Cross-departmental decision-making can build trust and cohesion on campus while breaking down silos.
In early 2020, the University of Richmond was hit with three separate instances of racially hateful messaging targeting students, sparking outrage on campus and fueling “We Want Justice” chants during a football game. basketball a few days later.
While former President Ronald Crutcher did what most university leaders do – denounce the acts and promise change in a message to the community – it’s what other Richmond leaders have done that has brought enormous healing. Through a distributed leadership model she was piloting around diversity, equity and inclusion at the time, her entire team forged solutions that helped restore trust, not just a leader.
“Because we were piloting this messy model, we brought all these people together, and what senior management was planning was completely dismantled by this group,” said Amy Howard, Senior Administrative Officer for Equity and Community in Richmond. “They said, don’t do that… definitely don’t do that. We found ourselves in a place where our campus had never been before. Having these different perspectives created a different kind of message.
This led to a massive community forum with hundreds of people where neither Crutcher nor any of the VPs were speaking. Instead, they let beloved staff and faculty lead the conversation.
“It was powerful and painful,” Howard said. “This led to listening sessions for different members of our distributed leadership model who met with groups of students for weeks. It demonstrated to everyone involved that everyone has a unique and important perspective and expertise to bring to the table. When we can step out of our defined roles and the normative hierarchy that higher education foolishly creates, we can work better together and achieve better results. We can also build community and build trust.
Howard and leaders from other universities shared their positive experiences of teamwork across divisions at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The session, “Shared Leadership in Higher Education, A Collective Approach to Solving Our Toughest Challenges,” was moderated by Elizabeth Holcombe and Adrianna Kezar of the University of Southern California and Susan Elrod of the University of ‘Indiana-South Bend, three of the authors of a book on the shared leadership ideal. Institutions have seen the benefits, especially over the past two tumultuous years around the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice issues and security strategies, which have required more than one leader to manage these crises.
“We are still set up as often siled organizations where shared leadership can be very difficult,” Kezar said. “The pandemic has helped us understand how much we need to work together to tackle really complex challenges. We have decades of research from other sectors on how shared leadership is one of the best ways to help drive transformational change forward.
A functional model
What shared leadership does is involve multiple stakeholders on campus, often including faculty, staff, and student leaders in important discussions. In a well-developed model, Kezar said authority often gives way to expertise. It is not just teams or committees, but rather a function of bringing people together across many departments. “It’s really about who has the knowledge that is essential to the problem at hand,” she said. “It involves a lot more collaboration within the organization.”
This system has a myriad of benefits, Holcombe said, including “increased satisfaction, stronger cohesion, increased trust, better social integration, and better problem-solving and performance approaches, including financial ones.”
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But as Kezar mentioned, not all institutional leaders are as open as others, and there are many silos to break down. Those in command must be willing to step back to make it work and make room for those who really understand how to solve complex programs. There are also serious time considerations because this implementation involves a very large number of stakeholders.
“It took longer, it took more trust, it took more meetings, it took more vulnerability,” Howard said. “It takes humility for a senior leader to say, ‘Maybe I don’t have the best idea this time.’ ”
Different visions of success
Portland State University decided that having a single leader vision just didn’t make sense in its College of Arts and Sciences and its 26 departments, especially if that leader got sick or left the college. So instead of one dean in charge, he relied on three associate deans and an inside coach, Fletcher Beaudoin, to share planning and react to change.
“We said this model of the heroic dean doesn’t really work,” he said. “We saw this turnover. It is difficult to innovate and achieve great things. So how do you design a team approach that can build resilience and also lay the groundwork for transition? Our team has developed principles, so if a team member was gone, you come back to those principles. Because we have three people thinking creatively about different parts of the university, it’s a unified approach.
Humboldt State University has taken a shared approach to place-based communities across disparate academic and student affairs divisions to improve first-year STEM student retention and has achieved great results. Using faculty and student leaders in these areas “has helped break down silos”, said Professor Matt Johnson. “Faculty has started to really understand the student experience better. The co-leadership model evolved into more distributed approaches. We now have learning communities for every STEM student entering our universities. »
Professor Amy Sprowles said the benefits of a shared environment at Humboldt showed “it’s about building relationships. It’s about listening to others. It’s not even necessarily about having the best idea, but about having the time to talk about it.
Howard said any shared leadership model starts with trust and communication. “It’s about changing the culture of our institutions. We try to teach our students these skills to go out into the world, but we don’t structure our organizations to actually do the things that we try to train students to do in the world. So communicating what we’re doing is the secret sauce to the culture change in the shared work that we’re all trying to do.
In a shared approach, Beaudoin said having a coach is essential because that person only cares about the strengths and health of a team and can help bring all factions together to be more powerful, more thoughtful and more cohesive. . “That idea of being in a different place than you expected is such an essential element,” he said. “We are so often trained, especially when we are leaders, to provide the solution, but those solutions are not always clear. How to create space and structures for emergence?