Capacity Building: Creating an ecosystem for operational efficiency

I believe in capacity building.  I believe in building an organization that makes space for staff to demonstrate capacity, that creates opportunities to engage that capacity, and that allows demonstrated capacity to inform growth (both individual and organizational).  A capacity building organization is inherently people focused, and always ensures that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

At a prior institution I had a staff member – we will call him “Bob” – who was the perfect example of capacity building.   Bob worked as a coordinator with very specific tasks related to his work area of administrative services.  Bob was always on time, always did good work, but probably wasn’t very challenged after spending a few years in the role.  Bob took the opportunity to volunteer to work with a departmental committee looking at policies.  He took ownership for that work, did research, and looked for process solutions that would gain staff buy in.  After about a month with the committee, Bob reported out on his work. I was amazed at the amount of work he had put in, the solution he was suggesting, and his mastery of the content area.  He really impressed me.  Later that month I approached Bob and asked him if he would be willing to do a project for the department researching what other institutions do regarding public relations and making recommendations on how we could improve.  Here again, Bob demonstrated his capacity…but also demonstrated something to us as an organization.  Bob showed us that we needed someone permanently doing the type of work through his recommendations.

What is capacity?

Capacity comes in two forms: time and talent.  Capacity of time happens when an individual is working in a role that requires less than full time attention/effort.  It doesn’t mean the person isn’t working hard, but that perhaps the structure of the job doesn’t call for one FTE.  Often, it has less to do with the staff member and more to do with the job itself.  Maybe the job has changed over time, or technology has eased the need for the attention of a full time staff member, or that staff member has become so operationally efficient that they don’t need 40 hours to do that work.  Whatever the reason, the result of these situations is time capacity.

Talent capacity is the opposite.  Talent capacity is always about the individual staff member.  Staff with talent capacity may not have a single extra second of time, they may already be working overtime or skipping breaks and lunch to keep up, but have talent to work above or outside the role they are currently in.

Identifying Capacity

How do you figure out where capacity exists in your organization?  Time capacity is fairly easy.  You can often observe it by walking around, asking departmental leaders, or getting to know staff and understanding how they approach their work.  If you have created a culture where it is clear that capacity is valued and important, staff may even volunteer that information (ideally).

Talent capacity is more difficult.  Because talent capacity is often not aligned with time capacity it is critical to make space for it to surface. In my organizations this often comes in the form of volunteer opportunities, side projects, or committee work (think about Bob). The key is to put willing staff into positions to demonstrate skills and talents that they can only hint at in their regular duties.  Do you have an entry level staff member who always has their monthly reports don’t on time, accurately, and presented in ways that is extra helpful?  Perhaps ask that person if they would be willing to write the SOP for monthly reporting.

When employed together, time and talent capacity can accomplish two things.  First, you create operational efficiencies that give your organization opportunities to accomplish more.  Secondly, you create a people-centric ecosystem that acts as a talent recognition and retention initiative.

 Using time and talent capacity together to create operational efficiency

A few weeks ago I sat in a room with about 200 divisional staff members.  As I looked around the room I recognized two things.  First, there was a lot of capacity in that room.  There were staff with time, staff with talent, and a few who even had both.  It’s an amazing problem to have.  Secondly, with very few exceptions there were really only three big categories of jobs represented in the room: people who program/support students, people who support those programming/supporting (admins), and process administrators (finance, IT, etc.).  As an operations guy I couldn’t help but think of the possibilities we had in front of us.  The possibility to use capacity of time to free up capacity of talent and to ultimately do more with less.  Higher education is constantly seeking resource, yet overburdened with bureaucracy and redundancy.  Imagine if rather than hoarding positions and resources, we utilized capacity building strategies to broaden our expertise and operate at a higher level.

The ecosystem of capacity building

The opportunity to improve organizations through capacity building is evident, but the benefits for individual staff is even more intriguing.  When you create an ecosystem of capacity building you not only improve the team, you make new opportunities for talented staff.  Remember Bob?  Not only did he demonstrate to our department that we needed a role we hadn’t considered prior, he also built his resume along the way.  Through his capacity building exercise Bob had built and demonstrated the ability to take on that new job.  It is a perfect ecosystem.  At the same time, other staff with time capacity were able to pick up parts of his role.  In the end we were also able to reassess their jobs.  The final result was staff using their capacity, less people making more money (both in time and talent capacity individuals), and the organization doing more with less.  I want to be clear, this wasn’t an exercise in creating jobs for favorites. There are plenty of examples where needs for new/different roles emerged and the capacity builder was not the successful candidate.  Rather, it’s an example of how capacity building practices help you build a more effective organization.

In a field that is constantly exploring ways to demonstrate value and do more with less, enabling a capacity building organization could make all the difference.  How can you build capacity in your organization?

