Approaching Leadership as Entrepreneurship: Lessons from LCI 2016

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The Leading Change Institute (LCI), jointly offered by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and EDUCAUSE, is a unique opportunity for higher education library and IT leaders to experience a think tank where they can grapple with big picture issues that face our institutions and industry. As a participant of the June 2016 LCI in Washington, D.C., I experienced firsthand "the sky is the limit" environment created for my fellow participants and me to explore issues that await us as we aspire to the next level in our careers.

To stimulate our imaginations, the wonderful facilitating team of Joanne Kossuth and Elliott Shore created a trusting environment of deep exploration to promote collaboration and new ideas. They also delivered real-world learning by inviting a long list of esteemed guests, including university and college presidents, provosts, CIOs, a vice president of communications, leadership from CLIR and NACUBO, and more to participate in the week-long event. These individuals are at the forefront of making or influencing change in higher ed. By sharing their leadership experiences and challenges, they not only inspired our LCI cohort but also pushed us to think beyond our own operational experiences and required us to use our compressed time to make fast, unfettered decisions, exercising our minds and instincts in ways we're often unaccustomed to on campus.

As is the case with any learning development activity I engage in, my expectation going into the week was to walk away with at least one applicable learning. In all honesty, there was so much to take away that I am still processing it after more than two months; however, a particular concept permeated our sessions and has continued to stay present in my mind, enough so that I want to share it with others: entrepreneurial leadership.

By its very nature the LCI program is an exercise in entrepreneurial leadership: it requires participants to use their strengths to lead themselves and their teams to find unique or untapped solutions or opportunities to address problems. Entrepreneurial leadership moves ideas into action to bring about change or to make something new happen. The overused term "innovation" may elicit eye rolls, but it is implicit in this leadership approach, as it allows for more experimentation, risk taking, and creativity when seeking solutions.

Many of the LCI presentations and discussions addressed incentivizing innovation. Janet Steinmayer, current president at Mitchell College in Connecticut and trustee of Bryn Mawr College and Lesley University, believes in creating incentives for campus stakeholders in order to promote change. Innovation funds are an example of this and, in her perspective, will be critical tools for motivating staff and faculty as institutional visions shift to meet the future needs of higher education.

Like others who spoke at LCI, Steinmayer's background is not in higher education. She was the CEO of a company that supports new food and beverage business development and innovation, angel investments, and branding knowledge—clearly a different path from many university and college presidents. This business background was evident as she shared her view on higher education challenges, suggesting it is critical to accept that we are now in a "buyer's market," which requires institutions to reframe their focus from the long-term traditional approach and revisit the importance of a competitive position.

Funding innovation was the principal focus of the discussion led by Richard Culatta, chief innovation officer with the State of Rhode Island (formerly with the U.S. Department of Education) and Nick Lee from the Gates Foundation. Their position is that innovation can be broken into tangible and achievable components. They defined it as something that breaks the status quo; that scales; that happens in a timely fashion; and that shows real outcomes/metrics for the problem you are trying to solve. Culatta and Lee posited that if we want to bring about change in higher education, we must quit thinking of innovation as a narrow "first in the world" concept and see it as a method for thinking about old problems in a new way. One example they shared was Ideas42, an organization that uses behavioral science as a means of solving current societal problems. They believe that using this approach to understand the educational experience could free our institutions from the default "boil the ocean" way of solving bigger problems. Instead, behavioral science provides a way to bring things down to shorter-term timelines and a smaller, iterative-solutions methodology.

They also shared thoughts about how higher education can leverage its customers and students to help with this approach to innovation, citing the Young Invincibles, which gives voice to 18- to 34-year-olds in the area of health reform, as a smaller-scale model to draw on. Why not have student mentors help push or guide us to think differently or more practically, to choose or configure the systems and processes they interact with on campuses? This could include the learning management system, the student information system, or any technology that will enhance and improve the student experience, and, more importantly, students' ability to gain the most out of the educational experience.

For me, the "aha" moment on entrepreneurial leadership came when Paula Young, a technology entrepreneur and current CEO and owner of Data Gravity, shared her business experiences. Paula defined the entrepreneurial leader as an enabler, one who uses their leadership skills to motivate teams to innovate and create, take appropriate risks, and not fear failure or focus too much on success when moving ideas into action. Paula's illustrative learnings on accomplishing entrepreneurial leadership—to "start playing chess not checkers"—were amusing and impactful, but hearing her reference these concepts in the pursuit of pure entrepreneurial business, not higher education, was a refreshing way of revisiting the importance of leadership styles that support innovative problem solving. We can lose track of this in our "get it done" campus environments where innovation and creativity are perceived as too time-consuming.

So just how can entrepreneurial leadership change the way we approach our daily activities and allow us to consider these business constructs and approaches to innovation? And how do we as library and IT leaders incorporate entrepreneurial leadership in a meaningful way that can influence the entire academy from our operationally focused situations? These are the questions I was pondering while in Washington and continue to mull over now.

Still at LCI, and right after Paula's session, I took time to write down some reflections on entrepreneurial leadership, buzzing with some of the ideas I was hearing. Here are a few of my raw, "in the moment" thoughts:

  • We can develop strong solutions and ideas with just the germ of an idea—we just need something to start with.
  • Supporting innovation can be fun, chaotic, confusing, and, depending on the level of risk and inhibitions of participants, uncomfortable—but that's OK.
  • Weaknesses will surface within teams when approaching the unknown, but everyone has strengths to contribute and can shine.
  • Encouragement and feedback are required to help people develop the courage to participate and continue in problem-solving activities.
  • Celebration is important and encouraged.
  • Clarity and process are more necessary for some than for others.
  • Short time frames force outcomes.
  • We need to fail often and be OK with this.

My conclusion is that as entrepreneurial leaders, we need to "lean into" these actions and processes in order to encourage those we support and influence. Clearly, we cannot get away from the operational challenges that we face and only think about the bigger picture for higher education—for now, we have to leave it to those who are already in those key leadership positions to focus at that level. Despite that, we can instill our environments and teams with an openly supportive approach to innovation and ideation so that these become the norm in our projects and operational pursuits.

Similarly, and a key slogan our LCI cohort adopted, we need to be "casting a wider net" by seeking new approaches and/or learning from others' successful approaches, joining with peers in our individual organizations and at other institutions to advance our collective goals. The LCI is a means for facilitating these cross-institutional huddles, and our cohort has already kicked off a number of working groups so that we can engage each other in idea brainstorms.

LCI changed the way that my cohort and I will think about the problems we are facing in our own institutions and across the higher education sector. At the end of that stimulating week, I headed back to my institution eager to bring it all home, feeling a little dazed, bedazzled, and reenergized. My imagination was stretched to its capacity. LCI was both a mindful and heartful experience—and it felt like a very urgent experience too—because higher education needs new and promising solutions to the challenges that are its future. It's never too late to enhance the tools in our kit so we can inspire and engage our teams and get out of the way when needed. Giving us time to stretch and play in an open and supportive space like LCI is the best way to nudge us along the leadership path. If we want to make change happen, real and sustainable change, entrepreneurial leadership may be the right approach for building a level of "yes we can" to inspire greater potential in ourselves and in those we lead.

Gayleen Gray is deputy CIO and associate director of computing and communications services at the University of Guelph.

© 2016 Gayleen Gray. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.