Leading Innovation: Lessons Learned from Successful Presidents

By    //    Volume 22,  Number 4   //    July/August 2014


Susan Whealler Johnston (Moderator)

Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, AGB

Freeman A. Hrabowski III

President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Renu Khator

Chancellor, University of Houston System, and President, University of Houston

Leo Lambert

President, Elon University

Paul LeBlanc

President, Southern New Hampshire University

Mary Evans Sias

Immediate Past President, Kentucky State University

How do we in higher education best engage all students to integrate their learning in ways that prepare them for life after graduation, for lifelong learning, and a life that includes being informed citizens contributing to their communities and pursuing professional paths that best suit them and their talents? What underlies our efforts is the thread of innovation woven together with effective leadership. The interplay, if not interdependence, of leadership and innovation is essential to the future of our institutions. Those are the topics that five college and university presidents tackled during a plenary session at AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship.

Susan Whealler Johnston: In the context of higher education, there are two opposing views about how we do innovation. One view is that higher education is tradition-bound and risk averse, that the pace of change is glacial and doesn’t lead to innovation. In fact, it curtails innovation.

Another view holds that these are exciting times for higher education, that higher education is indeed innovating, and that, in addition to research-related activities, we’re also changing some fundamental things about higher education. We’re looking at how we provide access to education. We’re looking at what it costs and what we know and believe about teaching and learning and how we can assess quality. We’re looking at how we deliver education and how we provide service to students and at what our business models are like now and what they need to be in the future.

Why is innovation in higher education so important right now? Why are people talking about it? What’s driving that? Is there an innovation imperative for higher education?

Leo Lambert: If higher education is going to change and move forward in important ways, presidents must help bring together innovative ideas with tremendous leadership—faculty leadership in particular—to make those ideas come to life. I think about, for instance, the whole agenda of college access and success, which is so important to all of our work.

Renu Khator: We can talk about it and label it innovation, or we can label it as just doing the things we have to do in order to survive. But the fact is we must take a good look at what we are doing and what our options are, but still stay totally committed to the core mission. And the core mission is that we have to be relevant to the community—whether producing a workforce, developing intellectual capital, or engaging with the community directly.

Paul LeBlanc: What happens on a lot of campuses and in a lot of board meetings is a kind of flailing at innovation—we’ll just try a bunch of things. The rush to MOOCs (massive open online courses) is an example of many institutions getting panicky. Boards have been saying to their presidents, “We keep reading about MOOCs; you should do something.” But we need to ask ourselves, “What is the problem we’re trying to fix? How does this affect our business model? How does it change our institution? Where does our institution fit in the higher education landscape? What’s our particular problem? And what kind of innovations do we need to undertake to fix the problem?”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III: We in Maryland are fortunate to have elected officials who get it more than many people in the country. We have a chancellor and a board who are working with us to consider ways of looking across institutions within our system and other places and to examine best practices. We don’t do that enough in higher education—look at models that work, consider shared service centers, use ideas from the business community to help. We need to get away from thinking that we shouldn’t be looking at how companies do things. They do some things better than we in higher education do.

Khator: Board members have a long-term passion for the institution, far longer than what we as presidents bring, because we’re here for a limited time. My board members, who have lived in the same community or who know the institution because they graduated from it, bring that passion to the table. The question is, can you all agree on a goal?

And we have. For our institution, you can see our goal on our Web site at “University of Houston Progress Card.” It’s just one page, not a ton of different measures, and it’s right there: Student success is our no-excuse priority, and every institution in the system has to accomplish six measures, and we don’t take any excuses if they don’t. If a campus as a whole does not meet the goal, then the campus as a whole doesn’t get any raises. Faculty and staff members have accepted that and bought into it, and the board has agreed. So we can actually focus on things that will move us forward rather than just around in circles.

Johnston: What are the preconditions that have to exist in order to support innovation?

Lambert: I’d say one of the most important ones is to have an institutional culture of innovation. Oftentimes when we think about innovation, we think about innovative individuals or innovative programs within institutions. But if an entire institution is going to move forward and transform itself, the culture of the institution itself has to be innovative. You have to overcome the resistance to any new idea.

Another important factor is collaborative strategic planning, where we have trustees, faculty members, staff members, alumni, and students coming together to think about the big picture. I’m talking about the big goals, the goals that are going to take a decade or more to achieve. When you do that and you begin to meet your goals, you build an institution-wide culture of trust. So the next time you do a strategic plan, people are going to be less afraid to dream big dreams, to set stretch goals for the institution.