Listen, Own, Articulate, Evolve: A framework for Embracing Organizational Change

Our division is currently in the second year of a comprehensive multi-year strategic plan.  The crux of this plan is to ensure that it is executed “bottom up”. Most strategic efforts come as “top down” initiatives; diminishing buy-in and (more importantly) limiting input from the team members who are on the front line doing the work and have the most expertise.  The way this is works in our organization is to empower task forces, led by divisional staff at a variety of levels (including everyone from directors and administrative assistants to housekeepers and maintenance staff), to identify the actual work that needs done around each of the five pillars of the plan.  This past spring our workforce enhancement group conducted a climate survey in an effort to identify challenges with our work climate and any potential bias or discrimination in the ways we are working to retain talented staff. When we got the results back they were…interesting.

Conducting a survey is easy…doing something with the results is hard.

When the task force chair came forward with the results she seemed nervous.  There were several sections of the report that pointed toward a challenging work climate, some perceptions of discrimination and bias, and minimized opportunities for retention.  Not only was she nervous about presenting these ideas to our executive team, she was also nervous about how she would present them to the division.

The notion that we would have the task force present the survey didn’t make sense to me. While we wanted to acknowledge their work (and we did), imagine divisional staff presenting on challenging workplace climate while the C suite sits in the back of the room.  That scenario would have set up a dynamic that denies ownership from the top and potentially minimizes the contentions of those who filled out the survey. With that in mind, we decided that we needed to present this survey data; and we needed to find a framework to present it.

Listening, Owning, Articulating, and Evolving

As we combed through the data we knew we had to set up some expectations for how this information would be communicated.  What tone would we take? How much could/should we defend? Were there things staff needed to understand that we had never shared? And what plans did we have to address these challenges long term?  All of these questions brought us to developing a framework for a presentation to the entire division…every single staff member. This four-part framework served as the structure for our presentation (after sharing survey results) and as a guide for next steps.

Listen: Leaders Must Provide Channels for Critical Feedback

The response rate to the survey was high, but not representative.  There was a much lower percentage of more tenured staff and staff from specific position types who had responded .  Additionally, the respondents were not representative of the overall organizational demographics on race and gender.  Those who don’t take the survey tell you just as much as those who do.  Staff who didn’t take the survey did so because they either didn’t think it was important (i.e. they didn’t feel their role was to provide feedback), they didn’t feel safe providing feedback (despite being assured that it was anonymous), or they didn’t feel as though it mattered (i.e. it’s another survey and it won’t lead to any real change).  It was our responsibility to acknowledge this, to assure staff that this survey went out with the intention for all voices to be heard, and that we were listening with the intention to take real steps towards positive change. We talked about this as we presented the data. We talked about the survey being important, the fact that we were actually listening, and the fact that their feedback would lead to organizational change.

Own: Perception is Reality

The most important tenet of our framework was to ensure that we were not defensive.  It’s human nature for a leader to immediately jump to the defensive and explain away perceptions,but that approach would only serve to discourage staff who had taken the time (and risk) to be honest.  At the end of the day, perception is reality. The perception of the staff who filled out the survey is their reality, and it is our responsibility as leadership to address that reality.  With that in mind it was critically important for us to take ownership of the feedback (both good and bad) and show staff in a real way that we were committed to making changes.

Articulate: It is Critical for Leadership to be Clear and Transparent

One thing that we recognized, particularly around the topics of professional development and promotional opportunities, is that we had never been clear about our philosophies.  We had never shared what we believe. The absence of clarity leads to the absence of accountability. It is critically important for leaders to share what they believe in. Otherwise, each team member is left to their own devices to guess what might happen in a variety of situations.  Important: articulating philosophy does not mean seeking consensus.  While every staff member may not agree with the leadership philosophy, it is incumbent upon leadership to be transparent and share what they believe.  Every leader believes in something; and these beliefs will inevitably influence the way the organization evolves. Would you rather have staff constantly surprised or disappointed with how the organization moves, or know up front about the philosophies that will guide decision making?  

One example for us that required articulation was the organizational philosophy on internal hiring/promotions.  Some staff had responded saying that “only internals got hired (despite lack of qualifications) and we lacked external perspective and expertise”, while others contended that “we only hire externally and overlooked internal talent”.  This told us two things: 1) it seemed that staff were reacting to a specific situation that may have impacted them personally (i.e. they felt overlooked) and 2) that we had never clearly articulated our philosophy on internal vs. external hiring or capacity building (a separate post coming soon on this concept).  We took this opportunity to articulate that we don’t believe in only one way to fill a position. Some positions will call for internal searches (if we feel that we have demonstrated top level talent internally with capacity to do this work), while others will call for national external searches (if we need different expertise or perspective in the role than what we have internally).  Clearly articulating the process we go through to make that assessment helped staff understand how decisions are made (and will be made for future vacancies). Again, they may not agree, but now they know and that is important.

