Leading Substantial Change on Campus -- on a BudgetMake sure you have the support for your changes from your dean, provost and maybe even the president, and discuss the nature of them.
Change management is a lot like crisis management— nobody wants to do it, so we do it out of necessity,” said Dr. Norean R. Sharpe, senior associate dean and director of undergraduate programs for the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
When faced with a crisis or a situation that requires hard change, leaders can do one of two things. “We could step up to the plate and learn how to deal with change, or sit on the bench and hand over the bat to the player in the on-deck circle,” she explained. “We always have choices.”
Sharpe, who earned a PhD in systems engineering at the University of Virginia, knows from personal experience how difficult it is to lead change. Three years ago, she came into her Georgetown office that had been vacant for six months. As the school’s fourth dean in six years, she found that the position’s reputation of being a revolving door was well-deserved.
During her tenure Sharpe has managed to enact some substantial changes despite budgetary restraints. She discussed change management at the ACE Women Administrators in Higher Education one-day conference held in Washington DC in September.
Updating the brand
Before joining Georgetown, Sharpe chaired the math, science and statistics department at Babson College MA. She credits her stint there with opening her to change and its possibilities. “My time at Babson absolutely prepared me to enact change,” she said. “I was ready and willing to lead change.”
Babson is an international leader in management education with a specialization in entrepreneurship. It provided Sharpe with many professional challenges.
When asked by her Babson colleagues why she was leaving, she admitted recognizing the opportunity to make a difference at Georgetown, which she said had been “living on brand equity.” Comparing the two programs to the old proverb of the lion and the gazelle, Babson was hungry for opportunity and sought it with enterprising ideas, while Georgetown was the lion, more roar than bite.
“I realized the Georgetown program was in need of updating,” she said. Curriculum development was the vehicle Sharpe would utilize to improve the school’s undergraduate business program.
Georgetown’s Jesuit foundation and mission emphasizes social outreach and social justice. One of Sharpe’s ideas was to combine the nonprofit sector with the entrepreneurship model to create more volunteer opportunities for students.
That idea spawned the new entrepreneur fellows program. This nine-credit program features a gateway course plus an experiential program for students’ senior year.
About one-third of students who were eligible enrolled in the fellows program during its first year, with 80 more on the wait list. Its success has resulted in an expansion during its second year.
Along with the fellows program came a new first-year seminar, “International Business, Public Policy and Society.” This unique and optional educational opportunity featured a nonprofit case competition.
Sharpe also led the change that developed a new business minor for all students, a new international business program, a new operations major with potential for a joint major with the computer science department and new global programs in Shanghai and Barcelona. She plans to focus on global business education for the next two years.
Other changes she made include building new partnerships with non- and for-profit companies, expanding the alumni mentor and peer advising programs, starting a “Bagels with the Dean” informal coffee hour that attracts 300 students each week, and collaborating with the school’s career center to strengthen student recruitment.
She’s hired six new staff since her arrival, including a new senior assistant dean and an office manager, while adding only one new position. “I have very high expectations of my staff,” she said, noting that the turnover offered her a chance to hire her own team.
Although Sharpe came in with change management experience, it wasn’t easy. “There’s always resistance,” she noted. “You can prepare for it and think you’re prepared, but there’s always a surprise. I knew through the interviews that there was a vacuum at the top and that it was going to be tough. It was tougher than I expected.” Her solution? Small, steady steps—and a thick skin.
Leaders are prone to making two classic mistakes: assuming that they’re finished with learning and thinking that they know it all. “A good quality leader is always learning,” said Sharpe. With each new challenge comes another layer of skin, which continues to remain elastic instead of hardening.
“Too often, as people rise through the ranks they begin to think ‘I’ve been doing this a long time,’” she said. “But I think there’s always something new for me to learn.”
For her, learning meant getting to know new faculty and meeting the 1,400 business school students, plus those enrolled in the business minor. Working with administrators and making connections with peers in other departments were also learning opportunities.
Her 20 years as a faculty member helped Sharpe understand the need for consensus building. She was fortunate to have a critical mass of faculty who agreed that “we could benefit from change.” Some believe that asking for advice is a sign of weakness, but “I think it’s a sign of strength,” she said.
During her first months, she was on the phone to her counterparts in the other three divisions at Georgetown: the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Nursing and Health Studies and the Walsh School of Foreign Service, as well as with the dean of the MBA program. One set of student affairs offices for admissions and financial aid serves all four schools.
Sharpe looked to others to learn the Georgetown culture. She wasn’t afraid to ask them what they would do in a particular situation.
