Friday, May 19, 2017

Solve Problems at the Lowest Level Possible

Problem solving is a daily task of a community college president.  Rarely are the problems solved in just one day.  The complexity of leading a multi-layered, multimillion dollar organization is a given. The growing accountability movement adds a pressure of constant monitoring and accountability. Consequently, the need to resolve problems and challenges in an effective and efficient manner is vital.

As the president I often think of myself as the "first among equals".  Certainly, the president has the responsibility to ensure that the organization is effective and efficient.  To be successful one needs a team.  That team needs to be empowered to resolve issues at the lowest level possible.  Managers within an organization need to know that they are expected to recognize problems and resolve them. They need to know that they are empowered to make those decisions and that they will get the support of their supervisors when solving those problems.

I reinforce this expectation as often as possible.  For example, students frequently e-mail me or contact me when they have concerns at the end of the semester pertaining to their grades.  Unless they have affirmed for me that they have first worked with the faculty member and/or department chair, I don't get involved, but rather send them back to the department.  I always explain to the student that the issues are best handled at the department level and that for the quickest possible review they need to begin with the department chair or dean depending upon who they have first talked with before e-mailing me.

Student concerns and issues are not the only way to reinforce the expectation of resolution at the lowest level possible.  I expect that individuals who see a problem on campus to report the problem to the person who can resolve the problem. Managers and leaders at all levels of the organization need to have the tools necessary to do their jobs and meet expectations.  This includes information as well as tangible resources.  Often these individuals see problems that people at the executive level of the organization can not see or know about.

In addition to reinforcing the expectation of resolving problems at the lowest level possible, one needs to recognize individuals who do resolve problems.  Problem solving skills are crucial in the workplace.  Consequently, I believe it is important to assess a candidates problem solving skills when looking to hire for positions on campus.  Problem solving as a skill is transferable.  It is also a skill that we must instill in our students.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


As a young person growing up in the Midwest, my mother would frequently remind me that "my sins would find me out".  My mother had a strong sense of right and wrong.  She also instilled in me that I should listen to those in authority in my life.  Her message was for those times when I might consider breaking a rule or ignoring those in authority in my life.  Ultimately, my mother instilled in me a sense of accountability.

As a community college president accountability is a concept that is ever present. Accountability is also ever present for the community college as an institution as well.  In an article, "The Changing Face of Accountability" published in 2000 in the Journal of Higher Education, the author referenced that during the past decade the nature of the relationship between higher education and government had changed.  In short, government is calling for more accountability for higher education. Fast forward over fifteen years later to today and the relationship of the government to higher education is still one of skeptism over the self-regulating, peer-review of accreditation. Consequently, the calls for higher education accountability continue and the debates rage over how to achieve that accountability.  Yet the accountability that I'm speaking of for me as an individual is still dependent upon self-regulation.  While I'm accountable to a governing board, self-regulation is the best way to ensure I remain true to my principle of accountability.

My second expectation for executive leaders is "to be accountable and make accountable".  While I've introduced this reflection based upon the idea of being accountable, the other side of that coin is the "make accountable".  Holding individuals within an organization accountable is not as easy as it might seem.

I begin by making sure that I articulate my expectations.  Those expectations include:

1.  Think at a level above the level you manage
2.  Be accountable and make accountable
3. Solve problems at the lowest level possible
4. Know and follow policy and administrative rules
5. Be competent with data
6. Communicate first, factual, frequently
7. Be professional and encourage professionalism
8. Be visible
9. Be a cheerleader

Beyond these broad expectations I try to be clear about more concrete expectations such as deadlines.  By knowing my expectations up front, leaders know how to proceed day to day in order to accomplish the goals of the organization and how to operate within the framework in which I want them to conduct business.  Creating accountability and holding others accountable creates transparency and predictability.  Just like sports have rules for playing the game, so must executive leaders know the rules under which I will engage with them and they should engage their employees.  

The above expectation number four, "Know and follow policy and administrative rules" also provides a context for making others accountable.  While this expectation will be discussed in greater length in a future post, it is still a framework in which to hold employees accountable.  

Accountability also comes when an organization has a clear strategic plan that is not only strategic, by measurable, realistic, and time bound.  Measuring productivity and benchmarking against goals and peers also produces accountability through establishing clear expectations.  

Ultimately, as a leader I must model accountability to ensure other leaders within the institution see accountability, are made accountable, and in turn make others accountable. Beyond modeling one must articulate expectations, have a clear vision that is measurable, and know the rules of engagement to ensure accountability throughout the organization.  

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Thinking Above

As a youngster growing up my father would always share his words of wisdom in the form of pity phrases. For example, he would frequently say to me, "Anything worth doing is worth doing right."  Certainly he was instilling in me his values and guiding me to be the adult he thought I should be.  Another thing my father would say to me is "think ahead".  He was trying to help me see the value of anticipating.  Similarly, a quote from Wayne Gretzky about his success is that he would "skate to where the puck is going not where it has been," also illustrates the power of anticipation. 