Evolve: Without an Action Plan, None of this Matters

The final piece of our framework was to evolve.  This was where we had to talk about the actionable steps that we planned to take in order to address the feedback we had received.  There were two categories of action items: 1) things we have plans for and 2) things we are planning for and needed help. The things we have plans for is pretty straight forward.  We were able to talk about a comprehensive talent acquisition and management plan that is in the works for the division (also a future post) that would speak to much of the feedback regarding professional development, hiring, promotion, and equity.  The things we are planning for created an opportunity to engage the help and feedback of staff in the division. As an example, addressing issues of perceived bias and discrimination will take a cross-functional working group to help us determine the best ways to uncover, explore, and address these issues.  

The step of evolving is often the most difficult, but perhaps most important.  It is the step that requires action and change. Failure to evolve would only further reinforce the perceptions of those who chose not to take the survey: that their feedback wasn’t valuable, that it’s unsafe to respond, or that nothing actionable would come of this anyways.  If there is not a commitment to evolve, none of this matters. 

What’s your Framework?

By really digging into our values – seeking to create a workplace that our staff feels empowered and excited about – we developed a framework to not only deliver this content, but to act upon it.  What will your framework be for creating meaningful organizational change?

The Not-So-Obvious Opportunity to Support Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Higher Education…The 3-Legged Stool

Entrepreneurship and innovation have become THE prominent buzzwords in higher education.  Perhaps this is a result of the rapid rise in the number of young entrepreneurs in the public spotlight, a response to the fact that Generation Z values higher education less than their predecessors, or a race against the growing interest in the “uncollege” movement.  Whatever the reason, there seems to be a nation-wide focus on making college relevant again, and entrepreneurship and innovation are taking center stage.  There’s just one problem…traditional higher education environments are structured in ways that are fundamentally at odds with supporting entrepreneurship.

Practice vs. Study

Why?  Why is it that higher education environments are so aptly suited to support the aspirations of our young intellectuals in nearly every subject known to man (from engineering and architecture, to zoology and dance), but entrepreneurship just doesn’t fit?  It’s simple…entrepreneurship is one of the few disciplines that young people want (and need) to practice…not study.  Moreover, the gap between the study and practice of entrepreneurship is larger than that of most any other field.

Entrepreneurs hustle; they sweat; they grind…because they have to in order to survive.  Running a startup…being an entrepreneur…is not a class project.  It is a lifestyle; something you need to live to understand.   Perhaps the most outward sign of the gap between study and practice is the metrics.  Consider that the measure of success in the study of nearly every academic discipline comes in the form of graduation rates, retention, and grades.  Meanwhile, the measure of success in the practice of entrepreneurship is (nearly always) revenue.  Unlike any other academic discipline, entrepreneurship is about the outcome…not knowing the right answer.   Additionally, higher education environments are notoriously insular.  From the ways that we write job descriptions and hire staff, to the ways that we adamantly keep outside entities at arm’s length, there are examples galore of the ways that higher education stonewalls the private sector from partnerships that can truly benefits students.

How can we possibly support entrepreneurship and innovation in higher education when we are measured in fundamentally different ways?  Where are the places on a college campus where the lines between the institution and the outside world can be blurred?

A Not-So-Obvious Opportunity: The 3-legged Stool

Capture3Luckily, there are corners of the university environment that are very well suited to serving the needs of students who are interested in the practice of entrepreneurship.  We just need to be willing to shift our paradigm to engage these opportunities.  The best (and perhaps least obvious) place that we can start….campus housing.

What are the necessary elements of an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurship?  A low-risk environment for failure? A community of peers working towards similar goals?  Yes, those are important; but there are three foundational pieces that must be in place first.  These elements make up the three-legged stool of the entrepreneurial environment, and campus housing is the only place in the university setting where they are baked right in.

  1. Revenue/Capital – Recently I talked about entrepreneurship and higher education at the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-I) annual conference in Seattle Washington. The first question that I asked the group was “How many of you charge students to live in your residence halls?”  As you might expect, every hand in the room went up.  Regardless of the institution type, campus housing operations generate revenue through the use of space.  Especially at public institutions, housing is often an auxiliary operation generating revenue that will be used for operational costs as well as programming that will support student success.
  2. Space – Student housing facilities are (almost always without exception) structured in a way that the revenue generated supports large portions of non-revenue generating space. Consider student lounges, game rooms, kitchens, lobbies, and classroom spaces.  Most student housing facilities average 25% or more of the overall square footage that is non-revenue generating.  These spaces are intentionally built into the facility to provide space for programming that will support student success.
  3. Market – Another question that I asked in Seattle was “How many of you house 18-24 year olds?” Again, as you might expect, every hand in the room went up.  18-24 year olds define the most desirable market demographic for an overwhelming majority of companies throughout the world.   While the notion of referring to students as market may be unpopular, the reality is that companies view them in that way; and higher education professionals have a special responsibility in serving as gatekeepers in protecting them from bad brands as well as providing access to brands that provide a benefit to help support student success.  If managed intentionally and strategically, this access to market can play an important role in the ecosystem of supporting entrepreneurship on campus.  

