Excellent staff are important at any time in the life of any enterprise. In a crisis, purposeful people, excellent people, allow organizations to thrive. I didn’t say survive because many organizations will whimper out of the COVID-19 doghouse and simply survive, just as they did when the housing bubble burst or as the 2008 recession receded. Strong organizations will storm out of current circumstances. The faculty and staff of West Texas A&M University and the leadership of The Texas A&M University
System have performed in a way that exemplifies enterprise excellence—not perfection, but persistence, a sharpened edge in an unsympathetically shifting situation.
A few observations from WT follow.
At every level of a crisis, responsive organization curiosity is alive in people. During a crisis nobody has all the answers, and curiosity provides direction. Three months ago 35% of WT students were enrolled online. Two months ago that number increased to 100% overnight. Universities, even the most agile ones, are slow to change. The University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world, operates the way it did over a millennium ago when it was founded. Most other universities still do, save the impact of the internet. Faculty work, student behavior, family, as well as appointed and elected leadership expectations are all remarkably constant for 1,000 years. However, in two months curious people asked themselves, “How can we address current challenges?” WT is a learning organization. Panhandle pragmatics drive it. Crisis and curiosity have, in unison, spawned a learning organization on steroids. No changes of constitution, operating papers, policies or procedures, but a powerful and pervasive commitment to getting the job done. It required an overdose of curiosity.
The circumstances of COVID-19 potentially result in top-down management and leadership inefficacy. Instead bottom-up leaders address the trials of the day. In fact, informed management and leadership delegates and trusts the workers—faculty and staff—to do their jobs.
People from, or appreciative of, our region and its values are practically minded problem solvers. Further, this organizational acumen exists nearly across the board. The people of WT value the idea of getting the job done without excuse.
In order for these outcomes to be realized, employees must be engaged. A recent Forbes commentary pointed out the foundations of engagement: Leadership’s willingness to define and communicate a strong vision and an ability for the organization to enhance and develop talent. Engagement improves when people are in the right role and afforded learning opportunities, even on the fly; work is meaningful, progress is checked and commitment is openly discussed. These are textbook-caliber suggestions that everyone in Management 101 is confronted with. However, the strong organization runs towards these foundational precepts full speed during a crisis. Organizations that merely survive throw too much up in the air, looking for miracles rather than hard work, determination and focus.
According to a reflection on organizational excellence by Anton Vdovin, strong communication that is simultaneously top-down and bottom-up is essential. Insights grow through communication. At WT we asked 240 leaders, managers, faculty and staff to call over 6,000 students early on in the shift from on-campus to online learning to assess how they were doing. Seeds of communication caused ideas to sprout.
Smart Insights identifies multiple levels of organizational excellence. Strategic direction and communication top the list. Crisis amplifies the importance of both. In addition, a purposeful culture, relational trust and colleague empowerment are all identified as part of well-functioning organizations. I saw these exemplified repeatedly as diligent staff labored to meet the most pressing organizational demands of our most important people, our students.
Great workplaces come from the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership. There are no substitutes, no tricks and no management gurus with cookie-cutter rubrics. Rather, organizations soar when people are allowed to flourish by being informed and responsible. Such organizations shine a bright light on the abilities of individuals to do their work. Rules recede, people prosper and purpose permeates everything.
Times of testing reveal the nature of a purpose-driven organization according to Harvard Business Review. Strong change agents are required, and leadership is important, but the real change is guided and fueled by empowered people—faculty and staff. Vision and inspiration are essential so that primary purpose, student aspiration, is sustained and strengthened. Embellishments are eliminated; essentials are elevated. Crisis clears the clouds and cleanses the air.
That’s WT’s story, and we’re stickin’ to it.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.