August 12, 2019
I recently spent a day with Bob Smith. Bob is the retired president of Slippery Rock, a keen observer of higher education, and a great friend. While driving around the wilds of Tennessee, he offered one of those “thinking-out-loud” kind of comments that really make you think.
He asked why is it that senior teams are more concerned about the titles of people sitting around the table than the talent of people sitting around the table.
Immediately all those little gears in my head starting whirring. I was particularly impressed with his comment because I have just finished my eighth book—Row: Trust, Teams, and the Essentials of Leadership – A Primer for College Presidents and Their Senior Teams.
It is kind of irritating when someone reduces the essence of a 150-page book and a year’s worth of work into one sentence. But then that’s what Bob Smith does. He thinks clearly and communicates with even greater clarity.
Bob is right at so many levels. The historical paradigm of higher education relishes title and structure. In a world with increasingly permeable boundaries, this, in itself, is problematic. But there is a further underlying issue: the assumption that the people at the top of the org chart are smarter or more insightful than the folks they lead…or manage. Not surprisingly, I think this assumption is only held by the people at the top of the org chart.
Anyway, I think the issues, complex and interwoven in higher education, require that colleges and universities revise and revitalize how they 1) attract talent; and 2) nurture talent; and 3) allow that talent to express itself.
Based on the incredibly talented people that I encounter on each campus visit, I do believe that colleges do a good job attracting talent. Where they fall short, it seems is in the second two areas: nurturing talent and allowing talent to express itself. Many schools do not have the resources (time, talent, and treasure) to nurture their staffs. We know, too, sadly, that senior leadership often does not give talent the voice that it needs. And without that voice, talent either withers, or it leaves.