Friday Five: 2017’s best blog posts

It’s time for the annual look back at the year’s blog post and re-share the ones that gained the most interest.

Here are the top five, as judged by pageviews. Continue reading “Friday Five: 2017’s best blog posts”


The college presidency: A tough job, about to get tougher

Here’s what it takes to be a college president, according to a recent report by the Aspen Institute.

The late business management expert Peter Drucker is credited with saying that one of the four toughest jobs in the U.S. is that of the college president. (The other three tough jobs are church pastor, hospital CEO and president of the United States.) Whether Drucker ever actually made that claim is questionable, but, this blog post notwithstanding, the internet has taken this anecdote as gospel and run with it. Continue reading “The college presidency: A tough job, about to get tougher”

Can #highered move from hierarchical to networked?

JUN15_08_545754619_bFor many months now, I’ve been thinking a lot about the forces discussed in this great Harvard Business Review article about the need for organizations to shift from hierarchical to networked structures. And I’ve been wondering whether higher education, bound as it has been for centuries in a hierarchical structure, can make the shift to a networked one. Continue reading “Can #highered move from hierarchical to networked?”

Our #AMAHigherEd slide deck

Thanks to everyone who attended the presentation Charlie Melichar (@melicharlie) and I delivered on Tuesday at the American Marketing Association Higher Ed Marketing Symposium (#AMAHigherEd). And thanks for the follow-up questions and wonderful feedback. For those who missed it, or who want to reference any of the materials, our presentation slides from “Convergence: Marketers as Masters of the Mix” are below (and also on Slideshare). Unfortunately, the animated gifs don’t come through as they did in real time, but I hope it nevertheless provides some value to you.

It’s been a fun and invigorating conference, and I am thankful for the opportunity to present and to learn from so many smart and talented people. Unfortunately, I’ll miss the final day due to travel.

To all my comrades in higher ed marketing, old friends and new, who I had the chance to connect with these past few days, thanks for the insights, the conversations, the good food and drink, and the friendship. Keep doing amazing work.

I’ll have more to say about the conference in this week’s Friday Five. Until then, follow the conversation on Twitter via the #AMAHigherEd hashtag.

Corporate U? How about Military U?

I wonder what academics who feel uneasy about former business leaders taking the helm of colleges and universities think about the University of Texas’ decision to pick a Navy admiral as the sole finalist to lead that 15-campus system?

UT announced on Tuesday that Navy Adm. William McRaven, head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, is the sole finalist for the job of chancellor. This means that, barring any unusual occurrence, McRaven will assume the job in January 2015. According to the Washington Post coverage of the announcement, McRaven (UT class of 1977, journalism) beat out another non-academic — the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas — for the job.

Stepping into the role of college president or chancellor seems to be a good move for former CEOs and ex-politicians. Those appointments usually raise the eyebrows of faculty and staff, who fear that people from outside the academy don’t fully understand how higher education operates. Not surprisingly, some commenters on the Chronicle of Higher Education story about the McRaven announcement are skeptical.

According to the Chronicle, the UT board’s rationale for selecting a non-academic like McRaven has to do with his ability to manage large, complex organizations. Board chair Paul Foster says that he and his fellow regents believe campus presidents should have “extraordinary academic backgrounds and skills” but that the chancellor’s job was “more of a management and leadership role than a pure academic role.”

Under that rationale, the selection of a former CEO or ex-military leader may make sense. I’m not so sure about the selection of an ex-politician, though.

Say what you will about McRaven, he delivered one heck of a commencement speech at UT-Austin last spring.

Saturday Six: It’s like Friday Five, only a day later

April has been a crazy busy month. It always is. Still, I usually manage to sneak in at least one Friday Five during the cruelest month. But all of April’s Fridays have come and gone. So to atone for my oversight, I offer a tardy version of things that have caught my attention lately, with a bonus link.

  1. Education and the American middle class. You might have caught this New York Times Upshot post from earlier in the week about the decline of the American middle class. According to this report, median per capita income in the U.S. was $18,700 in 2010. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, caught up with the U.S., resulting in a two-way tie for first place. The author suggests that Canada has probably surpassed the U.S. in median per capita income by now, even though no research is available. Meanwhile, other nations are closing the gap. The first “three broad factors” contributing to this sluggish economic performance is  the fact that “educational attainment in the United States has risen far more slowly than in much of the industrialized world over the last three decades, making it harder for the American economy to maintain its share of highly skilled, well-paying jobs.” Perhaps this news could help higher ed marketers help rally people around support for higher education as an economic driver.
  2. What provosts think. Wonder what your provost is thinking? Inside Higher Ed‘s latest Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers may offer some insights. For one thing, they’re worried about budget (no surprise there). For another, they really, really don’t like President Obama’s proposed college rating system.
  3. Senior managers and SOSThe “shiny object syndrome” (SOS) hits us all at some point, but top-level leaders seem to be more susceptible than the rest of us, according to this piece by leadership dude Art Petty. “One of the value killers found inside many organizations,” he writes, “is the out of control pursuit of too many new initiatives. The resultant too few resources chasing too many projects, is a sure-fire way to create organizational stress as initiatives fall short, inefficiencies skyrocket and employees, stakeholders and customers grow perturbed.” His advice: A disciplined approach and “intelligent filtering” of all new initiatives — whether you’re part of the leadership team or farther down the ranks, where the work gets done.
  4. 7 tips to managing critics online. Solid guidance from Spin Sucks on dealing with critics in the social media sphere, via @ErinHennessy.
  5. Is your brand at the center? Deb Maue of mStoner discusses the importance of bridging the gap between brand promise and brand experience — and of developing a brand-centered strategic planning process.
  6. Print-and-save social media checklist. Nice cheat sheet for social media posting from HeroX, via Brendan Schneider.

