You would think that an Ivy League institution like Cornell University would be a model of the best practices of leadership throughout its organization since Cornell and most universities believe they are growing the next generation of leaders for our country and our world. Well… not necessarily and not always. While Cornell executive leadership can be exemplary, there were and still are times when units within this very large institution needed significant improvement. I was asked to lead a cultural turnaround in a large section of Cornell’s non-academic infrastructure. Over time, this intervention prevented lawsuits and arbitrations, increased customer satisfaction, increased revenues, reduced expenses, personnel problems, worker’s compensation claims, and turnover.
We chose to change our culture from a “top-down, my way or the highway” model to a values-based collaborative one. In any organization, what is rewarded and measured is what you will get. With a giant leap of faith, we invested in our leaders. We required every person who had supervisory responsibilities to attend a nine-day intensive training spread over three-four months.
Our leaders completed the program knowing, not guessing, what was expected of them, as leaders of their teams and as models for our entire organization. The experiential, highly interactive course included intensive exploration and training in 4 core Masteries: Personal Mastery, Interpersonal Mastery, Team Mastery and Culture and Systems Mastery.
They learned a great deal about their impact as a leader on everyone around them, a humbling experience for most. They learned and practiced how to communicate effectively and resolve conflicts, build teams to succeed, lead meetings that didn’t waste time, lead change that would stick, walk the talk with our organizational values, and finally how to engage and manage our talent. They also learned how they would be held accountable to our high standard of leadership behaviors. We began to measure performance for both business and behavioral results. That got everyone’s attention!
After three years of running our program, we had more than 200 leaders on board. We then required our entire staff to attend a week-long intensive program. This involved several more years and another 1,800 people, 60% of whom were union employees. We remained steadfastly committed to having all our staff from custodians, plumbers, and bus drivers to engineers, architects, and finance directors, trained in the culture we wanted to create and the culture we expected each of our people to honor.
Prior to the leadership intervention, our campus customers said we took too long and were too expensive. We also received powerful feedback that customers did not like working with us because of leader and staff attitudes. This of course directly correlated to our proposal win-rate of only about 40% of the bids in our facilities related departments. In reality, we were not any more expensive than others. Our real problem was we were not holding our leaders and staff accountable. High quality service was not a value before we started. We were a mediocre, at best, institutional operation with a sense of entitlement.
The results of our extensive experiment were nothing short of remarkable— and we found that positive, impactful leadership leads to great bottom line results. We managed university budget cuts with grace; we had far less turn over than the university as a whole and even lower than national averages for the same job categories.
Soon after the program was implemented, our internal customers started to notice. Our productivity grew each year and our facility bids were winning over 70% of the time. Because we were awarded more contracts and generated more revenue, we had a positive impact on the university and on our city. It is no accident that millions of dollars were saved because of one and only one intervention—teaching our leaders how to lead their people well in a solid values-based culture. More than 50% of our custodians had perfect attendance and we celebrated them. We received more applications than anywhere else on campus and became the ‘division of choice,’ where people wanted to work.
All of these stunning results were a direct result of the heightened quality of leadership throughout our entire organization. Our colleagues and customers could count on our people to do a great job, as promised, when promised, and with a good attitude—plain and simple.
During this time and over the next ten years, we experienced only two arbitrations, both of which we won. No lawsuits were filed against us by employees and we had very few Step 3 grievances from our four unions. Imagine this—the unions did not complain or file grievances even when their members were, like the leaders, required to receive an anonymous 360o feedback report on their impact in the workplace and required to attend training.
I co-conducted a professional peer review of a nearly identical campus on the west coast (size, structure, unions, facilities, budget, number of staff). They had no leadership or staff training in place, were not focused on customer service or accountability, and spent millions of dollars every year on arbitrations and employee law suits, most of which they lost. The only material differences between our campuses were geography and the quality of the leadership. Their leadership was measurably dysfunctional and ineffective; ours was functional and effective. We spent half a million dollars to train our people and restructure our reward systems over 10 years. They spent five times that on one lost lawsuit in one year.
We learned from our experience in culture change that having the ability to lead others to success does not happen by accident; it takes solid values, a long-term and deep commitment, alignment, accountability, and great leadership.
About the Author
Leadership authority Roxana (Roxi) Hewertson is a no-nonsense business veteran revered for her nuts-and-bolts, tell-it-like-it-is approach and practical, out-of-the-box insights that help both emerging and expert managers, executives and owners boost quantifiable job performance in various mission critical facets of business. Through AskRoxi.com, Roxi — “the Dear Abby of Leadership” — imparts invaluable free advice to managers and leaders at all levels, from the bullpen to the boardroom, to help them solve problems, become more effective and realize a higher measure of business and career success.
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