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Building a Courageous Culture

November 18, 2016

By Karla Hignite

Building an organizational culture that is inclusive and respectful is no easy feat. For most colleges and universities, this remains a work in progress. The University of Arizona has taken a number of important steps to develop an intellectually vibrant community that invites self-reflection and honest dialogue. In this interview, Allison Vaillancourt (vaillana@email.arizona.edu), vice president of business affairs and human resources, discusses what has been helpful for her institution to nurture a community of consensus around shared goals and expectations, including treating one another with kindness and respect.

How would you characterize the work that the University of Arizona is doing to transform and strengthen its organizational culture?

As leaders we need the courage to consider new structures and new ways to pursue effectiveness. Tackling organizational culture in an academic setting where we have multiple cultures is a particular challenge. How do we get a critical mass of people across many disciplines and professional areas to move in the same direction? I don't think any institution has it completely figured out. On some level, it is a process that we simply have to begin so we can start moving forward, seeing what works and what doesn't.

As an example, many institutions today are moving toward more interdisciplinary research, but we can't simply announce a plan to do so. We need to first build a foundation in which our culture is collaborative and inclusive. Part of how we're trying to move in this direction at UA is to bolster our leadership quality so that leaders can serve as cultural exemplars for others throughout the university.

Specifically, what are you doing to improve leadership quality?

The most visible way in which we are pursuing this is through our Academic Leadership Institute, which we launched seven years ago. We initially developed this program because several leadership candidates hired through national searches were having trouble adjusting to our culture, and we struggled to identify competitive internal candidates for leadership roles. Our president and provost asked us to create a program to grow internal talent so that we could look to both inside and outside candidates for future leadership roles. Our goal was to fill roles more easily and experience less churn and fewer painful leadership transitions.

We now have more than 150 individuals who have completed this program, and they are consistently recognized for employing progressive leadership practices and approaches. Because the institute uses multiple assessment tools, participants grow more comfortable with assessment and feedback and actively seek it once they have completed the program. This commitment to continuous assessment keeps them growing and improving because they are more open to a culture of assessment and inviting feedback about how to run the organization.

Is this succession planning effort also aimed at transforming your organizational culture?

Succession planning in higher education is a fascinating challenge. In the corporate world, there is more intentional thought given to who will replace someone when a senior leader leaves. In higher education, the expectation for a competitive process typically keeps us from grooming specific people for particular roles. What we can do a better job of is to say we are going to prepare individuals to be competitive when an opening becomes available, and this has been the focus of our approach. It is also true that as part of the preparation, we want to equip our leaders to be agents of change, including organizational change.

What other efforts are underway to bolster leadership quality throughout the institution?

While our approach to laying the groundwork for culture change has been to start with leaders, who do have the greatest opportunity to set expectations, it's important to note that we don't have to start with senior leadership. Our Management Action Program, designed for middle managers, places heavy emphasis on how to have honest conversations with employees and how to hire the right people and hold them accountable. We also have a one-day program for those new to management and supervision called "Managing the UA (University of Arizona) Way" that lays out expectations and standards for leadership roles. Those expectations include treating everyone with respect and holding others to high standards as well. We also have a seminar series for new academic department heads to come together to discuss how to create high-performing and collaborative cultures.

More informally, we have a leadership and innovation reading group. This is a monthly book club that the dean of our College of Engineering and I started about four years ago. We select books related to trends in higher education, leadership principles, decision making, and organizational culture, and we discuss how those apply to UA specifically. This has been hugely successful, with almost 100 individuals on our mailing list, including all our deans and all VPs. Our gatherings to discuss the book may yield only about 15 to 20 individuals on average, but that probably isn't too bad given the busy and often conflicting schedules of senior leaders. The discussions are meaningful and substantive, and the group is considered a safe space where we can freely discuss issues and challenges. It provides a reflective check on how we are doing as an institution and as a community of leaders. At every level, providing a professional network of like-minded individuals can be inspiring and help establish a community of support as we help each other solve problems and ask tough questions.

What has been the catalyst for trying to enhance collaboration and collegiality at your institution?

For us, it began with a conversation. We asked what UA would look like if we were the most inclusive research university in the United States. What we have said for years is that people are our competitive advantage, so we need to pay greater attention to how we interact with one another.

One of our recurring conversations is about how to build a stronger sense of community and how to be more courageous. We know that, as a sector, we are sometimes risk averse. And while we don't want to be reckless at UA, we acknowledge the importance of taking appropriate risks and balancing the tension between too much and too little risk. All this is pertinent to how we make decisions as individual leaders and as an institution. Are we paralyzed? Why are we procrastinating? At what point do we have enough data to make a decision? At what point have we waited too long and the opportunity has passed? Trusting one another and engaging in regular conversation helps us move forward more quickly.

