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4 Unique Leadership Challenges Posed by the Pandemic

Episode 3

April 14, 2020 25 minutes


EAB’s Senior Vice President of Research Dr. Melanie Ho joins another EAB researcher, Michael Fischer, who works closely with finance and administration leaders across higher ed. Melanie and Michael talk about the leadership challenge faced by college presidents and other senior leaders as they grapple with the impacts of the coronavirus.

While higher ed administrators are no strangers to crisis leadership, Melanie and Michael discuss why this crisis is different. Because it is long-term, systemic, widespread, and personal, it requires what they call organizational resiliency.


00:16 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish and this is Office Hours, a weekly podcast from the leader in research, technology, and services for education. The past few weeks, we’ve spent our time talking to many of the leaders from the more than 1,700 different colleges and universities that we work with at EAB. So our first few episodes of Office Hours, they highlighted our research on the challenges, the concerns, the decisions those leaders were confronting in responding to COVID-19. Now as we’re all monitoring what we hope is that the peak of COVID cases in New York, those same leaders are coming to grips with the fact that this is not gonna be over soon.

00:55 MP: This is not a quick one-time crisis, but this is gonna last through the summer, into the fall, maybe even into the spring semester in 2021. They’re asking themselves, “How do I lead my institution through an extended crisis?” In this week’s episode, my friend and researcher Michael Fischer, is back with us, joined by EAB’s Senior Vice President, Research’s Melanie Ho. They’re gonna talk about why COVID-19 is a different kind of crisis that higher ed has ever encountered before, what it means to be an inspirational leader, how video is playing this new role in leadership. And they unpack a word being thrown around a whole lot these days, “resilience.” Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:46 Michael Fischer: Streaming from pleasant Hyattsville, Maryland, my name is Michael Fischer, and I’m a researcher at EAB. I’m pleased to be joined today with one of my senior research colleagues, Melanie Ho. Melanie, how are you doing today?

02:01 Melanie Ho: I’m good, just sitting here at my kitchen counter with my two cats napping behind me.

02:06 MF: Now, Melanie, I’ve been on a number of virtual calls with you recently, and I have to ask, you have some of the best virtual backgrounds that I have seen amongst a variety of people. Any advice for those out there who are looking to spice up their background game.

02:22 MH: So I’ve gotten a little bit obsessed with virtual backgrounds. You can find a fair number of them online. Pixar, for example, has uploaded a fair amount. And sometimes I’ll start a meeting with a Pixar background and have people guess what it is. But it’s actually easy that you create your own virtual background. You can pretty much use any photograph you already have, you can use photos that you find online. I pick my favorite vacation spots or even places I haven’t been, wonderful landmarks or museums around the world. And one thing I’ve started doing is, for different meetings, thinking about a background that will be meaningful for somebody in that meeting, maybe a team member who loves Disneyland, for example. So I did a background in the Disneyland for her or scenes from folk’s favorite TV shows.

03:05 MF: Well, that seems like a very proactive and leadership way to approach things, which nicely segues into the reason that we’ve come together today, to discuss leadership as it relates to higher education and the coronavirus crisis that’s taking place. Melanie, let me ask an opening question to you to start off our conversation. I know that you’ve had the chance to speak to a lot of leaders in higher education recently, presidents, provosts, chief business officers, members of boards. What is it about this crisis that seems to be so more challenging or different than other crises that higher education has had to deal with in the past?

03:50 MH: Yeah, it’s an interesting question because when you talk to university presidents, or provosts under normal circumstances, if there is such a thing, and ask them how they would prepare the next generation of leaders, what they always say is that when folks enter leadership positions in higher education, often they’re caught off guard a little bit, by the extent to which the job is always a crisis management job. There’s kind of always constant firefighting, and things coming up. And so, higher education leaders for a long time, have had to behave as crisis managers even in steady state. I think what’s different here comes down to four main things. And that’s so, first, and we can talk more about any of them in more detail, but this is an extended crisis. Folks are more accustomed to crises that last days or maybe weeks but not really that lasts months in the way that this situation is unfolding.