Capture.PNGWhen these three elements – revenue, space, and market – are intentionally leveraged to support entrepreneurship, magical things can happen.  Take for example a residence hall that is built with a financial model to support 25% non-revenue generating space off of the rent collected from residents.  Rather than creating game rooms and lounges, a majority of this space is leveraged to bring outside entities into the building to support student entrepreneurs.  This “space for value” model positions the institution to bring practicing entrepreneurs, makers, designers, and the like (people innovating and hustling to pay the rent) into the student environment.   Imagine an incubator space where companies are comprised of both student and non-student entrepreneurs.  Where belonging to a working community of entrepreneurs provides a student with the real world (low risk for failure) foundation to successfully start companies for the rest of their life.  Imagine that the companies running out of this residence hall have access to the market of student living in the building.  These students (and their parents) can act as product testers and consumers, giving companies a real testing ground for performance as well as a low-cost platform for growth.  Would this model give the outside world access to your buildings, your resource, and your students?  Absolutely.  Is this a conflict of interest?  Absolutely not.  In exchange for that access, you are providing students with exposure to expertise in the practice of entrepreneurship. If we are truly interested in creating an environment that supports the practice (not the study) of entrepreneurship….an environment where college can be relevant for a whole new generation of students…it seems to make a lot of sense.

This post is intended to present an overarching philosophy for how to achieve an ecosystem that supports students who are interested in the practice of entrepreneurship.  In future posts, I will share some success stories of companies working out of this model.  Stay tuned…more to come!


Social Media: the Key to Online Student Services

vygotskyA few weeks ago Josie Ahlquist wrote a great post on developing campus community through social media. Before you read this, go read that post (it is good). She used published research (thank you!) to make a great argument that the strategic implementation of social networking sites (SNS’s) can indeed lead to a greater sense of community amongst students on campus. For me, though, her post (and the research she references in the post) points to an even bigger idea: That social media is THE key to the successful implementation of student services for online learners.

Let’s start with facts. Technology has permeated nearly every aspect of modern life. Presently, the landscape of higher education may be among those realms changing most rapidly. Increasing financial pressures, easily accessible new forums for content delivery, and more robust infrastructures have all contributed to the ongoing evolution of this environment. The most notable change, perhaps, is the enormous migration to online education that has taken place over the past decade. According to recent research, an all-time high of 32% of all college students were enrolled in at least one online class in 2012, a proportion that has more than tripled over the past ten years (Allen & Seamen, 2013).

So what’s the problem?

Even if you subscribe to the notion that online content delivery provides a low-cost, accessible, and effective way of providing education, the looming issues with persistence and retention have still not subsided. A great deal of literature exists with regards to the challenges of persistence and retention in online education (Ariwa, 2002; Dirkx, & Jha, 1994; Levy, 2007; Parker, 1999; Parker, 2003; Rovai, 2002; Xenos, 2004; and Xenos, Pierrakeas, & Pintelas, 2002). Specifically, student retention is significantly lower for online students than their bricks and mortar counterparts (Parker, 1999). In fact, dropout rates in online environments have been found to be between 25%–40%. When compared to on-campus rates of 10%–20% (Carter, 1996; Parker, 1999; Parker 2003; and Xenos, 2004), a call to action becomes abundantly clear.

So what does this have to do with student affairs?

Everything. It is no surprise to student affairs professionals that social engagement is a key component to student success and specifically persistence (Astin, 1984; Mallette & Cabrera, 1991; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980; Terenzini & Pascarella, 1977; Tinto, 1997). These types of interactions help students to feel connected to their institution and, in turn, increase the likelihood of their persistence to graduation (Rendon, 1994). Tinto (1997) suggested that this correlation is so important to student success that it should guide the overall organization of the university infrastructure. It would follow that community connection is an important component for online student success as well.

With that premise in mind, and knowing that online education will continue to grow, it is incumbent upon us to seek out and implement new ways to enrich the student experience for online learners; and I believe that social media is the channel to provide that support.

Why Social Media?

In her post Josie cited some great examples of how SNS’s support community building for on-campus students. But wait…there’s even more.

Evidence from some studies suggest that when used in specific ways, SNS’s don’t just support community building, but accomplish several other outcomes that align incredibly well with our work and values in student affairs. These outcomes included higher self-esteem (Ellison, Steinfeld, & Lampe, 2007), higher social capital and lower levels of loneliness (Burke, Marlow, & Lento, 2010), higher engagement (Junco, 2012), and higher engagement in offline activities (Heiberger & Harper, 2008).

