What Corporate CEOs can Learn From University Presidents About Agility

When you think about higher education, the concept of being agile isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. Colleges and universities are steeped in tradition, and changes when they happen are the product of deliberation and consensus building. If there is a need for speed, the race doesn’t often go to a higher ed. institution.

That said, the best university presidents are the ones who think in an agile way. And they can teach CEOs something about upping their own agility game. If you believe, as we do, that agility is the key to business success, this could be an important lesson.

Last year, an APCO survey of more than 500 senior managers at corporations worldwide conducted to distill from these leaders the key attributes that make companies successful. Based on this research, we boiled success down to one key factor—the ability of a company to be agile in addressing the dynamics of both internal and external change. Further, we identified three critical success factors that lead to an organization being more agile, and therefore improving its prospects for organizational success. Looking at each factor, there is ample evidence that the most successful university presidents often exemplify one or more of these factors.

  1. Shared advocacy—This is about having a sense of the world around the institution and the macro social, political and economic factors that are shaping the market environment. It’s also about being able to align an organization’s vision with the demands and perspectives of its stakeholders. This is certainly a key role of a university president. Given its pervasiveness in American life, higher ed. lives in a fish bowl and everyone has an opinion about it—good, bad and indifferent. The issues run the gamut, from whether everyone is cut out to go to college, to whether there is a correlation between college degrees and career success to questioning the value of a college education, particularly when college grads are cumulatively facing more than $1 trillion in debt.The most agile presidents are addressing these issues, in some cases freezing tuition and fees, reducing or eliminating altogether out-of-state differentials in tuition at state-supported schools, creating tighter matrices between degrees and potential employment opportunities, integrating their successful alumni into their overall value proposition and finding creative solutions for tuition financing, like enabling alumni and others to “invest” in an individual’s college education in return for some level of repayment through a student’s post-graduate earnings. In essence, the best university presidents act as advocates for their customers (i.e., the students, as well as the parents who are invested in their future).
  1. Active Leadership—Active, agile leaders see the whole playing field. They create a vision that others can follow, and they find ways of building consensus around that vision. While visionary, their perspective is informed by data and an ability to extrude analytical insights from that data. Winning university presidents are natural consensus builders. They understand that they speak to multiple communities including the faculty, board of trustees, students, parents, government entities (critical to public university funding) and the community at large. Managing this multiplicity of stakeholders and aligning them with a common vision is a herculean task and prioritizing these stakeholders and understanding how they interact and influence each other is essential. The best university presidents understand, for example, that their product is the faculty, who are also highly influential with other stakeholders, and getting them on board in the formative stages of strategy development and priority setting can go a long way toward broader acceptance of the president’s agenda.
  1. Enterprising culture—Companies that engage their employees, empower them to deliver on the organization’s mission and are concerned with employee perspectives and issues get higher grades when it comes to agility. Again, this is a primary concern of university presidents, particularly at a time when so many universities have needed to reassess and examine their majors and course offerings, how well they are addressing the increased demand for distance and online learning and how connected they are to the economic eco-system around them.For instance, more than half of all public universities at latest count have undergone some form of what’s called “program prioritization” (an iterative process that seeks to better align university resources with its stated mission), foster interdepartmental cooperation and synergies, identify opportunities for growth and objectively analyze whether specific programs and majors are worthy of additional investment. Given that the perception of program prioritization among many is that its primary role is cost cutting rather than growth, the most successful program prioritization efforts happen when an entire cross-section of the university is enlisted to perform this rigorous self-examination. When done right and with the appropriate level of inclusivity, it is a perfect example of university leadership seeking to engage and involve their people in the process of strategizing around and operationalizing change.

In short, the boards of higher ed. institutions are increasingly placing a premium on the agility of a university president to address culture, provide visionary leadership and take a realistic look at the external environment to succeed in a dynamic market landscape. CEOs could benefit from taking a page out of these university presidents’ syllabi for improving their institutions’ long-term prospects for success.