Nothing could have fully prepared us for the leadership challenges we’re facing. Higher education administrators are no strangers to crisis leadership. But this crisis is different in four key ways. It is extended (lasting months, not days or weeks); systemic (impacting every department and level in the organization); personal (with human costs and implications outside of work); and widespread (when every institution is affected, we lack typical safety nets).
Making it through this crisis intact will require colleges and universities to grow their organizational resiliency. We define organizational resiliency as having the strength of focus needed to stay true to values and purpose while being nimble enough to adapt to previously unfathomable challenges as they arise.
Why presidents, boards, and cabinets must accelerate organizational resiliency today
Even before the current public health crisis, higher education institutions were seeking greater resiliency. Across the last few years, EAB has worked with hundreds of college and university presidents, boards and cabinets, helping them build new approaches to organizational planning and culture in the face of existential threats. We were heartened to see institutions rally around new approaches, often drawing from out-of-sector, but we also worried about the relatively slow pace of change.
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We have a long road ahead. On top of the difficult questions and decisions needed in the months to come, we know an even longer aftermath will follow. Colleges and universities must accelerate their organizational resiliency today for four reasons that are unique to the COVID-19 crisis.
Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint
Crisis response specialists talk about how an initial “boom” is typically followed by response, recovery, and — when there is time later to reflect on what’s occurred — organizational resilience. Lessons learned to prepare for the next boom. This sequence will sound familiar to any college or university leader who has led response to a campus incident or natural disaster.
But what does it mean when the boom keeps going and with no defined end? Crises can tap our physical capacity and mental (and cash) reserves. But recovery typically begins after a few days or weeks. We are less prepared for the toll on organizations created by a longer-term crisis, one lasting months. And we can’t wait until after recovery from the first boom to learn the lessons needed for the next set of difficult questions, decisions, and actions.
This crisis is systemic, impacting all departments and levels
Most crises in higher education require considerable time and energy from a small number of people: typically, a few members of the executive team, as well as key functional roles across the institution.
Our current situation will impact every department on campus. Anyone who manages anyone is leading their staff through the uncertainty of what’s to come. Anyone who serves students or faculty is now doing so in a context that would have seemed unfathomable even a month ago. We are all crisis managers now. The ability of the institution to adapt will require hundreds or even thousands of individuals to personally lead change, in short order and with varying levels of preparation and training.
This crisis will hit individuals both professionally and personally in new ways
All who keep our campuses running are worried not only about their college or university, but also about the health of their loved ones, and the ramifications of the crisis on society. There should be no doubt regarding the heightened stress this will create.
Support the mental health and well-being of students, faculty, and staff during COVID-19Read the insight
We mustn’t lose track of the mental well-being of those we serve across our campus communities. Additionally, we must acknowledge that unchecked stress can hamper objective judgment or lead to interpersonal tension at a moment when trust and collaboration matter most.
A widespread crisis means all institutions are struggling–right when partnerships matter most
During Hurricane Katrina, institutions across the country rallied to help Gulf Coast institutions, whether through opening their doors to displaced students or even providing financial support.
However, when every institution is facing the same challenges, we don’t have the same safety net as in natural disasters when those in impacted regions can be helped by those outside.
Additionally, the impact on every organization and industry has a cumulative effect on regions. Colleges and universities are interconnected with health care, local businesses, supply chains, and K12. Their challenges will become higher ed’s challenges. Many higher education institutions are already stepping up to support their regions, and we expect to see even greater collaboration across colleges and universities given the necessity of partnership to mutual survival in difficult times. The resiliency of our colleges and universities may be necessary for the resiliency of our regions.
Four immediate activities for quickly growing organizational resiliency
1. Convene leaders (virtually) around scenario-planning, not just contingency planning
Contingency and scenario planning are often mistaken for one another. Contingency planning involves preparing for specific incidents, events, or worst-case “what ifs.” What if there’s an earthquake, or a campus rally gets violent, or a sizable state budget cut? Tabletop exercises are a common way college and university leadership teams engage in contingency planning.
Plan for both the short- and long-term effects of COVID-19
Far less common in higher education are scenario planning sessions, which take a more expansive view. Rather than “what if X bad thing happens,” the focus is “what are 3-4 different plausible ways the future might unfold.” While contingency planning is useful to manage specific events and incidents, scenario planning is critical for more holistic planning when there’s a high degree of uncertainty, and where stakes are sufficiently high that strategy (not just operations) may need to shift.
Examining a range of alternate futures allows institutions to pressure-test current strategies: what assumptions are they based on? What risks did we overlook? What key indicators or warning signals do we need to monitor? Additionally, seeing what distinct scenarios have in common can provide guidance for what is likely to be true no matter what and therefore should be prioritized in planning.
Finally, scenario planning can be used to help a wide range of stakeholders understand the assumptions underlying key decisions, provide input on future direction, know what issues they should elevate, and prepare for future course-correction.