Not convinced yet? What if I told you that we could have some positive impacts on the diversity of student communities? While research is scarce, there is also some indication that social media could be a key to bridging racial diversity gaps. Wimmer and Lewis (2010) found evidence that students’ social media networks were significantly more diverse than their offline networks. Although these results are in conflict with findings in other studies suggesting that the social networks of college-aged students broadly overlap with their offline networks (Subrahmanyam, Reich, Waechter, & Espinoza, 2008), there is still hope that using these platforms for online education may serve to create more diverse communities than what might exist when students are left to their own devices in offline environments.

Along with the potential for positive effects on diversity, there is also evidence that social media can help students in overall acclimation to college life. Popular research (DeAndrea, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfeld, & Fiore, 2012; Gray, Vitak, Easton, & Ellison, 2013; Haythornthwaite & Kazmer, 2002; Pittman & Richmond, 2008; Selwyn, 2007; ) supports the idea that these unique sites are ideally suited to assisting students in adjusting socially to the college experience, something that many students struggle with. DeAndrea et al. (2012) found that students’ self-efficacy beliefs improved significantly simply by having access to peers in social media environments.

So let’s revisit the facts. Online education is continuing to grow and students are continuing to struggle. As student affairs practitioners, who are in the business of student success, we have the responsibility of finding ways to support the experience of our online learners too. With community building at the core of our mission, I believe that social media may be the key. What do you think?


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. Sloan Consortium. PO Box 1238, Newburyport, MA 01950.

Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of college student personnel, 25(4), 297-308.

Ariwa, E. (2002). Evaluation of the Information, Communication and Technology Capabilities and E-Learning. USDLA Journal, 16(11), n11.

Burke, M., Marlow, C., & Lento, T. (2010, April). Social network activity and social well-being. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1909-1912). ACM.

Carter, V. (1996). Do media influence learning? Revisiting the debate in the context of distance education. Open Learning, 11(1), 31-40.

DeAndrea, D. C., Ellison, N. B., LaRose, R., Steinfield, C., & Fiore, A. (2012). Serious social media: On the use of social media for improving students’ adjustment to college. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 15-23.

Dirkx, J. M., & Jha, L. R. (1994). Completion and attrition in adult basic education: A test of two pragmatic prediction models. Adult Education Quarterly, 45(1), 269-285.

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 12(4), 1143-1168.

Gray, R., Vitak, J., Easton, E. W., & Ellison, N. B. (2013). Examining social adjustment to college in the age of social media: Factors influencing successful transitions and persistence. Computers & Education.

Haythornthwaite, C., & Kazmer, M. M. (2002). Bringing the Internet home. The Internet in everyday life, 431.

Heiberger, G., & Harper, R. (2008). Have you Facebooked Astin lately? Using technology to increase student involvement. New Directions for Student Services, 2008(124), 19-35.

Junco, R. (2012). The relationship between frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and student engagement. Computers & Education, 58(1), 162-171.

Levy, Y. (2007). Comparing dropouts and persistence in e-learning courses. Computers & education, 48(2), 185-204.

Mallette, B. I., & Cabrera, A. F. (1991). Determinants of withdrawal behavior: An exploratory study. Research in Higher Education, 32(2), 179-194.

Parker, A. (1999). A study of variables that predict dropout from distance education. International Journal of Educational Technology, 1(2), 1-10.

Parker, A. (2003). Identifying predictors of academic persistence in distance education. Usdla Journal, 17(1), 55-62.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1977). Patterns of student-faculty informal interaction beyond the classroom and voluntary freshman attrition. The Journal of Higher Education, 540-552.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1980). Predicting freshman persistence and voluntary dropout decisions from a theoretical model. The Journal of Higher Education, 60-75.

Pittman, L. D., & Richmond, A. (2008). University belonging, friendship quality, and psychological adjustment during the transition to college. The Journal of Experimental Education, 76(4), 343-362.

Rendon, L. I. (1994). Validating culturally diverse students: Toward a new model of learning and student development. Innovative higher education, 19(1), 33-51.

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Sense of community, perceived cognitive learning, and persistence in asynchronous learning networks. The Internet and Higher Education, 5(4), 319-332.

Selwyn, N. (2007). The use of computer technology in university teaching and learning: a critical perspective. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23(2), 83-94.

Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N., & Espinoza, G. (2008). Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6), 420-433.

Tinto, V. (1997). Colleges as communities: Taking research on student persistence seriously. The review of higher education, 21(2), 167-177.

Wimmer, A., & Lewis, K. (2010). Beyond and Below Racial Homophily: ERG Models of a Friendship Network Documented on Facebook1. American Journal of Sociology, 116(2), 583-642.

Xenos, M. (2004). Prediction and assessment of student behaviour in open and distance education in computers using Bayesian networks. Computers & Education, 43(4), 345-359.

