Principled Conservativism Leads to a Performance Culture

Thoughts from a Principled Conservative Outpost—Ninth in a series on the aspects of Panhandle conservativism. Some of what follows is post commentary found in The Hill Institute.

Joseph A. Hill advocated for what has been called a “performance culture” within the University which encourages people to continually learn and grow. His performance culture included leadership, achievement of faculty and students and viable results for the betterment of society. Accomplishment and merit should be the highest standards for achievement. Universities can and should play an essential role in understanding the human condition, person by person, and its influences on social responsibility free from the burden of identity, other than the individual soul and one’s accompanying accomplishments.

Students and families have begun to expect from universities a clear picture of the value proposition in higher education. Recently Patrick Methvin of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reflected on polling data from a study by Edge Research in Postsecondary Success Notes that reveals a deepening concern and appreciation for understanding the value of earning a degree. The performance indicators that he identified are costs for and time to completion of various degree programs, opportunities to increase the academic success of all students and digitally available coursework that would reduce costs, alter time to degree and enhance outcomes. President Hill’s concepts regarding performance were more generic but focused on measurable outcomes, high standards and social and personal responsibility. But to obtain these lofty goals, performance indicators such as those identified in the Edge Research study, require more detailed, fact-based data.

Conservatism follows the culture in any organization that has a clearly stated set of shared values and expectations that support the goal of high performance. Such a culture focuses on outcomes, accountability and excellence. Gallup claims things like high expectations, goal alignment, feedback, recognition, accountability, continuous improvement, merit-based rewards and open communication all lead to a performance culture. People should not be rewarded solely for participation or attendance. It has been said some degrees are merely certificates of attendance. That will not lead to the establishment of a performance culture. Rewards based on anything other than merit confuse the relationship between equality, where everyone is given the same opportunity, and equity, where certain outcomes result from simple participation or membership.

Typically, principled conservativism would argue for the value of consistency and stability in a university environment. The same can be true too in many settings where output is measurable and defined by the value produced. In such environments, risk management is essential. Behavior that allows people to take thoughtful risks should be encouraged. According to McKinsey, performance cultures that emphasize results, accountability and excellence are places that tolerate risk. Within such cultures, alignment of institutional goals, innovation and tradition are mutually supportive rather than mutually exclusive. The power of leadership is to inspire and motivate people towards high performance through a shared vision. Such cultures can be assessed through empirical evidence.

Universities should be driven by performance cultures, rather than overtaken by sustaining ideologies. Ideas and performance should rule. Intercollegiate athletics is guided by a performance culture. A 4-second, 40-yard sprint gets more attention from the football coach than does a 4-second, 90-yard sprint. Why? Because the 40-yard dash represents needed skill. Similarly, and without apology, a 1,500 on the SAT will get a longer look from the scholarship office than a 1,100 on the same test. These kinds of measures, imperfect though they may be, are essential—if incomplete—components of potential performance. Focus, compassion, understanding and wisdom allow performance to govern. In universities, performance cultures of faculty are based on the quality of teaching, academic research, the performance of students to graduation, operational excellence and success in the highly competitive environment of university rankings, funding and talent—not stylish, political measures, according to Andrea Y. Simpson. In universities, healthy performance must be defined in a way specific to the university’s mission, as well as the place where the university exists. In this sense, the university is like any other business in which resources are invested and outcomes are expected—a view profoundly important in a place like the Texas Panhandle.

The lack of a clearly established performance culture are fuzzy vision and poorly defined goals according to Forbes. The organizational community must adopt the commitment to the goals, or disengagement and a lack of motivation follow. Leadership plays a key role in shaping organizational culture. Leaders should inspire and motivate people towards a high-performing culture, without which, cultures fail and organizations crumble. Communication is especially important in clarifying understanding, identifying opportunities and aligning the various parts of the organization. Even then, employees may be disengaged, performance management systems may fail and people may be resistant to change.

Principled conservativism leads to structures of responsibility, fearlessness in risk-taking, strong communication, an emphasis on individual performance and contributions, careful resource management and an appreciation for long-term commitments to institutional goals. President Hill hit the nail on the head. At West Texas A&M University, commitment to continual learning and growth, achievement of each person associated with the organization and viable results all lead to a better society. Accomplishment and merit help create a culture that values engaged citizenship.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.