How a Horseshoe Can Remind Leaders About Our Institutional Why

Lately, as I continue hearing and reading stories about the Great Resignation, I find myself thinking a lot about a seven-foot-tall blue horse.

Let me back up.

Earlier this year, after boarding my homebound flight from Indianapolis and walking to my assigned seat, I found myself squeezing past a regulation NFL helmet, adorned with the Indianapolis Colts’ blue horseshoe, sitting all by itself in the seat next to mine. A skinny guy with a baseball cap stepped into my row, stuffed the helmet under the seat in front of him, and sat down.

And that was how I was introduced to Trey Mock, the man who created and has been playing the role of Blue, the Indianapolis Colts’ mascot since 2006.

Mock was escorting Jonathan Taylor’s helmet out to California where the two of them were scheduled to meet and shoot a promo spot. (Why an NFL mascot was schlepping an NFL player’s equipment is a story for someone else to write.)

On our 40-minute flight from Indianapolis to Detroit, I would learn that Blue is a mascot with a mission.

Mock told me wonderfully vivid and moving stories about how Blue brings joy to multi-generational fans and to Make-a-Wish families struggling with life-threatening illnesses, and how, in school visits around the Indianapolis area, he routinely breaks two cardinal mascot rules (never speak; never remove your mask) to empower high schoolers to use their own voices and find their own identities.

As I heard him share his story, I realized that, of all the personalities associated with the Colts since 2006—Manning, Wayne, Luck—this giant, fluffy, googly-eyed horse has been a constant, creating a connection to the Indianapolis Colts that transcends roster changes, coaching transitions, wins and losses. More importantly, he has created a greater sense of community among the organization’s fans.

For Mock, who looked straight into my eyes with the deep conviction of an evangelist: “It’s all about the Horseshoe.”

So what does this have to do with news reports of the Great Resignation, including Marci Walton’s spot-on observation this spring that “campus staff members are beyond burned out. They are done. And they are leaving or thinking about it in droves”?

Walton describes legions of college employees who are suffering from a fundamental disconnect: they no longer feel that they are being compensated properly for their work, and their work has, in many cases, become more expansive than what they signed up for.

Beyond that, their work may be lacking the very thing that elevates a guy who plays a stuffed animal from being a mere laugh-getter to a community ambassador who fervently tells his organization’s story to strangers on a plane.

It’s all about a deep personal connection and resonance with an institutional sense of purpose.

You might call it their Horseshoe.

Simon Sinek, in his seminal TEDx talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” argues that great organizations separate themselves from the pack because their leaders understand and translate clearly “why” they do what they do, not just “what” they do or “how” they do it. In doing so, those organizations’ leaders help their members understand that they are connected to an organization that does work that is not only different (a market position) but makes a difference (a mission-driven position).

Few go into higher ed for the money, but when people don’t feel—truly feel—that their work is aligned with their values, that they are connected to a higher purpose, that they are seen and heard (and appreciated) by colleagues and leaders … well, the relationship between workload and compensation becomes much more transactional than transformational, and significantly more problematic.

For many institutions, the past two years of this pandemic have thrown yet another smothering blanket on institutional morale, which has been struggling for air under years of growing enrollment pressures, flat or declining tuition revenue, and austerity measures like pay freezes or employee reductions (or both). This last combination is a particularly nasty double-whammy that leaves the “survivors” not only with feelings of anxiety or guilt, but also, with fewer colleagues remaining to share the load, more work for the same (or less) compensation.

Unfortunately, many college leaders, themselves responding to multiple institutional threats—health, financial, political, and, for some, existential—are focused so much on the “what” and “how” of threat mitigation that they may be losing sight of their “why,” the very thing that drew people to join their cause in the first place.

When a shared, coherent sense of institutional values and purpose is missing, complaints about compensation and burnout become ever louder, morale and cooperation can fade into the background, and—yes—employees will start envisioning a better life for themselves outside their institution, which will only further put pressure on institutional finances when the cost of talent replacement exceeds the cost of talent retention.

But institutions need not resign themselves to this fate. Even as they work to address compensation and work-life balance issues, there are ways—some large, some small—that leaders can rekindle the flame that ignites their employees around a common purpose.

What does your institution stand for?

Many of your employees may be able to rattle off facts about your institution—the year of its founding, the size of its student population, popular majors—but do they know what your institution is about? 

Your institution was founded for a reason, and chances are pretty good it started with someone (or a group of someones) dreaming big. What were those dreams, and what do they mean today? How would your institution’s founders see the threats and opportunities facing your institution now? Would they recognize the institution they founded? Would they be proud of it?