Xenos, M., Pierrakeas, C., & Pintelas, P. (2002). A survey on student dropout rates and dropout causes concerning the students in the Course of Informatics of the Hellenic Open University. Computers & Education, 39(4), 361-377.

The 5-minute Meeting

Whether you are preparing facilities, engaged in student/staff training, or finishing up orientation, August is the busiest time of year for student affairs professionals around the country. For my staff, this time of year is accompanied by increased numbers of phone calls and walk-in traffic from students and parents regarding assignments, room changes, (potential) roommate challenges, and move-in, etc. This is the time of year when our customer service reputation is made. This is the time – when it is busiest – that it is most important to take a moment and get on the same page. That’s why we have a 5-minute meeting to start every day in the month of August.

I started doing this 4-5 years ago, and I don’t think I will ever stop. In August, when the details are always changing and it may be hard to stay in the loop, we want everyone to have the answers. Anyone who might answer a phone or visit with a customer in our lobby is invited to come to these open meetings. Each morning, a group of 15-30 staff members congregate to share the most recent occupancy numbers, discuss the most frequently occurring questions, share the best answers to those questions, and share any planned mass communication.

These 5 minutes empower all of our staff to help our customers. These 5 minutes ensure that we are all on the same page. These 5 minutes make us better as an organization.

Bringing the Outside In…Again

In March I wrote about running your department like a startup. One of the four things I talked about in that post was finding strategies to bring ideas into your organization from the outside. Ideas from outside of your team, outside of your department, outside of higher education…the further out the better. This was the central tenet of the Big Ideas Conference, and a practice that has inspired more good work in my team than I could ever have imagined. Having spouted on about bringing outside ideas to the table, I thought it might be time to put my money where my mouth is and share a real life example of putting this value into practice. We try to do this every single day. This week, though, we engaged in a brainstorming session that exemplified this value and changed our perspective. Here is the story:

My department is interested in creating a living learning community geared towards students who are interested in starting a business. We would like to accomplish this through new construction, and have an aggressive timeline that we would like to follow. As such, our Associate Vice President asked if we could make some recommendations on space configurations…quickly. This would serve as the foundation for how we would approach putting a building together. This is standard practice for how housing operations start the ball rolling for most new construction (of course, there are a lot more details and long discussions on financial models and master planning, etc., but I will spare you those). Essentially, we (the housing experts) assess the programmatic goals, the occupancy/capacity needs, and feedback from students to determine what we (again, experts) believe a building should look like.

While I know this approach works – after all, students who live on campus are more successful by nearly every imaginable measure – I can’t help but think there might be something more. Especially with a project like this, where are the gaps in our expertise? Even with an MBA and career centered on business and operations management, what do I really know about starting a business? What do I know about the grind, the collaboration, the perseverance, and the environment needed to live and work in that space? The cold hard truth…not very much. I think that it’s important to admit what you don’t know and seek expertise from those who do. With that in mind, we invited two local serial entrepreneurs (by their own admission) to a brainstorming session about spaces in a residence hall, and what they had to say was surprising.

Here are the top three counterintuitive takeaways:

1. Privacy is all the Rage, but it won’t Accomplish the Program Goals Most students have a romantic idea (fueled by popular examples like “The Social Network”) that they will toil away in their room alone with a laptop and become a billionaire. The reality is that working in teams, collaborating, and minimizing information silos, are the keys to success. The goal of our program should not be to help students start a successful business while in residence. The reality is that their first shot is overwhelmingly likely to fail. The goal should be to teach them how collaboration works…how to be innovative…so that they can create successful business(es) in the future. With that in mind, single rooms and private suites are probably not best. Although this runs counter to most student preference/satisfaction data, focusing on team-oriented living spaces is probably a better fit. This configuration (for these reasons) is something that may not have occured to us.

2. Not all Lounges are Created Equal From a construction and maintenance perspective it makes a lot of sense for each floor in a building to be exactly the same (plumbing/utilities align, maintenance is more predictable, etc.). This often means that floor lounges and common spaces look very similar from floor to floor. This includes the footprint, the finishes, etc. I have been in hundreds of residence halls, and this is nearly always the case. But this is not the type of space needed for collaboration and creative entrepreneurship. Rather, students will need a mix of big spaces, small spaces, spaces with technology, spaces that can get messy, coworking spaces, and spaces that are ultra-professional. Not all innovation is created equal (it doesn’t all come from tech), and therefore the spaces needed must be diverse as well. This perspective will push us away from conventional design on the common rooms in the building (which are often a secondary focus). In fact, non-revenue generating spaces in this building may be most important.

3. Build for the Extremes, the Middle Will Take Care of Itself A resounding theme during our one-hour brainstorming session was that space has to be flexible. In reality we don’t know what the next innovation will look like, we don’t know where the next great idea will come from. With that in mind, we need to design for the extremes. If you can host a 3-day startup weekend event in the building, but also help a student store their small inventory for widget distribution, everything in the middle will usually take care of itself.