In driving change, Sharpe also looked outside of Georgetown, benchmarking the school’s programs with others that were excelling. She compared Georgetown’s programs with those at the Stern School of Business at New York University for its social enterprise emphasis and at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia for its global focus.
Site visits allowed Sharpe time for discussion with peers at other schools. “I think it’s very important to ask others for advice and assistance,” she said.
Start with a pilot
“I learned to adapt when I was at Babson,” she said. “I learned to know when spearheading change was beneficial.”
While leaders can’t wave a magic wand to obtain consensus, Sharpe did discover a key phrase to get faculty onboard. “If you say to faculty and staff ‘We’re going to view this new program as a pilot program,’ it’s a magic pill and it’s easier for them to swallow,” she said.
Obtaining student support for the changes meant meeting them on their turf. Whether it was through the informal coffee hour with the dean, Facebook pages, blogs or chat rooms, seeking student feedback helped her to gain buy-in and tweak program details. At Georgetown, students led the way in changes to the advising process.
The first year seminar began as a pilot. At the end of the second year, there was enough data to evaluate its progress. The data was positive and faculty voted to make it a permanent elective.
“It’s a wise strategy,” she said of the decision to pilot new programs, especially these days with few resources available and the need to limit risk.
You can tweak the details of a pilot before enshrining it as a permanent fixture. You can share information on the pilot with donors seeking to fund programs that are showing success. “With fewer resources, incremental improvement makes the most sense,” said Sharpe.
Launching new initiatives takes money, often large amounts. Sharpe and her staff worked with the school’s development office and advisory boards to raise the needed funds after receiving the provost’s approval for them and developing a strategic plan.
With a strategic plan, you know what kinds of changes you can make with little effort and which ones will yield the greatest impact. You can identify the changes that will support the vision and mission of your program and the school, especially one with a strong religious identity.
As the leading advocate for the initiatives, Sharpe needed to be “knowledgeable, enthusiastic and visible.” She traveled to alumni events and board meetings to speak, opening the door to be able to make the “ask” especially to successful alumni. “They’re happy to be generous and give back to the schools because they had a good experience,” she said.
Funding a new scholarship, an international program or an endowed chair can leave a bigger mark on the school than a name on a building. Prepare an “elevator pitch” for each initiative.
You can learn to embrace change. “If a female administrator is willing to broaden her horizon and look beyond the status quo, change can be learned and practiced,” said Sharpe. “With every success we change and we get better at it.”
Acknowledge that gender will likely impact your progress. “I believe that gender played a role in how some people reacted to me in my desire to change and improve the program,” she said. “Some faculty are gender blind and act professionally at all times. Others are not used to a woman leader who’s assertive, confident and leading change. It can be challenging for a woman coming into a new office.”
Five easy pieces
Sharpe offers five caveats for making change:
• Expect resistance. “Realize that by nature people don’t like change,” said Sharpe. “This did not come naturally to me. I was naïve and thought all people liked, or at least understood, the need for change.” While at Babson, faculty and staff learned that change provides opportunities for innovation, experimentation and improvement.
• Manage up. “Make sure you have the support for your changes from your dean, provost and maybe even the president, and the nature of them,” said Sharpe. “Develop strong relationships with your boss and your boss’s boss.” Don’t go over your boss’s head, but find a way to interact with her boss.
• Manage down. Staff is critical to the success of any program. Recognize their accomplishments, encourage them if they’re having a hard time with the changes and compliment them if they’re working hard for the team.
Transparency and communication are the foundations for a healthy working relationship. Sharpe holds regular weekly staff meetings and has an open door policy.
“Give your staff autonomy and independence to develop and manage their own projects,” she said. “Then nominate them for awards, recognition and merit raises if they do an outstanding job.”
• Ask questions. “If there’s one thing I hope I teach my staff, it’s that when in doubt, don’t assume … ask,” she said.
Upon arrival at Georgetown, Sharpe conducted focus groups of students. She set up lunches with department chairs, developed relationships with board members and traveled to other schools to benchmark similar programs and to speak with their deans. “When you put all these constituents together, that’s a lot of knowledge and advice.”
• Take risks. Leading takes courage. It’s not for the faint of heart. Not willing to take those risks? Perhaps its time to rethink your career goals.
“If you’ve done your benchmarking, you have the support of students, faculty and higher management, then take a risk,” she said. “Innovate, explore, experiment.”
With today’s unique challenges to higher education, knowing how to make positive change is a crucial skill for leaders.
Contact: Nrs35@georgetown.edu or 202.687.4370
Santovec, Mary Lou. (2011, November). Leading Substantial Change on Campus -- on a Budget. Women in Higher Education, 20(11), p. 1-3.