The Provost’s Window: Views on Academic Leadership

Strengthening Your Culture IQ

Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant, said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Drucker’s quote reminds us that institutional culture can be a more forceful influence than a great strategy. Leaders need to quickly and accurately read the culture to understand the intangibles of campus life. Of course, there is “culture,” and then there is “shadow culture,” which is where the leadership pitfalls most often reside.

I have known several institutions that describe themselves as highly student-focused, even family-like. But a closer look at the shadow culture on these campuses reveals something very different. For example, these student-focused institutions may have policies that are inadvertently exclusive and punitive; likewise, the family atmosphere can be felt by some as heavy-duty dysfunction. One of the most interesting aspects of culture and shadow culture is that both are real. An agile academic leader must learn to walk the cliff’s edge of engaging the culture she sees on the surface while leading the change that addresses the potential dysfunction generated by the shadow culture.

When you are new in a role, there are many potential stumbling blocks when it comes to reading the culture. Experienced colleagues will likely have cringe-worthy stories of missing clues and suffering the consequences of running afoul of culture.

What can a new leader do?  I offer three suggestions to strengthen your campus culture IQ:

1. Watch and Listen

As the old saying goes, we are given two eyes, two ears, and one mouth in the hopes that we will use them in proportion. When it comes to culture, careful watching and deep listening are paramount. Hints are all around us. For example, culture can be learned through how people are socialized to a new role. Is there a careful, intentional onboarding plan or are colleagues essentially cast adrift in the deep end? How do people speak about the key stakeholders on campus? In a previous role, it quickly became apparent that the faculty/staff divide was actually a gaping chasm that could never be safely crossed. At another institution, I heard faculty generalize about students using deficit-oriented language, focusing on students who “couldn’t write,” or who “weren’t taught how to study.” Helping move more faculty to describe students through a growth-minded lens ultimately led to a more positive approach to working with learners.

Whether you are settling into a new role or advancing initiatives as a leader, pay attention to the first people who come to see you. What are they telling you in terms of what they tell you, and also what they don’t tell you? Are they there to help you or to advance an agenda? What are the first problems that your colleagues bring to your attention? Have they brought solutions or are they looking to you to solve dilemmas? Watch who speaks at meetings and who doesn’t. Be sure to listen to those whose voices are the softest. Every interaction, every conversation, and every email will give you clues about the campus culture

2. Ask

Not all of the clues about culture will be obvious; consider probing by asking direct questions. As you absorb information about culture, you will want to confirm what you think you see with other people on campus. It’s worth noting that some of your new colleagues might not be interested in talking about culture. As you go about your fact-gathering, the following questions will elicit important insights:

“How do you describe faculty/student/staff/institutional culture?”

“What are the most meaningful traditions at this institution?”

“What changes have been most significant in the last 5 years?”

“What is something that, as a leader, I should be sure to do? Not do?”

“Tell me a story about something important that has happened on this campus.”

“What is something you hope never changes at this institution?”

“Who should we be sure to communicate with before/if we make this decision?”

“Of what aspects of institutional culture might I be unaware?”

3. Reflective Journals/Memos

Dialing in deeply to institutional culture may bring daily “drinking from the firehose” experiences. What to do with all of this information?

Consider adding a reflection practice to your daily habits, whether it be a specific hand-written journal or an electronic document you update as you go. You will want to keep these documents separate from your work materials should you separate from your role or should your records be requested for any reason, your private thoughts are more likely to remain separate.

I recall a former colleague who strongly balked at the idea of “reflective journaling.” Instead, my colleague had a long-term practice of “professional memoing.” This colleague maintained a file of ‘electronic memos to self’ through which they captured thoughts, goals, plans, and analyses of their professional situation. Whatever you call it, however you do it, you will benefit from engaging in a regular practice of unloading and reflecting on your experience in this new role.  This discipline of sensemaking will ultimately inform your way forward. Plus, you have a vehicle for proactively processing those deepest most thoughts which are often not appropriate for public processing. For example, it is in this private space that you could document some of the most concerning behaviors you see, some of the toxic personalities that need watching, or some of the issues that are raising your antennae. Then, after having the time and space to process, you can address what is catching your attention. And by reviewing your notes from time to time, you will begin to see important trends and clues about the culture emerging from your observations.

Even if we think we know all there is to know about the culture, colleges and universities are highly dynamic places. Cultural shifts are ongoing. I encourage you to begin a practitioner’s journal to capture what you see and experience and to process what this means for your leadership. As you reread your journal, identify themes to address through your strategies. By doing so, you will avoid having your leadership strategy unknowingly devoured or derailed.

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

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