These two local business owners were thrilled with the opportunity to talk with us. We built and reinforced a couple of relationships while gaining important perspective on what needs to happen to make this project a success. So how are you bringing outside ideas to the table?


Take a Risk, Make us All Better


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The Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-I) held their Annual Conference and Exhibition (ACE) this week in Minneapolis. I have presented dozens of times at this conference in the past, and was on the docket again this week. This time, though….I took a risk. And I am hoping to convince you to do the same.

There has long been a call by many (like Tony Doody, Joe Ginese, Ed Cabellon, and Kristen Abell to name just a few) for alternative, more relevant, and more contemporary student affairs professional development opportunities. My goal this week was to infuse some of that into a very traditional conference.

Led by a mantra that I once heard from Tony Doody that “Good Education is Good Entertainment”, I attempted to do a live whiteboard talk. Essentially, as I was talking a white board drawing was constructed on the screen behind me. The 100 (or so) people that attended my session got these four disclaimers before I started:

1. This will not be a traditional session – Many times I have presented about something that we are doing at my institution. Inevitably, each time I do a session like that, someone will approach me afterwards (or write on the evaluation) something like this: “This was a great session, but this won’t work for me because ______”. The blank is usually filled in with some statement about the differences in private/public institutions, the culture at a faith-based institution, or the lack of resources at nearly every institution.

I wanted to do a talk that could be applicable for everyone. I wanted to do a talk that was about ideas that transcended our individual institutions; a talk that was important for the field of university housing. Besides, if you want to know what we do at our institution, you don’t need to spend a bunch of money to come to a conference…just Google it.

2. I will not be taking the entire 45 minutes – Along with the fact that no one (and I mean no one) wants to hear me talk at them for 45 minutes, I wanted to do a focused and concise talk that allowed for a lot of hallway conversation afterwards. The total run time (including disclaimers) was 20 minutes.

3. This will be different – This is where I admitted that I would be taking a big risk with this talk. Not only would it not be like my other presentations, it was something completely new. I assured the group (half jokingly) that if it blew up in my face I would apologize profusely and never do it again.

4. You might not agree with everything I say – I wanted everyone to understand that the goal of the talk was to challenge the way we are thinking. If we all agree all of the time, we aren’t moving forward. Part of this exercise was creating critical dialogue about where we are going.

The talk was very well received (the recording of the full talk is below), and I now turn my attention towards where we go next. How can we continue to infuse unique and challenging discourse into our traditional conference models? How can we continue to make sure we aren’t missing the big ideas?

Making Lists…How do you run your meetings?

photoA few weeks ago I wrote about running your department like a startup.  After that post, I was surprised at the interest and questions about the stand-up, open-access, transparent team meetings that we run (a staff member from another area even wrote an article about it). I firmly believe that we (in higher education) have far too many meetings.  This is one of the things that separates us from being able to move at the speed of private industry.  Meetings serve as places to follow agendas and provide updates…but what do we actually accomplish during the hours we spend around the conference room table?

This week my team will be having our semesterly staff off-site.  I have always wanted these meetings to be powerful opportunities for important change in our organization.  This is has usually consisted of a half-day dedicated to trying to set the direction for the short and long-term future of the team.  In the past, we have worked off of an agenda, or collectively worked on a project…this semester, though, we are going to try something different: We are going to review some lists

Guided by books like Kill the Company, I started three lists on the whiteboard wall of my office suite several weeks ago.  They were:

  1. Things that are Broken – How do you know what to fix if you don’t know what’s broken? This list is inspired by Seth Godin’s TED Talk

  2. Things that are Difficult to Explain to Customers – I have found that, over time, process often evolves to a place where it serves staff rather than students.  This list is intended to help us identify those places.

  3. Things that Would Help me do my Job Better – How can we get the very best out of people? This list is inspired by Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on motivation.

I sent an email out to staff throughout the office inviting them to stop by the suite at any time to add to the lists.  If they saw an item on the lists that they agreed with, they could add a “+1”.  This activity has accomplished a few things:

  1. This brought staff into the office suite (who normally stay in their work area) and gave them an outlet to have a voice.  I was amazed at the faces I saw and how quickly the lists grew.

  2. We now have a road map for understanding what our staff and our students struggle with…we now know what to focus on.

  3. I believe that this will help us continue to establish trust throughout our team.  We are providing a platform to see what people need and what they struggle with, and (most importantly) we are asking for an opportunity to make things great for our organization.

Since creating the original three lists, our staff watched Shawn Achor’s great TED talk on the important of happiness in success.  This has inspired an additional list entitled “My Most Positive Interaction with a Customer”.  It’s also good to know what you are doing right.

I am eager to see how our off-site goes this week.  We will be skipping the ice-breakers, throwing out the agenda, and trashing the updates.  Instead, I am planning to use our lists as a basis for discussion to create immediate and long-term action items.  I will let you know how it goes…

Great leaders listen…what are the innovative ways that you are listening to your staff?

