Friday, September 11, 2009

Building on Strengths at Branch Campuses

I think often about the implications of so-called "strengths-based leadership." A key element of focusing on strengths is that we talk and worry less about our deficits than about how we can release the capacity in individuals and organizations, so that the work environment is more positive, and the sense of excitement and accomplishment grows.

Recently, I listened to someone interviewing for a very senior administrative position talk about his commitment to being an effective leader. He told us that he had taken a workshop on leadership that included an assessment of various leadership qualities and provided a list of how those qualities applied to him, from strongest to weakest. He then went out and got training on the three qualities that were most weak, so he could get better in those areas.

Clearly, he thought he had done something significant and, perhaps, even a bit courageous. I thought it was a remarkable waste of time and energy. Why would anyone do that? Whatever success he has had is almost certainly about his strengths, not his weaknesses. From the perspective of building on strengths, he'd be much better off understanding what works well for him, how he can apply his talents most effectively, and how he can enlist others, with different strengths, to bring balance to the organization.

When I think about branch campuses, several thoughts related to releasing capacity come to mind. First, a successful branch campus, offering a good work environment, will encourage faculty and staff to build on their strengths. Leaders will hire carefully, seeking people who will thrive at a branch campus, embracing the mission, rather than feeling as if they should be somewhere "more significant."

Positive branch faculty will recognize the challenge of working with place bound students and seek ways to broaden students' horizons, support their achievement, and celebrate the drama of their success. Given a chance, students on branch campuses become our best ambassadors, sharing how their education changed their lives.

A campus with a positive sense of itself will engage meaningfully with the local community, seeking those intersections where institutional possibilities line up with community need. Engaged partnership will allow all of the partners to learn from each other, create synergies through their respective strengths, and have an impact that none of them could have, alone.

Because I believe that most branch campuses can thrive only if they find their special, particular niche, I also believe they need to be attentive to which courses, programs, and services make the greatest difference to student success. Again, it is a matter of building on strengths, rather than trying to do too much and spreading resources too thin.

If branches build on the strengths of their mission, context, and people, they can create exceptionally positive opportunities. On the other hand, almost everything about the branch environment can be turned into a negative, and people can become more cynical and fatalistic, than empowered and creative. I've seen both, and I am convinced that it is a matter of individual and collective choice.

Regardless of whether a campus cultivates a positive environment or not, the problems and frustrations of academic life will come around. The difference between a positive and a negative environment affects how people work together, share leadership in a way that releases, rather than suppresses talent, and maintains confidence that problems can be overcome.