2. Over-communicate institutional values that remain constant in the face of change
Management scholars Chip and Dan Heath talk about change management in terms of the rider and the elephant. Even if you’ve convinced the rider (representing the rational mind) that a change is necessary, the rider is no match for the elephant steering its course (representing the emotional mind, or the amygdala, representing fear and the body’s stress response). This is true on an average day. With so much that we’ve taken for granted now disrupted, we should assume that our elephants are in overdrive. Change and further uncertainty can lead stakeholders to question their institutions: who are we? what do we stand for? what do these changes mean for me? Additionally, sudden physical dislocation may lead to a feeling of mental dislocation as individuals feel disconnected from the community.
Organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni tells the story of the individual who tells their spouse “you never tell me you love me,” and the spouse who replies, “I told you on our wedding day.” No matter how much you think something shouldn’t need to be said, it still does. Lencioni also likes to say that leaders are not communicating clearly enough until you can feel confident that your staff could mimic you delivering the message behind your back.
Crisis plans always include communications campaigns, but we suggest that you err on the side of over-communicating to reaffirm values in the face of change. In every single communication, what are the constants you want to reinforce in that message? How can you celebrate success stories each week to show that your institution is remaining true to its mission and values? Is there an existing or easy-to-create statement of “who we are and what we stand for” that could be distributed to individual teams to use for a remote discussion of what values matter to their work? What traditions should be maintained virtually to provide further grounding?
3. Solicit candid feedback to understand what’s outside the executive team’s line of sight
During periods of rapid and unpredictable shifts, we face a difficult tension: when do we stay the course vs. when do we shift gears? The difference between twists and turns feeling like a hamster wheel vs. an ultimate march toward progress will depend on how much an organization can learn along this way — including from its own mistakes. We’re on untrodden ground, where we have to act quickly with imperfect information. Misses are inevitable.
Sustaining trust and engagement among the campus community will require articulating how the institution is planning and constantly communicating values, as discussed above. It will also require leaders’ willingness to be vulnerable: to ensure staff are raising candid truths leaders need to know, not what they think leaders want to hear. In Leading in Times of Crisis: Navigating Through Complexity, Diversity and Uncertainty to Save Your Business, the authors discuss Winston Churchill’s four questions: “Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t my people know? Why wasn’t I told? Why didn’t I ask?” Examined with true vulnerability, these questions can be used for leaders to understand their blind spots.
Blind spots can be individual (we all have different perspectives and strengths), but they can also be organizational. Colleges and universities already feel beleaguered by the problem of silos. A crisis can play a bridging role as distributed leaders and teams must coalesce around urgent objectives. But crises can also exacerbate current silos as uncertainty lead staff to retreat to what they can control and is familiar. An extended and systemic crisis like COVID-19 also exacerbates what we’ve elsewhere described as the butterfly defect, or the challenge of interdependent systems, whereby a single action in one silo can have cross-functional ripple effects, either unforeseen or where those aware of the likely challenges feel helpless to avoid or mitigate them.
Leadership teams across industries often implement “after action reviews” or “postmortems,” but many typically do so after longer periods (i.e., six months), or when it’s clear something has gone wrong. In the U.S. Army’s brigade that prepares soldiers for combat, after-action reviews are deployed dozens of times at different levels in a single week, after each significant phase of action. These are not drawn-out procedures — they might be ten-minute huddles around the hood of a Humvee.
4. Help the campus envision bold, positive transformations
Colleges and universities were already facing existential threats to margin and mission. When they get a moment’s respite from the day-to-day firefighting, many leaders find themselves starting down the ultimate question: How do we ensure this isn’t the final blow to my institution?
Before the crisis, many college and university presidents confided that despite hours spent on strategic planning and reams of data, they worried their plans weren’t bold and imaginative enough for the challenges ahead. A common concern has been that action items originating from strategic plans could be summarized as “what we are doing now, slightly better” — fine in stable times, but not sufficient for the gravity of current challenges.
EAB's latest take on the COVID-19 crisis
Put another way, higher education’s problems were such that we could no longer “out-think” them, at least not with conventional ways of thinking. Over the last year, we’ve worked with over a thousand college and university leaders on harnessing the power of imagination to envision new, creative ways to enhance their missions. We’ve drawn lessons from organizations like Nike, Boeing, Ikea, Lowe’s, and the military. These organizations have all adopted surprisingly creative approaches to imagine possibilities they wouldn’t have otherwise. Higher education should be equally willing to think and act boldly.
This might seem like a luxury in our current state, where even highly urgent questions must be triaged. Leaders need to ensure they have the scenario-planning, communications, and feedback mechanisms in place to manage operations, people, and near-term strategy through the extended crisis. All of this will make their organizations more resilient and better able to fight the battles that lie ahead.
By the summer, true resiliency will require stakeholders to participate in more aspirational visioning. For now, make sure your leadership team spends at least 15 minutes every week reflecting on specific ways that your organization could come out stronger at the other end of this tunnel. Do this to help keep your leaders grounded in mission, and provide opportunities to spread more hopeful messages across the organization.