How (and why) You Should Run Your Department Like a Startup

If the startup company had an exact opposite, it might be found in higher education.  Startups are hungry, fast, creative, collaborative, and agile.  In contrast, higher ed organizations are often burdened by bloated organizational structures, built on status quo, and notoriously slow to act.

Over the last six months I have had the opportunity to recruit, hire, and retain several exceptional staff members on my leadership team.  This is a group that has tackled huge challenges steeped in years of practice, dared to challenge the status quo, and been ‘all in’ every single day.  Our team has found a sweet spot for engaging in our work.  How did we do it?  By running like a startup.

Here are the things that we do every day:

Get out of your seat: One of the highest impact changes we implemented was to have the walls of our office suite finished in whiteboard paint.  I know this sounds painfully simple, but stick with me.

We now hold stand up meetings to discuss project planning, occupancy management, marketing strategy, etc.  Because the meetings are held in the suite area, they are open to the public and often draw in staff from other functional areas.  This adds a layer of transparency and creativity to the process. Additionally, these meetings are physical.  People are up and walking and there are often multiple staffers wielding dry-erase markers. Not only do you walk away from each of these meetings with a sense of direction and accomplishment, there is a physical artifact that serves as a constant reminder of the important work being done (until the real estate is needed for another creative session).

Make the whole greater than the sum of your parts: One of the hallmarks of the startup is that every employee must be ‘all in’.  Cross-positional collaboration, regardless of job description, allows for diverse perspectives and faster implementation. Task specific job descriptions make this challenging in higher education.  Finding strategies to empower and encourage staff to work beyond their job description is key.  In our office, we intentionally take on projects that are larger than the any functional area can accomplish.  These types of projects force the team to come together to resolve issues.  It is not uncommon for the marketing person to be hanging out in the occupancy meeting, or for an occupancy management person to be helping to coordinate strategies for conference services.  Taking on a little more than one area can handle draws everyone in to support, and creates opportunities for amazing team ‘wins’.

Hire for skill first: This is something that we are notoriously bad at in higher education.  We often write job descriptions and interview based on education and experience alone.  This practice severely limits our potential to bring diverse and talented staff to the table.  Some of my best hires have been those people with phenomenal skill sets, but little (or no) experience in higher education.

Bring the outside, in: The overarching takeaway I had from the Big Ideas Conference last year was that ideas from outside our field are often the most valuable for moving forward.  With this in mind, we have very intentionally structured our leadership meetings.  We spend just a few minutes providing “must know” updates from each area.  This is followed by a review of current projects (we often make some progress on a project or two during the meeting).  The balance of the time is spent on a weekly “moment of innovation”.  This can be a TED talk, a book review, conversation about a blog post, or something else.  This is our time to look at ideas from outside of housing and student affairs, and to have critical discussion on how these ideas can apply to our work (and the improvement of our work).

These practices have changed the way that we approach our work.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we like each other and have a little fun too.

What are the things that you do to engage your staff?

Revisiting a Big Night for Social Media: Why this is a VERY Big Deal for Higher Ed

Last week I wrote about a magical night for social media in higher education.  The post was a summary of the social media strategy that the University of Florida employed to welcome the class of 2017, and it generated a lot of discussion.   Some of you called the event “awesome”, “cool”, “neat”, or “amazing”.  A couple of tweets even alluded to a “future best practice” (I agree).  But even with all the positive comments, I think this might be something MUCH bigger.

So why might this be such a big deal?  I suspect that this social media event could have major implications for the enrollment management process.  If this sounds like a stretch for you, stick with me…

Along with the many tweets from students and families who were celebrating their freshly-minted membership in the Gator Nation, there were a number of other students tweeting about the very challenging decision they now have to make between the University of Florida and another institution(s).  Not only were these students retweeted by the University of Florida (with encouragement to attend UF), they were inundated by tweets from current students, other incoming freshmen (who were decidedly Gators), alumni, and others.  These messages conveyed a sense of belonging, demonstrated the power and pride of a community, and created connections for these students.

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Anyone who studies student yield and retention can tell you about the positive impacts that feelings of connection and community can have.  That intangible quality of “fit” cannot be undersold.  Now, imagine being that student.  Imagine being that student who, while trying to make a life-changing decision, is publically welcomed with into a warm and prideful community.  I bet I know where you might be going to school in August.  While in the past these students may have eventually decided to attend another institution, I believe that the likelihood of them attending UF has increased significantly….just because of this social media event.  Of course, early undecided students are not the only ones who may not attend after being admitted.  The community built during the social media welcome may likely yield a number of students who may have otherwise not attended.

Of course, we will have to wait a few months to see how the yield rates pan out.

What do you think?  Could this new best practice be a game changer for social media in higher education?