How does this work to build a more inclusive and collaborative culture present itself in day-to-day interactions with students?

Some of the unrest that has emerged on various campuses across the country during the past several years prompted our faculty senate to recruit several faculty members for a listening tour with a variety of student groups. Many faculty reported hearing surprising stories and deepening their understanding about life for varied student populations on our campuses.

As one example, many faculty were unaware of the segment of our student population who experience food insecurity. Some were also not aware about in-class bullying that can happen when "flipped classrooms" rely on small-group conversations. And, a number of faculty were unaware about the concerns of some students related to teaching materials that they felt were culturally or religiously insensitive. All this gave rise to a request for cultural competency education for our faculty and content advisories before presenting certain material. We are currently engaged in a universitywide conversation about how to be responsive to these requests.

What outcomes can you point to as evidence of this greater focus on collaboration and inclusion?

Across the board, I think we are becoming more in tune with how we are treating each other and with the need to improve how we engage one another. And as we shift our collective mindset to acknowledge that treating people respectfully is not only a nice thing to do but is also a strategic thing to do, people are also feeling empowered to speak up when they have a concern about how others are interacting with them. The way we engage with others is now something that comes up frequently in performance conversations. We expect our people to be high performers and treat others well. Technical expertise or results don't give folks a pass on civility.

You mentioned performance management. How does UA's organizational culture shift affect employee feedback and compensation practices?

Performance management is another area where we are making strides to change our culture. This past spring we launched a new performance assessment approach that follows a more narrative model. What we call "Career Conversations" don't use a traditional rating scale. In fact, this is a no-ratings assessment where the focus is on having conversations about how to be more effective and future-focused, with questions about accomplishments, strengths, and goals, including what employees want to do more or less of, or start, stop, or change to be more effective.

This kind of approach can be tricky for those trying to evaluate performance to inform salary adjustments. My personal dream is to move toward a market-based compensation system where we pay everyone according to market-based rates and say that if you are doing good work, you get to stay at UA and continue doing that good work. If you aren't, you don't. That's a radical concept for many organizations and not a philosophy that will work in all settings. We'll see what progress we can make in this area.

The process of rolling out our new approach requires first being clear about professional expectations, and then providing feedback that aligns with how well individuals are doing against those standards. So far this has been an amazing experience. When employees aren't worried about being scored, the conversations are more honest and productive. Supervisors and employees report having conversations about what may be holding someone back, what is necessary to advance, and concrete advice about how to succeed in the future.

In what other ways is your focus on transforming organizational culture becoming formalized?

Some organizations and institutions have codes of ethics or codes of collegiality that offer expectations for how to engage one another, among other behaviors. At UA, we have started conversations about codifying our professional expectations. This has been controversial in some respects and is actually pretty difficult to do. Currently, our faculty senate leadership is working to define quality scholarship and scholarly teaching such that we can say this is what we expect from every faculty member. Conversations about other professional expectations are a natural extension of this work.

Our hope is that the work done by our faculty senate officers will trickle down and out to all levels of leadership throughout the institution. The end goal is not a list of what individuals can or can't do, but an understanding and shared commitment for what we stand for and promise in terms of relating to one another, whether that is among faculty, between faculty and students, or faculty and administration, and so forth.

Our thought is to let faculty grapple with this first and let them lead the conversation, since, in reality, faculty represent probably the most difficult hurdle for achieving consensus on this front because of commitments to academic freedom. A success here would bode well for expanding the conversation to other groups across the institution. Regardless of the approach we take, the goal is to use those honest conversations to inform standards on which all can agree and to reach some consensus about how we all should behave.

What other benefits accrue to an institution where there is a strong focus on inclusion and collaboration?

The truth is, it can be expensive to remain within a constant state of conflict between or among any group of individuals on campus. It's also true that we all spend enough time at work, and none of us wants it to be a soul-crushing experience. To that end, we need to strive to build communities that value one another. This doesn't mean we won't or should never disagree with one another. It does mean that we start with the premise that the way we treat people matters, understanding that how we treat people improves the more we understand one another.

How would you advise others to start this process of culture change at their institutions?

For starters, it helps to get beyond a culture of divisions and departments that operate separately. Another essential component is a critical mass of people who think that moving in this direction is a good thing. You can't do this as an individual leader or an isolated department. That said, you do have to start somewhere. The idea we are testing at UA is to bring everyone along over time through a series of intentional actions and focused conversations that seek to build a broad base of consensus, inclusion, and respect.

Karla Hignite, editorial consultant to NACUBO, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons; e-mail: karlahignite@msn.com