04:44 MH: Second, it’s a more systemic crisis. So I think about… Usually when we talk to university and college leaders in the midst of a crisis, there are a few members of the senior-most executive team, there are a few folks in chief functional areas, who are dealing with the crisis but most of the campus can kind of operate as it is. This is a crisis that’s hitting every single department and every single level and person in the organization. I think the third is, it’s a very personal crisis, and just thinking about the human costs and implications outside of work. In a typical crisis in a college or university, leaders may be dealing with something from 9 to 6, they may still have to go home and answer an emergency call or deal with social media, however, when they get into their personal life, they can kinda turn it off. And this is just something that’s impacting all of us down to just all of the day-to-day things we take for granted.

05:40 MH: And then finally, this is a widespread crisis. Every single institution is impacted here. So if we think about how colleges and universities have been able to respond effectively to crises in the past, think about Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast institutions really benefited from colleges, universities across the country helping. And at this moment, that’s a bit harder when everybody is going through the same thing.

06:05 MF: No, that sense of this crisis being unending, overwhelming, all pervasive, all-encompassing, it’s exhausting and I think I’ve seen both in higher education and across society, sort of this feeling of endless despair and anxiety that comes out of that. And one of the important things that leaders are supposed to do is provide hope and encouragement and a positive vision for the future that people can lean into in order to get through a crisis but when the leaders can’t even see when that end post is and what it will look like, I can imagine it is so challenging then to try to transmit that vision to the people looking to that leader for inspiration.

06:49 MH: Exactly, I’d be curious Michael from your perspective, I think when COVID-19 first hit, you were really ahead of the curve, you were kind of our advanced research team getting deep into the issues, probably two or three weeks before it became so clearly something that as EAB, we were going to pivot all of our researchers towards. What’s it been like for you having been with this issue since kind of pre, at the very beginning?

07:17 MF: I think there’s been some whiplash. There was a sense that this was going to be a localized crisis first in China and East Asia, that if it came to the United States, it was going to be a minimal, like some of the other epidemics, that we’ve had in the past sort of located to geographic regions. And then there was a moment where the tide broke, I think about, around the midpoint of March when the schools, institutions around the Seattle area, were gonna shift online in the next 72 hours or so. So many institutions were making so many rapid decisions, and having so many questions that if you blinked, suddenly the issues had changed, the statements had changed the needs of everybody involved had rapidly evolved and so there was this sense of just trying to tread water to keep up with all that was taking place and all the new information that was coming out. Also trying to proactively get ahead and provide our partners advice on what they should do given all these changing circumstances.

08:28 MH: Treading water is a great metaphor. I think it recaptures the feeling that people are having, where it’s almost hard to process what’s going on, because just staying afloat is so important.

08:43 MF: Yeah, yeah, and I think that we’ve also seen people having to the lead who maybe haven’t had as much leadership roles in the past. So, obviously there are our presidents, our Provosts, our CBOs, who are making these tough decisions. But the nature of this crisis required people in the medical profession and health officials on campus to take really prominent roles in providing leadership and guidance. Or when it came to making decisions around students leaving campus or moving away, our officials from Student Affairs were having to step into the limelight in a way that maybe wasn’t as common on their campus before. And so I wonder, have you seen in your experience as you’ve been looking out on campuses and talking to various partners, this sort of shift in who’s being asked to step up to the plate when it comes to providing leadership for campus?

09:39 MH: Yeah, I think it might be a shift in how people have to think about leadership at all levels, that when… In a lot of different areas across the campus, when somebody first becomes a manager, there’s a much more clear charge with, “Okay, here are the things that you and your team need to accomplish.” And the manager’s goal is to successfully direct their team towards those activities and of course, to engage their staff and help them through it. But it’s much more clear cut. At the senior-most levels, when we talk to provosts, presidents, chief business officers they’re actually dealing a lot more with ambiguity, because they’re dealing with a longer timeframe, they’re trying to figure out how to steer their institution not just that year, but the three years, the five years and the beyond.

10:28 MH: Now, what we’re seeing is that leaders at every level are helping their teams through ambiguity and that includes a real change, I think, in mindset in terms of what leadership is, that it isn’t having the answers, necessarily, because nobody has the answers. That it is more about enforcing consistent values, of bringing calm through ambiguity, of marshalling the collective wisdom and intelligence and talent and skills of folks across the org. But I think it is very different, what’s needed in a time like this.