I had a board member one time at the beginning of a strategic-planning process who said, “My job as a trustee is to make the rest of you think scary thoughts. I want you to lie awake at night being scared about how good this university could be.” Well, that’s a challenge; it turns up the heat on the campus. But it develops over time. So, when you’re done with one plan, everyone asks, “Okay, what can we do now? What can we do next?” That’s all too rare in American higher education.

LeBlanc: Most innovation doesn’t take place high up the food chain. If your institution is high up the food chain, then the innovation tends to be on the level of, “How do we do a certain thing with more quality and more status?” If you think about the five presidents here, we all started with institutions that had a long road to travel. So, the higher up the status chain your institution is, the more tradition-bound and harder to move it is.

You have to be in a place where people want to change. At my institution, we have a theory and a playbook around innovation: It’s not identifying an interesting new thing to do; it’s about an execution strategy that has a lot of straightforward moving parts. Absent a theory of what you’re trying to do and a theory of execution, it’s hard to innovate.

Hrabowski: Some challenges that we saw in Maryland were very important, and campuses had a chance to work with the board and the system staff to think them through. In America, we are grappling with the national issue of how to produce an educated workforce. How do you get more people who come to our institutions to actually succeed and get jobs? Not only access, but also success is important. In addition, how can we be more creative in making sure many more of our students are from different backgrounds?

So, for us, one of the big priorities has been closing the achievement gap. That, coupled with how we take our research enterprise and really focus on the problems of our state and region.

And to be innovative, we concentrate on three things. Number one is deciding what each institution will do, because you can’t be all things to all people. You have to decide what you can do and focus on those things. Number two, you have to have metrics. We, in higher education, too often make decisions, have some success, and then talk anecdotally about what works as opposed to having the quantitative evaluation that allows us to say, “This is the progress we’ve made.” And number three is being willing to change what you do when you see something is not working. How can you revise and rethink an approach when it does not work and then learn from your mistakes and each other?

Khator: I think that successful organizations need exactly the same two elements that successful individuals and leaders need: a dream and passion. Just like individuals, organizations have to have a dream, and that comes from the clarity of the core mission. It’s up to leadership—the board, president, and faculty—to unite behind one dream.

And you have to put that passion in organizations, because if you have passion, you will find one way, and if that doesn’t work, then you will find a second way, a third way, or nine different ways to accomplish that dream.

Hrabowski: I think you’re absolutely right. I want to add one thing: creating an environment that allows people to take risks. If people are worried that “If I fail, I’m going to be knocked down,” then they won’t push the envelope.

Mary Evans Sias: Well, it’s important for the president and the board to listen, to encourage, to be assertive. Apples don’t grow close to the trunk of a tree. They’re out on the end. So, people are going to have to take those risks.

But success is not just getting students in. It’s getting students out. It’s developing those partnerships, those relationships with the community. And having metrics so you can say, “This is what we’ve done. This is how we measure the outcomes, and this is how we know we’ve been successful.” Also, if you’re going to move forward, everybody in the organization has to buy in.

Lambert: I think Mary just identified an important word: “listen.” There are a lot of great ideas out there. We’ve moved to a model at Elon where we spend a lot of time with our board thinking about main issues and what we are struggling with—not presenting PowerPoint presentations of already solved problems to boards members and having them pat us on the back. Part of that comes from the way you structure your conversations with the board. Are you really open to listening? Are you listening for other views about your institution for which you might have a blind spot? Are you open to criticism? We learn a lot about ourselves when we put real problems out there and give others an opportunity to dive in, and we just sit back and listen.

Hrabowski: And as successful presidents, we know that. What’s important for boards is to allow presidents to tell them the real deal, to say what is really a problem. And when board members are seen as sounding boards and as asking good questions and listening and not judging so quickly, presidents feel more comfortable in saying quite frankly, “This is what I’m really facing,” and “Let me give you a chance to hear it, and then you can give me feedback, and we can work together on this.” It’s a much healthier environment.

Lambert: And good board members do a great job of keeping a sharp edge on brilliant ideas. We in the academy can sometimes dull an idea down. We put it in front of a group and watch it change and morph and see this wonderful, creative idea quickly become very vanilla. A good board will keep that edge on creative thinking.

Sias: And good boards have to have an opportunity for that listening to occur, which means that you have to restructure your meetings so it’s not just about those PowerPoints. Rather, you’re listening to what’s going on at the institution—you’re looking at new ideas, seeing whether they make sense for the culture that you have on your campus. So the board has to be free to organize itself differently sometimes.

LeBlanc: That is where boards play a critical role in my sector of private, tuition-dependent institutions—probably the most endangered institutions in the country right now. When I speak to my colleagues, it feels as if there’s a split between boards. Some seem to feel smugly self-satisfied about the institution they attended 30 years ago, and say, “We’re okay and don’t need to change anything. Let’s keep it the way it is.” Other boards, in contrast, are banging on the president’s door every day, saying, “This place is going to go down the tubes if you don’t radically redo everything,” and “Heck with the faculty. They don’t get it.” Neither approach is going to work. Figuring out the right balance and understanding what you’re trying to do is the key.

