Insights for a Changing Economy:
Volume 3 – Bulletin #1

Four Insights about Effective Leadership in 2011
– and Beyond.

Happy New Year! 

Maguire Associates launched Insights for a Challenging Economy two and one-half years ago at the dawn of the Great Recession. Through the recession's depths we shared with you – and you with us – both facts and feelings about a troubled economy and its painful consequences for institutional leadership and enrollment management. Together, we considered what was happening, why, what to do about it and, above all else, how to remain calm and focused amid such economic turbulence.

So now it’s time for a modest rebranding of Insights. We know that times are still challenging. For many, the recession is over in name only, especially in the employment and credit markets. These may be so-called “lagging indicators” for the economy overall, but we all know the essential role jobs and credit play in making higher education possible for students and their families. 

Nonetheless, we accept that “challenge” is now a permanent condition – the “new normal” – and that wisdom and perspective are best found in using challenge to catalyze, build, and sustain positive organizational change. Thus, welcome to the new Insights for a Changing Economy and, with it, a review of some useful leadership principles to start the new year.

Four Leadership Perspectives

Here are four thoughts about leading and managing talent that you may want to incorporate into your New Year’s resolutions. Some of these echo advice we have previously offered, but they are all worth considering anew – especially at this time of year. Sure, these insights may seem like common sense, but common sense can be too easily compromised in tough, ever-changing times.

  1. Recognize and Reward Great Performance: So who among your employees has performed exceptionally well over the past two or three years? Who rose to the occasion and, in turn, what have you done publicly and privately to acknowledge their contributions? Budget cuts are no excuse when it comes to rewarding your best, most talented people. Indeed, not rewarding superstars these days is financially and strategically risky, since it may invite your best performers to seek employment elsewhere and, in the process, negate the investments you have already made in them. Remember that, unlike two or three years ago, your best people now have employment options. They have access to interesting positions that are opening up around the country as the economy slowly but surely recovers.

    Work with your leadership team, CFO, and Human Resources staff to undertake a true cost accounting of the financial risks associated with not keeping your best people. Or at least introduce the notion that one can be pennywise and pound foolish when it comes to losing top talent needlessly. If raises and bonuses have not been available, then reward your best people with other considerations such as a long weekend here and there, a restaurant or spa gift certificate, or even fewer meetings. Here’s a case where the thought truly does count. Oh, and remember to say “thank you,” too.

    Above all else, keep getting better at recognizing excellent performance publicly and promptly. This is not cheerleading; it’s leadership. Signal to your superstars that you get it: that you understand the key roles they have played in your institution’s – and your own – performance.

  2. Improve Performance Planning: Ask whether and how your performance planning system has improved as a result of the economic crisis. This question assumes, of course, that you already have a useful, robust performance planning system and that you adhere to its discipline. One clear way to reward and recognize talented contributors is to discuss with them the richness of long-term career opportunities for them at your institution. It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to retain great people is to help them build resumes that become increasingly impressive to outside employers. If you don’t groom your superstars in this manner, you’re going to lose them anyway. Plus, working to advance your best people sends signals to other, perhaps younger employees that meaningful career tracks exist for them at your institution.

    And besides, what better way to assess an employee’s strengths, weaknesses, operational barriers and dependencies, and the other elements of a performance plan, than through the exacting lens of performance during difficult times? As the saying goes, “Tough times are the truest test of character.” Not having this conversation with your best people may well be a wasted asset.

  3. Overcommunicate: We cannot communicate enough the importance of communicating enough – and then some! Legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach once suggested that, “It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.” People read, view, and hear things through their own unique perceptual filters, sometimes interpreting messages in radically different ways than intended. Overcommunicating means finding many, varied opportunities to articulate your high-priority messages to your employees, using interesting examples to animate them and multiple media to distribute them.

    As a leader of a college or university or one of its units, you own the responsibility for ensuring that employees understand your objectives and expectations. Of course, these should all be drawn from your institutional and enrollment management strategic plans and then factored into your own performance plan and those of your employees. One always vexing question here is whether or not the core messages from your strategic, enrollment management, and performance plans are aligned or, instead, contradict one another. As a leader, you will need a firm foundation of congruence across strategic, enrollment, and performance plans for you and your team to make meaning out of the daily operational communications that we are emphasizing here. Without this clarity, a leader and an institution risk saying a whole lot of nothing.

  4. Take Personal Stock: How did you perform during the economic crisis? Have you marked the areas in which you excelled and those in which you fell short? Perhaps the recent holidays provided some time for needed reflection and introspection. If they were anything like our holidays, however, perhaps not.  Nonetheless, when will you find time for critical self-assessment? Have you asked your boss and your key employees for a constructively critical review? If not, you may be doomed to make the same mistakes again.

    How do you feel about being a leader? We often hear people admit privately that they are so busy with the substance of their “day job” that they have precious little time to lead. It’s a realistic, understandable lament, but it also provides a diagnostic clue. Visibly leading your people has to be “job number one.” Doing so effectively, and empowering the right people to engage in increasingly strategic work, will ultimately give you more of the time you deserve and desperately need.

These are four thoughts for your consideration at the start of the year. We understand that these suggestions are easier to make than to implement, but they are true nonetheless. It’s been said that leaders “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Well, what have you learned and applied from the challenging economy of the last three years?

Having firmly deposited that large question on your doorstep, we wish you and yours a successful and enjoyable 2011. Seriously, you have undoubtedly found ways to grow professionally amid these recent difficulties, and you have likely overcome some rather formidable challenges. To that we say, congratulations. Let’s continue the dialogue as the challenge of these last three years gives way to more positive change.


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