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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lessons from a Phenomenal Turnaround

You may not know it, but one of the great turnarounds in American academic history is going on right up the road in Bowling Green, KY at Western Kentucky University. About seven years ago Dr. Gary Ransdell, a WKU alum and academic administrator extraordinaire took over the reigns at a campus whose facilities and maintenance had sunk to a level only surpassed in depth by its staff and faculty morale. This Fall Semester, WKU surpassed the University of Kentucky in undergraduate enrollment and launched a new multi-year plan to become "A Great American University with International Reach". Don't bet against this guy and his team. (By the way, Business and Culture SPU, we've published worse business and leadership books than this guy could write for us!)

How did he do it, and what can we in leadership positions learn from it?

1. Come to stay, and commit. Ransdell stated from his first day on the job that he intended to retire as President of WKU. Others before him used the university as a resume-builder. The critical learning for any leader is that your people match your commitment. If you want theirs, go all in yourself or go somewhere else.

2. Physical facilities matter. The university had crumbled around itself, and the first thing you sell to prospective students, or employees, is their work or learning environment. Physical setting is also a measure of how committed an organization is to the people who labor there, so if what you have around you is disrepair and disorganization, you've just told your people how little you care about the place they live half their lives, and them.

3. Take responsibility for your own destiny. The last administration took paper towels and toilet paper out of the public buildings on the weekends to save money, and stopped doing a whole host of things because of "inadequate state funding". They were victims, not leaders. Ransdell raised $85 million in alumni donations and not only fixed the existing buildings, but built new ones. He didn't whine because he was underfunded; he took responsibility. As leaders, how many times do we not do something because our budget proposal was shot down, rather than getting creative and determined in finding a way to make it happen for the money we do have to spend? Budget-as-victimization is so rampant in business and government, not just academics, that you wonder how we get anything done.

4. Increase compensation, but not for everyone. Ransdell identified "programs of distinction" where the existing faculty had the potential to be world class. These programs got increased faculty compensation, increased scholarships to attract the best students, and sometimes new buildings. How many times has the Good to Great book's "World Class Talent" admonition been used as an entitlement rallying cry by average performers wanting more money (i.e. "if we want world class talent around here we need to start paying world class salaries")? In any business, but especially in a turnaround situation, limited resources have to be allocated to those who return the greatest value. It is a martial-arts type focusing of strength to produce the greatest results. Its also the greatest example of the Good to Great principles: put your resources where you can be best in the world, not where you can go from average to above average.

5. Articulate a bold vision and enroll others in it. The fund raising campaigns of Ransdell's predecessors and the College Heights Foundation (the university's fund raising or "development" arm) had previously been, "We don't get enough money from the state and we need help from you alumni who profited from your education here". Exciting and engaging? Hardly! The fund raising emphasis under Ransdell has been, "This can be a great American institution, not just a regional university, and we want you to be a part of the unthinkable: Western Kentucky University, your alma mater, as a world-class institution known all over the world as a place of academic and research excellence". Where his predecessors couldn't keep paper towels in the restrooms and the carpets cleaned, the alumi pledged over $85 million in the first five years and more for the new multi-year plan revealed earlier this month.

What's our critical learning from the WKU example? Simple: when you come to stay, take a stand for an audacious and unthinkable goal, enroll a few evangelists in the unthinkable (the twelve disciples, for example), focus your early limited resources simultaneously on maintenance and on those who can get you part of the way there quickly (those tangible improvements and quick wins bring you more enrollees in your vision) then you can transform anything into anything else. In my lifetime a Nobel nominee in science will come from what was a crumbling local college in Kentucky because someone with vision spoke a new reality into the world. The situation where you are is almost certainly no worse, and is probably better; so what can you do?

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