Sunday, October 27, 2013

Administrators Need to Celebrate (and by so Doing Build a High-Achieving Culture)

As an academic, I speak at many different venues with audiences ranging from other academics and students to representatives from industry  and government as well as leaders and practitioners from a wide range of sectors and disciplines.

As a world traveler, I always try to learn from the people that I encounter and in many recent conversations it seems that issues surrounding administrators and their role in building communities and culture and change management have been some prime topics of discussion.

Doesn't every professional want to be part of a high-achieving organization?

Administrators, who are true leaders (see my recent post which mentioned Winston Churchill), can play a significant role in raising their organizations (whether at the department, school, or even university level and the same holds for corporations), by celebrating the achievements of the employees (from faculty to the staff to students).

Think of your favorite and most effective politician -- he/she,  before giving a speech, will engage the audience by acknowledging individuals who are present and will also recognize constituents who have done wonderful things.

At the first department meeting or school meeting of the year, besides stating what you personally have accomplished as an administrator and which you perceive as being the needed direction for the organization, recognize what others have done since the last meeting (which could have been months ago).

Putting up a slide of faculty (and other) achievements and having those recognized stand up is a small way in which to give a pat on the back. An interesting example -- my husband spent some time at a government research facility. There, the Director used some of his discretionary funds to provide gift certificates to those who had notable achievements. At meetings, people were called up in front of everyone to select an envelope with the gift certificate inside. This action recognized achievements publicly and helped to change the culture in a very positive way. People felt noticed and excited that their hard work valued.

One of the administrators at a neighboring university from UMass Amherst had a spouse who was an elementary school teacher with a button making machine (I'd like to get my hands on one of these). He would make buttons for his faculty and staff stating, for example, "I published a paper," and after the accrediting team (think ABET if you are in  engineering or AACSB if you are in business), he passed out buttons stating "We survived the accreditation visit!"

An exemplar of a leader (at the Presidential university level) was Dr. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, about whom I have written before. He was known to give out thank you notes which included a small bill stating "the dessert is on me -- go celebrate." He also gave out lottery tickets for birthdays. Dr. Tom O'Brien, without whose leadership we would not have the named Isenberg School of Management, would send bouquets of flowers with chocolate chip cookies for the recognized faculty member's children, always accompanied for the former with a hand-written note. Do you wonder why he was so good at development (raising funds -- pretty obvious).

So, when a faculty member has an achievement (or any member of the organization), administrators from all levels should publicly recognize the achievement as well as individually in a substantive way.

This has to be done in a meritocratic way and not just for one's "buddies."   My great Swedish colleagues have inculcated this in me.

What do administrators gain for celebrating the achievements of ALL those in their hierarchical food chain?

1. Those who are recognized will increase their loyalty, will continue their high achievements, and the reputation of the organization will grow.

2. There will be greater trust -- public recognition makes for a more level playing field.

3. Workers not only work for the paycheck but want to contribute and in academia especially when research and publishing may take a long time, getting grants can be very challenging, and educating students well requires a lot of energy and imagination, kind words (not just a quick email blurb) both spoken and in writing, backed up in  a little celebratory way can make a huge impact.

Yes, getting  faculty to go in the same direction is like herding cats but, by creating a positive, supportive culture, it can be done. People will enjoy coming to work and faculty may even be in their offices (when not traveling for professional reasons) on Fridays.

I am not an administrator (yet) in the strict academic sense (although I have been given some fabulous outside offers in this dimension ....). I am, however,  the Director of the Supernetworks Center, have served, in the past,  as the Area Director for the Management Science PhD program for over a decade, and am also the Faculty Advisor for the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter.

So this Friday from 1:30-2:00PM in the Isenberg School of Management Room 112, please join us for cake and a celebration. The students (apples don't fall far from the tree) will be celebrating 3 awards that were received at the recent INFORMS conference in Minneapolis.