11:07 MF: Melanie, I think that’s a really interesting point around the idea that there are different types of leaders in different layers of leadership. I know that since I was young in elementary school, teachers and coaches would say how important it is to develop my leadership skills. That, if I wanted to be really effective in life, I would grow up to be a leader. But it’s hard to imagine an organization being successful, if everybody is acting like the CEO or the president of a company, so there must be different ways that that leadership can manifest itself in people’s day-to-day lives. What do you make of that? Are you seeing different forms of leadership taking place on our campuses?

11:52 MH: Yeah, I think we’re just, even before the crisis, have been seeing a shift in how people think about leadership. I was recently at a conference put on by Patrick Lencioni; he’s a well-known management thinker and writer, and consultant. A lot of folks may be most familiar with his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And the conference, the theme of it was actually organizational health, and I think that’s very much a difference from how… We talked earlier about some of the conceptions of leadership that people have from childhood and there can be the perception of the leader as the person kind of at the podium who is delivering wisdom and then direction to the organization.

12:39 MH: These perspectives of shifting to organizational health or I like the word organizational resiliency because it’s not about the single person with the direction, it’s about thinking through all of the talented experience and expertise across any type of organization, large or small and how are all of us leaders in that meeting. We’re figuring out how to actualize our own potential for the organization, but we’re also doing what we can to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that the organization can work effectively.

13:18 MF: That word resiliency, it’s sort of a buzzword and I think it means different things in different contexts. When you’re talking about organizational resiliency, how are you defining that?

13:31 MH: I think the simplest definition I’ve heard that I like a lot is that it’s the blend between focus and adaptability, that on the one hand, an organization has to be nimble. It has to be able to adapt to whatever comes. At the same time, you can’t be kind of flapping in the winds all the time. There also needs to be some kind of focus and that resiliency is finding that sweet spot of when do you stay the course versus when do you need to shift gears.

14:04 MF: That’s interesting. So I think in some sense, resiliency often refers to the ability for a group or a person to sort of bounce back or weather a crisis, but the way that I’m hearing this from you it’s less about the reactiveness of a leader to a circumstance, but their proactiveness, how they’re focused on both changing and thinking ahead, but also maintaining that vision of where they want the institution, the team, the organization as a whole to get to regardless of the circumstances that are influx around them.

14:46 MH: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. It’s having that clear vision, but also having vulnerability with it. A vulnerability to know when are we making mistakes, where there are blind spots, when… I think that’s what some of the proactiveness and resiliency is about. It’s the admitting we don’t always have the right answer or that we didn’t make always the right decisions with the information that we had, and how do we go back and learn from that. There have been a number of really interesting leadership books across the past few years. Radical Candor, for example, is one of them that again, emphasize this idea that leaders shouldn’t be afraid of being wrong or of making a mistake or of seeming vulnerable to your communities, that it is more about being able to really look at yourself and look at the organization and just constantly reassess how it needs to shift.

15:46 MF: I think that one thing that I’ve seen in the midst of this particular crisis with COVID-19 that’s really helped put a human face on leaders across institutions quite literally has been the use of video communication, whether that’s livestreams, pre-recorded videos, etcetera, that really show a president being forced to be sheltering at home, but sending a message to the campus community saying that we’re still working on these issues, we’re trying our best to make sure that everybody is taken care of. Are there other ways that you’ve seen leaders in the last couple of weeks try to put forward that vulnerability?

16:30 MH: I do love the video chats or the video messages because they’re not produced in a way that normally our folks are able to produce their video messages. So you actually have people on their mobile phones in their homes, in their lived environments. I think that another thing I’ve been heartened to see in recent weeks is the emphasis on mental health and wellness and this is an area I’m really passionate about. And I think that in organizations, sometimes it’s tough to know how to talk about mental health and wellness and often, there’s been a stigma around it. And I think a moment like this where it’s clear that the challenges here, people are tackling on a very personal level not just as far as work, that more colleges, universities, all kinds of organizations, companies are realizing the importance of actually not seeing mental health and wellness as something we can’t talk about, that this actually needs to be front and center.

17:30 MF: Yeah, yeah, in fact, I recently heard from one of our EAB partners in Europe that said that they think of wellness as being broader than just physical and mental health, but they actually incorporate things like student success and career outcomes as part of that wellness idea because that’s… People are holistic beings that consist of multi-faceted components that all play in with each other and if we focus too narrowly on either their success in a career in one place and their mental health in another place and don’t see those as integrating with each other and interacting with each other, we’re not truly serving either the student, the staff member, the faculty member, the alumni in the best way that we could.

