect and abilities are not fixed quantities. Mastery is a product of perseverance and practice. We might not be as good as what we do as we think, but we can improve.

I keep these two conclusions in mind when I think about leadership for innovation in higher education, and my own goals to contribute to change.

What behaviors, actions, methods, relationships, decisions, and choices can we take in our careers that are most likely to make meaningful contributions to the goal of improved quality, greater access and lower costs in higher ed?

I see (at least) three competencies in which I know that I fall short (my boss and colleagues will no doubt name many many more). Skills that seem key for people working in leadership roles promoting innovation in higher ed, skills that I know I need to find a way to develop. These skills include:

1. Change Management Skills:  

I think that I have a pretty good idea how higher ed needs to change. Or at least I know that in a global economy, where information is abundant, and the Internet and mobile technologies empower and connect individual as never before, that we need to change. I understand that higher ed suffers from an an acute case of the cost disease,  and that in order to improve quality while reducing costs we will need to address these challenges head on. I believe that the judicious and measured use of technology, particularly in growing our blended learning footprint to increase the supply of higher ed services that we can offer, offers our best opportunity to improve access, increase quality and drive down costs.

This knowledge, however, is useless without knowing how catalyze organizational change. Change requires us to give up practices that have worked for us for a very long time.  A status quo is so powerful because it benefits many people. Effective higher ed leadership needs to be about more than diagnosing our current difficulties, or even providing a vision for an alternative future. Rather, our leaders will need to be skilled in organizational behavior, in navigating the institutional politics that will either promote or inhibit change.   

Effective change management practices do not emerge from common sense. There is a well-developed theoretical and empirical literature on organizational behavior and change management. We can learn from successful change management from both within and without higher education. How do we develop a cadre of change agents in higher ed? Are the existing professional development opportunities for mid-career higher education people broad and intensive enough to support impactful behavior on an institution wide basis?   

2. Economics and Finance Skills:

At graduate school I learned lots about the demographic transition and the sociological imagination. What I did not learn from studying sociology and social demography was how the finances of higher education operate, how to interpret a balance sheet, or how to construct a budget. Economic history yes, but higher ed economics no. I came out of graduate school with a good working knowledge of how to manage and analyze a large dataset with SPSS, but with little understanding of how Excel can be utilized to model financial decisions.   

It is hard for people like me who trained in a quantitative academic disciplines to admit that we need help working with the figures of higher ed. But I need the help. Where can I learn finance and economics for higher education? A better question might be, where can I practice (and receive expert feedback) on utilizing economic and financial tools to make decisions and build arguments for change?

3.  Communication Skills:

My nominee for the single area where we all overrate our skills, (and here I do not exclude myself), is communication. We think we are good communicators, but I'd wager that the folks we think we are communicating with so effectively might beg to differ.  

I know enough about effective communication skills to know how difficult this skill is to attain. It is clear to me that effective leadership is increasingly synonymous with effective communication. I understand that effective communication is not episodic and reactive, but consistent and proactive. I get that culture drives communication styles, and that organizations that communicate effectively build a culture of transparency and accountability.   

What I don't know about communication is where I'm doing it poorly, or how to improve. I can recognize good communicators, but I don't know how to do what they do.   As with change management and finance/economic skills, communications is a discipline anchored in theory and developed by empirical research. The fact that in traditional higher education "marketing" is often seen as a bad word is proof enough of how little we understand or apply effective communications practices.

What skills do you believe that you need to help lead innovation on your campus?  

Where do you plan to learn and practice these skills?


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