The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Why Leadership Development Is Increasingly Critical in Higher Education

This blog post was contributed by Cornerstone OnDemand, a CUPA-HR Mary Ann Wersch Premier Partner.

Outstanding leadership is the key for any organization to thrive, and higher education is no exception. These days, universities and colleges are juggling more demands and challenges than ever before. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many to shift classes online at a moment’s notice — and writing the rules of what it means to ‘go to school’ during a pandemic — these organizations are also facing lower enrollment numbers, concerns around financial solvency, and recurring problems around racism and discrimination.

Tackling these challenges head on requires a clear vision for the future, a strong and resilient institutional culture, and the ability to support students and faculty, even in the face of (un)expected headwinds. More importantly, it also requires bold and proactive leadership. Unfortunately, many institutions aren’t giving enough attention to developing staff leadership capabilities, making it even harder to navigate these rough waters.

Let’s dive into why great leadership is critical in higher education and some tips on how you can build, develop and grow the impactful leaders within the ranks of your faculty and staff. We’ll also take a look at a case study from Davenport University to illustrate a few key leadership development techniques that you can put into action today. Finally, we’ll provide useful advice on how to empower your current leaders, keep staff motivated and engaged, and inspire the next generation of leadership — all at the same time.

The Importance of Leadership Development in Higher Education

Navigating a rapidly changing sector takes vision, resilience and flexibility. If you have strong leaders within your faculty and staff, you’ll be more likely to pull together in moments of crisis and steer through whatever difficulties may stand in your way.

By developing the leadership potential of staff and faculty members, your college or university can be more adaptable in the face of massive change and better positioned to take advantage of new opportunities for growth. Additionally, focusing on leadership development within your organization offers a few key benefits that have the potential to drive long-term value:

  • It identifies leaders at all levels.
    Strong leadership is about more than just having the right people in the top positions. While university presidents, senior administrators and board members undoubtedly have important roles to play in steering the ship forward, nurturing potential at every level — from faculty to program directors to mid-level managers — is a great way to build a true culture of leadership excellence within your institution. Not only does this make employees more effective at the work they do, but it also allows you to grow a pool of talent that can be promoted from within. Similarly, defining someone as a leader doesn’t necessarily mean identifying only those employees in a leadership role already. There are rising stars everywhere around you; it’s important to spot those employees early on and give them real opportunities to truly shine.
  • It celebrates and encourages diversity.
    More colleges and universities than ever before are recognizing the foundational importance of advancing diversity and inclusion. Beyond simply being the socially responsible thing to do, celebrating diversity also strengthens institutional leadership and can pave the way for leaders with mixed and complementary strengths to pursue common goals.
  • It builds a sense of shared responsibility.
    Leadership isn’t something that comes from the top-down only or rests solely in the hands of the HR team. Organizations must embrace leadership as a shared responsibility at the institution, department, team and individual levels. Not only is this a smart and effective succession planning strategy for colleges and universities, but it can also help develop leaders with a clear vision and ultimately set these organizations up for long-term success.

Davenport University: A Case Study For Leadership Development

Davenport University is over 150 years old. Based in Michigan, it is home to 7,000 students spread across 10 campuses throughout the state, including a significant online presence as part of its global campus. Davenport’s Office of Performance Excellence currently has just six employees serving over 600 full- or part-time faculty and staff, plus 600 adjunct faculty.

In 2016, Lynda Cribari, executive director of performance excellence, and John Niedzielski, director of learning design and strategy, started to notice a downward trend in their employee satisfaction numbers. This also came at a time when enrollment numbers across the U.S. higher education sector resulted in increased competition and pressures to reduce costs.

In response to these trends, these administrators set an ambitious goal to cultivate creative, engaged and impactful leaders within their institution across three key business drivers: employee engagement, succession planning and employee recruitment.

The challenge was to achieve these goals in a budget-neutral manner, all while maintaining Davenport’s high levels of quality education and student service. Their solution? EmpowerU, powered by Cornerstone’s Learning platform and Connect tool, a leadership development system focused on employee engagement and connectedness.

Nurturing Rising Leaders

With the help of Cornerstone, Davenport designed a custom leadership development track for its employees: a nine-month program with 60 hours of in-seat curriculum and real-world collaborative projects focused specifically on understanding Davenport’s financial model. Staff and faculty members are encouraged throughout the program to consider how their new skills can support Davenport through the entire student life cycle — from move-in to graduation.

Prior to implementing Cornerstone, Davenport’s leadership training was organized by sharing various bits of learning-oriented content via email. This created a rather chaotic and disjointed learning experience for all involved. Davenport soon leveraged the Cornerstone Connect community to create unique learning cohorts around critical issues like what it takes to recruit the right talent for Davenport and how to plan for the next generation of leaders.

The true value of EmpowerU, however, has been the flexibility and connectedness of the leadership training module. Because Davenport runs a multi-campus university, its employees needed a way to learn and collaborate from virtually anywhere with ease. Cornerstone allowed them to do just that. And on top of that, it also gives employees a space to share comments, personal stories and best practices with each other.

Driving Measurable Results

By putting employee engagement and leadership into focus through EmpowerU, Davenport has been able to achieve some impressive results. For starters, the university grew its overall employee satisfaction score from 3.65 (weighted out of 5) in the 2016-17 academic year to 3.74 and 3.79, respectively, in the following two academic years. Participants in the leadership program also reported a 23-33 percent increase in their leadership knowledge during the same periods.

Davenport has also its leadership training to underscore the value of diversity, define inclusion as a core value and set specific behavioral expectations for all employees. The university’s senior leaders, including the president and members of the board of trustees, have become actively involved in mentoring high performers on their leadership skills as well. These initiatives helped Davenport receive a number of workplace awards, including the 2019-20 Association for Talent Development Excellence in Practice Award.

Leadership Development Requires the Right Tools and Techniques

The Davenport University case study is a perfect example of how making leadership development a priority, academic institutions can deepen their pool of future leadership talent, empower faculty and staff members to take charge of their own career progression, and double down on their commitments to diversity and inclusion. Part of this includes:

  • Ongoing faculty and staff recognition
    Just like recognizing academic staff and faculty for their research contributions, it’s equally important to recognize them for their leadership skills. This can be as simple as creating new awards to make internal leadership more visible or simply involving your top performers to share their experiences and best practices during training sessions.
  • Tailored in-house training
    Leadership training is not one-size-fits-all. It needs to align to your institution’s culture, goals, values and future strategies. The success of Davenport’s leadership program through EmpowerU is directly attributed to how it tailored the program to address its specific leadership needs.
  • Mentoring and coaching to rising talent
    One of your greatest assets in leadership development stems directly from your existing leaders. Seek out ways to pair senior leaders with junior faculty or staff members, giving them new opportunities to learn from each other. This can either be in a structured environment or in a more informal setting, like a monthly coffee catch-up (either virtual or in-person). The idea here is simple: tap into your existing leaders to groom your future leaders and other rising stars.

Great Leadership Can Steer the Ship in the Right Direction

By now it should be clear that higher ed institutions need to spend an abundance of time and effort recognizing and nurturing the leadership potential within the ranks of their faculty and staff. Aside from being a solid succession planning strategy, it’s also a great way to create cohesion and collaboration across teams — even when separated at different campuses.

The time is now to harness your faculty and staff’s leadership potential, not only because it’s a smart way to boost engagement, satisfaction and happiness among employees, but also because it’s simply a better way for your college or university to continue growing and driving a positive impact on all stakeholders — especially students — for years to come.

Cornerstone is offering ten free courses to help you develop and evolve your institution’s future leaders. Click here to gain access.