It’s crucial that boards get in line with the president behind the chosen vision and innovation strategy. They cannot step away from that. They have to be public, emphatic, and always there, because change is hard stuff. And it gets really hard when you try to execute it at your institution.

Khator: At the beginning of every year, we do one exercise—first with my cabinet and then with the board. We ask, “What would be one game changer for the institution on which we should focus everything for the coming year?” That way, board members and cabinet members share ideas about what they think we should do.

Hrabowski: A big part is figuring out with whom you can partner. You can’t do all things yourself. So, for us, when the board told us, for example, “We want to give you ways of working with other campuses,” we partnered closely with our medical school downtown. We have all kinds of research collaborations and internships and, most important, are writing grants with the National Institutes of Health. We’re knocking down the boundaries. But we also do it with Northrop Grumman in building cyber-security companies or with the Department of Health in medical research. So, the more your institution can work collaboratively with others in the community—on the national or local levels—the more resources and opportunities you’ll have for your students.

Johnston: People often believe that innovation is a bottom-up activity. As presidents, what do you think about that and your role in innovation on your campus?

Lambert: In your strategic plan, hopefully there are some very innovative and ambitious goals for your institution. But wonderful ideas come from the bottom up, and strategic plans have to be open so that as new ideas emerge, they can be blended into the plan.

It’s a mythology to think that good ideas only come from the top or a centralized planning process. But certainly you’ve got to fuel the energy that takes place across your campus at all ranks and at all levels, on the faculty and on the staff side, as well.

Khator: You have to make yourself vulnerable by setting up the framework, and then you have to be open to let people hang the picture in it. But you cannot negotiate things that shouldn’t be negotiated, so I come back to the core mission. The faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community have to come together to make things happen. But you just cannot negotiate with mediocrity.

LeBlanc: When you talk about innovation that seeks to improve the quality of an institution, it is best done bottom up. As Renu suggested, you can set high-end vision goals; Leo suggested this as well. But your job as president is to find the resources, identify the champions, give them some space, and then let them try the things they’re trying to do. If you’re in that space where you’re saying, “We need to find greater efficiencies and harness technology and innovation to continue to do what we do, but with greater efficiencies and cost savings,” that’s a mid-level management role. And that’s where data and analytics get more important than culture. What you measure will matter most, and if you stop measuring it, it will degrade.

Hrabowski: The most innovative places are reaching out beyond themselves to understand the larger framework, as Renu was saying. We’re working with all of the national agencies and companies in our area to understand how they do things, what their problems are, where they need some help. And then we say to faculty members and others, “How could we be really out of the box and make a big difference?”

LeBlanc: And I would add, within our sector, how important it is to gain perspective by visiting other interesting places. We have people do that all the time with us. People come to learn from us and we follow (and sometimes visit) other institutions to learn from them. The key is to get new perspectives and out of your echo chamber.

Johnston: What about the future? Can you tell us the story of higher education over the next 10 or 20 years?

Lambert: I think you’re going to see a variegated picture; there’s not a single answer to that question. Each institution is driven by a different mission, and we must be true to ourselves and what we do well. But I think you’re going to see broken china on the floor. Some institutions are not going to make it. Others will do fabulously well.

Khator: One thing is certain: We will not look like we look today. It’s absolutely important for an institution to, first, know fundamentally what the mission is and have even more clarity than ever before, and second, to determine what its value-added is to the educational experience.

Sias: You have to identify what your niche is. You can’t be all things to all people. That means reviewing the academic programs and maybe downsizing some that you’ve always had. Faculty members are going to have to be retrained often. They don’t know the technology that our students are using, and the pedagogy is going to be significantly different.

LeBlanc: Fundamentally, we’re going to see a paradigm shift towards outcomes, competencies, and data. What we’re going to hear from policy makers and the public is that higher education institutions must be crystal clear about the claims we make for our students. They’re going to be really hard-nosed about the evidence we provide, and they’re going to measure what we do.

Lambert: The board’s role is essential. The board has to convey a sense that it will tolerate calculated risks. In my judgment, if you have a totally risk-averse board, you’re in big trouble. It is very difficult to move an institution forward.

Board members should be well-informed about the institution’s key objectives—the big visionary things, the big rocks in the jar, so to speak. Boards will need to pay close attention to measuring progress towards those objectives over the course of time, because if they’re really big and important, they’re not going to get done in a year or two. Boards have to have long attention spans if they’re going to be effective in overseeing long-term institutional change.