Look for interesting or noteworthy moments in your institution’s history around which your community can share an identity or a cause: Does it have a first in its history? Did a president make a courageous stand that changed the course of the institution? Does it have a track record of inclusivity and belonging? Is service to others a hallmark? Is it generating research that makes the world better? Are there stories about your institution’s alumni, or faculty, or staff that you are proud to tell? What elements of those stories are core to the very being of your institution?

Stories are far more powerful than data points. They can motivate and inspire your colleagues.

What’s your institution’s story?

Widen your umbrella of care.

Higher ed work is about transforming students’ lives, to be sure, but it shouldn’t only be about students. “Mission-based gaslighting,” the powerful term Walton uses to describe institutional expectations of self-emptying service to students, can browbeat university employees into settling for less, be it work-life balance, support, recognition, or compensation.

We need to expand our institutions’ mission of service beyond our students to our employees, as well, deploying for our teams and each other the same level of care we provide for our students. For example, my colleague, Susana Briscoe-Alba, founder of Grit & Purpose Academy, focuses on creating environments where everyone is made to feel “seen, heard, and valued,” so they, in turn, can do the same for their students.

Nikki Kāhealani Chun, the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, spent the first several months of her tenure holding “talk story” sessions with each of the people on her expansive team. These one-on-one or small group sessions would last from one to three hours, anchored by three questions: How did you come to work at our institution? What brings you back every day? What do you wish people knew about your job? For many members of her team, it was the first time they had been asked any of these questions, especially by one of the institution’s leaders.

Seen, heard and valued, indeed.

Build trust and investment by sharing the facts, even the difficult ones.

Do your staff and faculty know who your students are? Where they come from? What they expect from the institution? Why they choose your institution? Why most of your admitted students chose to enroll elsewhere? Why some persist to graduation and others do not?

What about the financial threats to and opportunities for your institution?

The economy within the world of shared governance works best with shared facts. Information is one of the most valuable assets at a college or university, and when it is in short supply, faculty and staff will buy and sell alternate currencies like rumor, gossip, or speculation. For a healthy and open campus economy, don’t hoard your informational wealth; spread it.

At Lawrence University, for example, President Laurie Carter has engaged the entire university community—including trustees, faculty, and staff—in a comprehensive information-sharing tour, enlightening members about the institution’s strengths and challenges in a way that has provided all of them with a sort of institutional GPS, helping them all understand where they are so that they all see where to go, together.

Share your data. Keep your community updated. Consider sharing with your faculty and staff—together, if possible—relevant institutional data stories you are sharing at your trustee meetings. If you are willing to trust your faculty and staff with important information, it can foster an environment of mutual trust toward institutional leadership and toward each other.

Do the work with your team.

Sometimes leading means getting down in the mess with your colleagues, doing the hard work with them, and sometimes for them. For example, Dan Lugo, president of Queens University of Charlotte, believes in the importance of showing the struggle—an act of presidential vulnerability where he “invites people” to see how he approaches getting hard work done. He does it not as some performative act of sweat equity, but to share that, like his colleagues around campus, he is in it with them. “People will follow you if you invite them in.”

And when you invite them in, you also signal that you value their perspective and opinion. 

Before starting something new, try stopping something else.

New ideas, plans, initiatives, and projects can be exciting—but they can also be dispiriting in an environment where people already feel overstretched and overburdened (and under-appreciated and under-compensated). In higher ed we’re great at trying new things, but not so great at creating capacity for those new things by reducing or eliminating other things, be it agendaless meetings, performative reporting, or administrivia. It’s time for college leaders to take counterintuitive action: stop talking about stopping; instead, start stopping. 

Strive to be in the 47 percent.

A recent McKinsey & Company report, “When the Grass is Truly Greener: How Companies are Retaining Frontline Talent,” finds that while “53 percent of employers are experiencing greater voluntary turnover than seen in previous years,” nearly half are not experiencing that turnover.

The report by Fenton, Gandhi and Lauricella shows that the successful enterprises’ leaders do five things: energize their teams with meaningful work; invest in relationships between co-workers and managers; promote a culture of development; provide resources to balance stress and well-being; and motivate with financial and non-financial incentives.

How many of these five are true at your institution?

What would it cost to make them true?

What would it cost not to?

What would it take for your employees to sit down next to a random stranger on a plane or stand next to someone in a line and tell them, with the deep conviction of an evangelist, about your Horseshoe…and why would they be compelled to do so?

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Ken Anselment

Ken is the Dan Saracino Chair of Enrollment Management at RHB.