18:20 MH: I love it. I think this is a moment where that’s coming to light in ways that were always true, but now people are having to confront it. It’s always been true, for example, that academic success can be influenced by so many non-academic factors, and yet I think we’ve long had folks at the frontlines of student success issues trying to get everybody to listen to them on that. Now that’s very clear.

18:48 MF: Yeah, yeah, ranging from staff members who are having to take care of young children at their homes, or students having to go back and be with their parents who maybe don’t have access to reliable internet to be able to do their studies. All those types of things are now playing out in a way that… In the past, campus kind of existed in a bubble, and some of those other additional factors that play into our students’ and our staff’s well-being were able to be brushed aside in a way that’s no longer the case.

19:25 MH: Yeah, it’s hard to compartmentalize in a crisis of this type.

19:30 MF: So coming back to the idea of leadership in this crisis then, and we spoke a little bit about presenting that vulnerability via video messaging. One of the key things that leaders have to do during a crisis is communicate in videos, one of the newer ways that fits well into this self-isolating, digital environment. What else have you seen in talking with leaders out on campus, about ways they’re finding to effectively communicate in both a transparent way, speaking to that vulnerability, but also in an authoritative way about the efforts that they’re doing to keep campus safe and keep the institution moving forward?

20:13 MH: I think a lot of it comes down to what do people need to know on different levels, and one of the things people need to know, of course, it’s the information that gets down to the practical facts of what’s going on with the campus. And thinking about, what are the FAQs that an institution needs to respond to. But what people need isn’t just information, it’s also comfort. It’s getting a sense of, amidst all of this change and uncertainty, what can we rely on? What does the institution still stand for? What is our institution committed to won’t change.

20:49 MF: And one thing that I’ve seen, some institutions struggle to find the balance with, is the voice of the institution versus the voice of the individual leader. So what messages sort of come from the faceless organization versus come directly from a personality, from a person that you may or may not have interacted with on campus? It seems like you can’t rely too heavily on one or the other, you do want the institution to take stances that are attributed to the collective, as opposed to an individual leader, but you also want people to feel like they have a connection to some of those more sensitive or challenging messages that are coming forward from an individual person.

21:32 MH: Exactly, and I think it’s important for organizations to think about how there’s not an either/or, that there’s no such thing as over-communicating when it comes to challenging messages. I mentioned the organizational health conference that I attended, and Patrick Lencioni, at that, the leader of the conference talked about the story of the individual who tells their spouse, “You never tell me you love me,” and the spouse replies, “Well, I told you on your wedding day.” And I think that’s just such a great example, it really hits home. No matter how much you think something doesn’t need to be said because it’s already been said once, twice, three times, it still needs to be said.

22:08 MH: Lencioni also says that as a leader, if you’re doing your job right, in terms of communicating the right messages, then your staff would actually start mimicking you behind your back, delivering those messages [chuckle] because that’s how often you’re doing it. And I think people are afraid to do that, “Are we communicating too much? Are we communicating too much?” Actually, there’s no such thing. I think of it as, these are hard times, and let’s say there’s somebody on the team who is facing a moment of, how are they gonna get through that? It’s difficult. You want your voice, that vision, to enter their mind in that moment, and the best way to do that is repetition.

22:51 MF: Yeah, yeah, and I think I’ve seen, as well, institutions trying to habitualize that by creating things like message archives, or making sure a message is being promoted on all the social media channels, via email, via video, via text message, whatever the case, using all the different mechanisms they have in place, to reiterate a single message around some of those important ones. So, people not only get that repetition, but depending on how they best take in information, or where they feel most comfortable, they’re getting that message in a slightly different way, with slightly different context, slightly different form.

23:30 MH: Exactly, it’s meeting our constituents where they are, and then realizing that many of them are in multiple places, and it’s okay if they see the same message multiple times.

23:39 MF: Well, speaking of repetition, this will not be the last time that we have a conversation around leadership in higher education. Next week, Melanie and I will come back together and discuss some of the specific things that leaders are doing and developing in the midst of a crisis like this. Until then, Melanie, thank you for joining me today.

24:02 MH: Thanks Michael, looking forward to the discussion.

24:10 MP: Thanks for listening to Office Hours. Join us for next week’s episode, part two of Melanie and Michael’s discussion of what sets great leaders apart during an extended crisis. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish for EAB.

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