Playing off that theme is a leadership expectation I often share with my executive leadership team.  "Think at least one level above the level you manage."  This expectation is about anticipation, but it is even more about perspective.  As a leader it is important that one keep in mind the context in which they are leading.  Perspective is gained when one steps back, observes, reflects, and then upon drawing conclusions testing those conclusions to see if they are relevant and realistic.  

I find myself asking questions to help me "think at least one level above the level I manage".  I ask things like:

1. How might my supervisor see this?
2. How does this situation relate to similar situations across the campus?
3. How would I talk about this to outsiders?

While these are not hard and fast questions, they suggest a strategy for stepping back and reflecting. Questions often allow the opportunity to help one see a situation from another person's perspective.  Sometimes situations and circumstances push buttons that draw us in deeper to situations.  Often moving closer and closer to situation does not help us to be objective.  Moving closer can also trigger emotions that are not helpful.  Consequently, stepping back and asking questions allows for a more careful, objective examination of the situation leading to solutions that might not be obvious.  

Observation can be a helpful technique to "thinking at least one level above the level you manage." Take time to observe leaders at higher levels.  Ask yourself what you might do if you were in their situation.  Think about what strategies and characteristics you are observing that you might want to incorporate into your own leadership style.  My father always said that, "Wise men (and women) learn from others' mistakes; fools from their own."  His frequent quotation taught me to observe and learn from what I observed.  Learning from others has resulted in a quest for life-long learning with the goal of getting better at being a leader.  

One might ask, "How do you think one level above the level you manage when you are a president?" Perhaps it implies that a president has reached the "top".  Perhaps it implies that a level above a president is less easily defined.  Certainly as a president of a higher education institution I still have to answer to a governing board, a state government who allocates money, voters who allocate bonds and mill levy and a chancellor of a system.  Consequently, I find myself thinking about what these various stakeholders would expect of me and what they might expect when I have to address various situations.  

As you consider leadership at any level, reminder to "think one level above the level you manage."  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Building Leadership Through Articulating Expectations: Introduction

In the higher education sector it is common for someone at one level, who has been very successful in a job that is solely dependent upon individual success, to be promoted to the next level in an administrative job that requires a team to be successful.  Individual success does not mean that the individual is able to lead a team.  This doesn't mean that someone who is successful in work that is solely dependent upon them self should not be promoted to work that requires a team.  What this does mean is that leaders within the higher education sector might want to consider whether or not promoting someone without some form of assessment of or professional development related to building a team and cultivating team work is a practice that should be continued.

As you might expect, I'm suggesting that higher education institutions should consider assessing an individual's competency around building, leading, and assessing team prior to promoting them.  I'm also suggesting that higher education institutions should be very intentional in providing professional development when promoting people within the organization.  Last, higher educational institutions should also consider how they on-board leaders within the organization to ensure they are cultivating the culture they wish to have at the institution.  All of these consideration requirement prior thought about culture and expectations.

My expectations for leaders at the department and division level have been formed over time. These expectations have been formed from my own experiences when serving at those levels and from experiences supervising those who served at those levels.  These expectations have been formed within institutions that had a culture that I wanted to encourage and at institutions with a culture that I wanted to transform.

Most of these expectations are principles that can be applied at any level of the organization and most likely can be applied both within and outside of the higher education sector.  Let me share with you my expectations.

1.  Think at a level above the level you manage.
2.  Be accountable and make accountable.
3. Solve problems at the lowest level possible.
4. Know and follow policy and administrative rules.
5. Be competent with data.
6. Communicate first, factual, frequently.
7. Be professional and encourage professionalism
8. Be visible.
9. Be a cheerleader.

The next several posts will explore in more depth what each of these expectations look like when successfully practiced.

Friday, March 24, 2017

WELCOME to Campus

Have you ever visited someones house and FELT unwelcome? Have you ever walked into a room and FELT tension?  If so, you will be able to empathize with some of our students.  How so, you ask?
One of the most amazing aspects of the United States is our diversity.  I attended a fundraising lunch a couple of weeks ago and diversity was clearly exhibited at our table.  I sat next to a biology professor who was here on a HB1 visa and teaching at a university.  Two women sitting at the table were a couple recently married.  The heterosexual couple shared with us that they would be celebrating 30 years of marriage in the next month.  Many ages were represented at the table.  I suspect had the luncheon continued for another hour I would have learned about their diverse political and religious views and perhaps even more.  The conversations were rich because the people were diverse.  I left the luncheon very uplifted and entertained.

