Leadership Principles

Foundational Commitments for our Work and Culture

Make it better
What does great look like? It is everyone’s job, within our span of influence, to improve what we do. We will challenge assumptions, clarify what success looks like, and evaluate what worked so we can adapt and grow.

Go first
Leaders have a bias toward action and take initiative. In our work, we pilot and try things to see what works. In relationships, we reach out, ask the question, anticipate the need, and build the bridge rather than waiting for the other person to make the first move.

Be an owner
Having clear roles and partnering well keeps us from bumping into each other. We are owners and specialists who partner. Leaders know what’s theirs and how it’s connected with others. We will jump lanes to contribute – but we will also be clear on what is within our span of influence and work hard to make those pieces the best they can be. 

Communicate and collaborate
Our work is like a game of pick-up-sticks where one part impacts many others. Communication is sharing what we’re doing – with each other, students, and the campus. Collaborating is listening well, involving others early, and letting those with expertise and connection co-create in the areas we own.

Follow through
Plans need consistency, and ideas without action aren’t real. In order to be trustworthy and partner well with students and our campus community, we do what we say we will do, when we say we will do it. 

Simple > Complex
Making it better doesn’t mean adding more. Often it means simplifying, choosing the essential, and focusing on the clear goals and outcomes. It’s easy to add complexity, but leaders learn to focus on the essential and pursue the most critical outcomes and actions with energy and focus. 

How can I help?
Leaders criticize by creating. There are always things we would do differently, but sideline conversations (or meetings after the meeting) don’t help. Leaders go to the person involved and ask how they can help. 

Renew and sustain 
Leaders recognize that this is a marathon, not a sprint. They create work and life practices that help them build spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical foundations. Like the feeling of tired that comes from a good workout, our work is both hard and worth it. We pursue a mindset that helps us enjoy the process and create space to celebrate the good with others.

Keep learning
Learning is never done. Therefore, we stay curious and open to learning about ourselves, about our students, about our context, about our field.

Assessment lessons from The Lean Startup

Assessment is a hot topics in student affairs, but in most places, there may be more talk than action. I think this comes from two problems with the process: Runners Don’t Take Photos and the Dusty Binder Syndrome.

Runners Don’t Take Photos is simple. The woman running the race isn’t the one stopping to document the moment. She’s got something else on her mind. Most people who get into student affairs don’t pick the field because they love filling out reports. They’re likely relators or doers who are busy working in their area of expertise. Stopping to zoom out, plan ahead, and measure is a luxury most people don’t think they have.

The Dusty Binder Syndrome is caused by that feeling you get when you spend time on a project you suspect will just gather dust on a shelf. When we fill out forms because of a process rather than a need, it demotivates and fails to create change.

Are we assessing for accreditation or assessing so we can get better at what we do? Hopefully both, but how we set up the process matters.

You can use improvement-focused data in accreditation reports. But data gathered for accreditation won’t always lead to real change. In fact, gathering info on the same things we’ve always done may insure a lack of change.

The Lean Startup shares a process that can fix both challenges. Derek Sivers has an excellent summary of the book, but here are Derek’s quotes from the part of interest:

Too many startup business plans look more like they are planning to launch a rocket ship than drive a car. They prescribe the steps to take and the results to expect in excruciating detail, and as in planning to launch a rocket, they are set up in such a way that even tiny errors in assumptions can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

The customers failed to materialize, the company had committed itself so completely that they could not adapt in time. They had “achieved failure” – successfully, faithfully, and rigorously executing a plan that turned out to have been utterly flawed.

Instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions, you can make constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. Through this process of steering, we can learn when and if it’s time to make a sharp turn called a pivot or whether we should persevere along our current path.

The strategy may have to change (called a pivot). However, the overarching vision rarely changes. Entrepreneurs are committed to seeing the startup through to that destination. Every setback is an opportunity for learning how to get where they want to go.

Too many higher ed assessment plans make the same mistake. It makes sense. The academic mindset is more likely to tolerate forms, processes, and change that takes time. (After all, a dissertation isn’t written in a day) But that mindset is a core reason we’re struggling to innovate or change. Most assessment processes are too specific and rigid.Image

It’s the rocket ship instead of the car from above. This leads to people who spend their days filling out forms instead of leading, creating value, or connecting with students.

As student affairs begins to value assessment, we need to consider how we assess what we’re doing. We need to build a process that encourages innovation.

The Lean Startup’s Build-Measure-Learn process is a good starting point. Have a vision. Create it. Test it. Adapt. The 20-year plan is gone. The 5-year plan doesn’t work, either.

So know the “what” of your organization: Have big vision and values, and know what your department or organization stands for. But the how has to be flexible. So assessing the “learning outcomes” may need to change from year to year, too.

“The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” Seems like an appropriate mindset for an educational institution, right?

Innovation in student affairs – where do you see it?

I’m looking for examples of innovation in higher education – particularly student affairs/student life – and I need your help.

Not this.

Innovation is a tricky word. Maybe it brings to mind images like Disney’s “house of the future,” sending a rocket to Mars, or Steve Jobs introducing a phone that will revolutionize the mobile phone and computer industries.

But I think innovation is more basic – and more important – than those once-every-20-years examples. Innovation is being clear about what you do and why you do it and then finding the best way to do those things regardless of what has been done in the past. It’s looking at a situation in a context, addressing the needs, and creating the best possible solution.

Sharing ideas at conferences is great, but this kind of contextual change doesn’t come from copying the best practices of a college across the nation.

Innovation is needed in student affairs.

I’ll be honest. I have an agenda here. I want to see student affairs as a field go beyond managing the programs we’ve been given. I want us to clearly define why we exist, take that vision, and move forward in a way that works for each context.

There are books upon books about upcoming changes in higher education, and student life is rarely listed as a driving force or voice in these conversations. We need to effectively communicate the importance of the development, learning, and integration that happens through the entire college experience – inside and outside of the classroom. Just like educational practices have to change over time as students, culture, and information changes, the way we do our job must change as well. It may mean large changes, or they may be small. But that growth is healthy and needed.

So the goal is to collect and highlight examples of innovation in student affairs – not so others can imitate, but so we can understand the process, challenges, and lessons learned through innovation and change.

Share your examples here, and pass this along to others!