Retooling for the Future

Craig Downing
Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Professor of Engineering Management

In the article The Skills Future Higher-Ed Leaders Need to Succeed, authors Amit Mrig and Patrick Sanaghan observe, “The playbook of the past does not offer a sustainable path forward for all institutions.” [1] They further suggest that academic challenges are too complex and dynamic for senior-level leadership to resolve on their own.  The path forward, they argue, is characterized by multi-level, internal and external, collaboration:

“These [issues] are whole-campus challenges, and they require whole-campus solutions.  Identifying and actually implementing appropriate responses requires the engagement and participation of the whole campus.” [1]

I find this last statement both encouraging and concerning.  Seeking a whole-campus solution will require contributions from a new array of individuals, including individuals who do not consider themselves as change agents or influential.  Additionally, the array may contain individuals who are against changing the status quo.    From my perspective as a change agent on a tight-knit college campus, I am always seeking out tools that can help me persuade faculty to look at themselves from a very different perspective.

For those who have the opportunity to influence possible changes, Mrig and Sanaghan suggest we consider the adoption of a refined skill set.  More specifically, they believe leaders (agents of change) should be:

  • Anticipatory thinkers
  • Risk-tolerant and supportive of creativity and innovation
  • Effective conveners/brokers/facilitators
  • Courageous decision makers
  • Resilient and able to “bounce forward” after a crisis or setback

Reflecting on this article, I began to think about how anticipatory thinking plays out in a practical fashion.  To become effective anticipatory thinkers we must embrace the process of purposeful thinking and face our cognitive biases.

In doing so, we can dislodge some of our current anchors (beliefs) and consider new ones.  We also need to consider models of change that lie outside of our immediate environment.  Changes that work well at other institutions could be adapted for our own campuses. .  It is clear that future effective processes will originate from a combination of best practices found within and outside of academe.

In addition to thinking creatively, we need to suspend our biases and open our minds to consider developing a broader solution set.  Mrig and Sanaghan compare the issues around change in higher education to issues associated with the healthcare industry.  In both fields, change leaders seek to update funding models, adopt new technologies to increase the level of personalization, all the while achieving measurable outcomes that are often times defined by external parties (e.g., government).  Change agents must survey the academic and business landscape for connections that will foster solutions.  However, a secondary aspect of the process is vetting the real opportunities from the non-substantive fads or gimmicks.

The last four skills discussed in the article speak to the need for entrepreneurial leadership practices.  Being risk-tolerant and supportive of innovation and creativity are characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.  Further, entrepreneurs frequently make bold decisions that seem questionable initially.  However, their actions are well informed, and these individuals consider the possibility of failure.  The entrepreneurial decision-making process works best when leaders operate with quality information. Successful change agents “must become effective facilitators of information across the campus and spend time understanding and engaging with the realities and challenges of their multiple stakeholders.” [1] In addition to gathering and synthesizing the information, change agents have to share the information as well.  The communication process must be a bi-directional flow of high-fidelity information that allows more people to know more about the challenges being faced.

Experienced change agents realize that triumph and disaster are equally viable outcomes of change projects.  The latter outcome, disaster (failure), must be embraced, analyzed, and used as a springboard for subsequent actions.  Mrig and Sanaghan acknowledge the reality of failure and challenge us to be resilient, “because setbacks and mistakes will be made; yet, you must still move forward.” [1] Additionally, they suggest in addition building our personal resiliency:  “we should also advocate for building resilient leaders throughout our campuses.” [1] Creating a network of resilient change agents sends a powerful message to our stakeholders indicating the importance of change and our desire to see it through to fruition.

The complexity of change is more than any one change agent can handle.  However, we should not shrink from the challenge.  As Ken Blanchard has stated, “If you want to go places you have never been before—you have to think in ways you’ve never thought before.” [2] No one knows what the future will entail, but we must be ready to think differently.  Keep in mind one of the reasons people do not achieve their dreams (goals) is that they desire to change their results without changing their thinking! [2]

  1. Mrig, A. & Sanaghan, P. The Skills Future Higher-Ed Leaders Need to Succeed. Academic Impressions, January 2017.
  2. Maxwell, J. Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work. FaithWords, April 2003.

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