Dona Ana Community College's student body is very diverse.  That diversity includes a whole range of differences.  What is very important to me is that everyone feels "at home" at DACC.  I believe it is important to create a comfortable, stimulating environment at the college in which students are able to learn.  That goal is not just a goal for the classroom, but for the entire campus - or in our case - all of our campuses and learning centers.

I find myself asking the question, "How can we ensure we have a comfortable, inviting environment for all students?"

I suspect we engage in a variety of activities, similar to many institutions of higher education, with the goal of creating a safe, comfortable environment for students.  Our faculty and staff engage in a variety of professional development opportunities that focus on a respect of diversity.  We think intentionally about creating spaces on campus for students to "hang out" and engage in conversations with friends and colleagues, get basic needs met, and connect their devices.  We think intentionally about signage and "way finding" to help friends, family and guests find needed services, offices, and people.  There is also much more we do to try to be "student-oriented".

Additionally, every couple of years we administer a student satisfaction survey to ask students about their experience on campus.  We use the data to identify areas of high importance to our students where they are both very satisfied and areas where they are not very satisfied.  We target the areas that need improvement and begin to research best practices in order to improve.  This continual improvement process is important to me.  No matter how intentional we are about helping our students feel comfortable on campus, without their feedback we have no way of knowing whether or not we are hitting our goal.

So next time you are asked to take a survey at the college, remember how important your input and feedback is to us.  Your ratings and comments help us continue to make you and all our students feel at home.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why History Matters

Monday I had the opportunity to interview a former DACC president for our library archives.  I had the opportunity to interview the first DACC president during the dedication of a building we named in his honor.   Click here to see that interview.  My goal is to interview all former DACC presidents while they are alive to try to capture their reflections about their presidency.  Why?

First, as someone who has studied history I enjoy history and in particular I enjoy oral history. Second, I believe it is important for leaders at an institution to know about and understand its history. It is important to understand an institution's mission in order to understand an institution's mission. As an institution of higher education DACC maintains archives in our library that include important documents the institution must keep and wants to keep.  Some of these documents are necessary and others are wonderful artifacts that maintain information about some of the important events that shaped our current situation. These oral history interviews will be included in the archives and also housed on the institution's YouTube site.

Let me share with you just a little about what I have learned so far.  Both interviews have provided insights into our relationship with New Mexico State University.  For many of us who come to work at the college, the relationship makes sense. However, for many people outside of New Mexico and outside of both institutions the relationship seems odd.  However, both oral histories gave insight about how the "branch" came to exist.  The community college was established out of New Mexico State University to serve a very specific population for very specific careers in criminal justice, secretarial careers and nursing.  Career and Technical education is DACC's foundation.  There have been times when I have tried to move an initiative forward and had to work with a department at NMSU.  In working with that department a certain procedure was applied.  While in the moment I wondered about how the procedure came to be - the history of the relationship between DACC and NMSU helps explain the context in which the procedure came to be.

The interviews also illuminate how the community college evolved into the buildings and locations we occupy.  It is interesting how so often opportunities were seized and as a result our locations grew to include seven different locations.  The three locations in the city of Las Cruces evolved because new programs needed new spaced.  Our locations in Hatch (click here to see the ground breaking) and the south county evolved because we served the population through adult basic education and high school completion programs.

Edmund Burke once said, "Those that don't know history are doomed to repeat it."  I believe that those who don't know the history of an institution are apt to run afoul.  How institutions evolve is important for understanding the culture of an institution.  The culture, often hidden, is the fabric that keeps the institution wrapped together.  As a leader of an institution it is important to understand the culture and how it evolved, particularly when trying to initiate change or enhance what is working.

Have you ever wondered about the person whose name is on a building?  Have you ever wondered about the person depicted in statue?  Have you ever wondered why an institution is organized the way it is organized?  If not, I challenge you to think about how an institution evolved into what it is today. I suspect you will find many unique stories and people.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Power of Hope

Last Saturday we hosted 250 or more 6th grade girls on campus for a 4 hour event called "Girls Can". The event is planned and organized by the local chapter of the American Associate of University Women.  The purpose is to encourage girls to think about careers in STEM fields and to realize that many careers and opportunities are available to them.  Simultaneously AAUW hosts the family members of these girls to share information about how to begin preparing for college in middle school and what to expect from "adolescence".

The event is particularly important to me.  Sharing with 6th graders and their parents about what opportunities exist is very important.  I believe if a middle and high school student has a goal - a big goal, a career goal - if you will, they are more likely to stay in school and graduate with their high school diploma.  Certainly these are prospective students for us in the future.  But more idealistically, these young ladies have the potential to fill important jobs in our workforce.  Among them could be the next governor of New Mexico or the nurse who takes care of a family member.

A knowledgeable king once said, "Without a vision the people will perish".  I believe that hope is a powerful thing.  I also believe that by helping our young people see a range of possible careers that they may begin to dream and believe.