Book review: ‘Scaling Up Excellence’ (plus #highered takeaways)

ScalingUpExcellenceFull disclosure: I am a huge Bob Sutton fan.

I’ve been a fan since I was first introduced to his work by way of his book The No Asshole Rule, which was recommended by a speaker at some long-ago conference. In that book, Sutton pointed out some of the jerk-like tendencies I’d noticed in others (and, unfortunately, myself) and revealed to me a lot of things I needed to stop doing at work and in life.

Then I discovered his blog, which is a great resource for anyone who works in organizations.

And then Good Boss, Bad Boss came out, and I bought a copy as soon as I could. Once again, a Sutton book showed me more ways I could improve — both as a boss and as someone who works for a boss.

So, when I won a review copy of Sutton’s newest book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, through a Twitter contest sponsored by @goodreads, I was pretty stoked. (I was also happy that Sutton’s co-author for the book is Huggy Rao, who spoke last summer at the CASE Summit, and who has one of the best names of any business or leadership author around.)

In Scaling Up Excellence (official release date Feb. 4), Sutton and Rao switch gears a bit. The emphasis is not so much on the individual (the a**hole or boss). This time, the focus is on leading organizations to take what they do well and scale them. It’s a concept that most of us in the higher ed marketing, branding or public relations field can appreciate.

Scaling Up Excellence is the result of a seven-year quest by Sutton and Rao to discover the keys of scalability for organizations. The interviewed, met with and observed dozens of leaders and teams who were working on ways to scale up projects. They also consulted the literature. (Plenty of books and studies on organizational change, leadership, etc., exist, and they cite many good ones, familiar and foreign to me, to bolster their case.) Most of the examples and case studies in the book pertain to companies, but the principles apply to other organizations. Several takeaways pertain to higher education.

Scaling up branding and marketing

All of us who do PR, marketing or branding work want our efforts to be scalable. We want our marketing campaigns to have as much meaning and impact to a large audience as they do to a small, well-informed core. Although Sutton and Rao don’t offer easy “how-to” templates for us, they do offer some valuable guidelines to help us along the way to scaling up excellence in our own sector. Here are a few of them:

A Catholic and a Buddhist walk onto the quad… Organizations tend to operate on a continuum from the highly structured (Catholicism) to the more free-format (Buddhism). When the time comes to scale, an organization with a more Catholic culture may desire to continue a practice of “replicat[ing] preordained design beliefs and practices,” while the Buddhist organization may rely on “an underlying mindset [that] guides why people do certain things — but the specifics of what they do can vary widely from person to person and place to place.” The trick, when scaling up, is to allow flexibility to move more toward one end of the continuum when necessary. (Among the examples cited in the book is Home Depot’s difficulty translating its DIY brand and philosophy — as captured by its “You can do it, we can help” slogan — in China, where it clashed with a “do it for me” mindset. Home Depot had to learn to be less Catholic, and more Buddhist, in their approach to business.

The takeaway: Most higher ed institutions tend to fall on the Catholic side of the continuum. But as we scale our branding efforts — whether across cultures with international programs or across campus with brand identity standards — we must learn to be more flexible, more Buddhist, in our approaches. But as brand managers, we also have an obligation to ensure brand identity standards, from messaging to visuals and everything in between, are not diluted. We need to “strike the right balance between replication and customization.”

Hot causes, cool solutions. This is the first of Sutton and Rao’s “scaling principles.” And it presents a chicken-and-egg type of conundrum for marketers: Which comes first, the “hot cause” that evokes passion and inspires people to get on board, or the “cool solution” by creating behaviors or actions for others to mimic. To rally people around a cause, “you can stoke the scaling engine by targeting beliefs, behavior, or both at once. The key is creating and fueling a virtuous circle.”

The takeaway: In higher education, certain causes may arouse passion and lead to a “hot cause” that could inspire support. Other important issues require a different approach. That’s where the “cool solution” comes in to play. (When the university where I worked went through a name change and rebranding, we took the cool solution approach, laying out the logic of the name change, rather than trying to build on strong beliefs, since many alumni were not initially supportive of the change.) In scaling up your marketing efforts, consider carefully which approach to take.

Small teams, big results. We sometimes complain about our lack of staffing to accomplish our grand marketing visions. But in Chapter 4 (“Cut Cognitive Load”), the authors make an important point about the challenges of growth in organizational culture. This relates to growth in complexity, in bureaucracy, in staffing — all elements of a typical scale-up effort. Growth can be a good thing under the right circumstances. But it can also lead to performance issues and a disconnect between leadership and the worker bees. Making “subtraction” a way of life — or at least of doing business — will help ideas and projects scale. Breaking projects and teams into smaller chunks, and giving people the opportunity to focus on fewer tasks — Sutton and Rao discuss psychologist George Miller’s magical number (a concept work exploring in more depth at a later time) — could yield big results.

The takeaway: When looking at ways to scale up projects, look also at ways to keep teams as small as possible. (This is tough to do in the higher ed environment, where many must be consulted on even the most mundane of projects or steps along the way. But try to limit team membership for maximum results.) 

You can get there from here. Scaling Up Excellence begins with seven scaling mantras that are woven throughout the book. These mantras are worth exploring, but I won’t get into them here. I would add an eighth mantra to the list, however, and it is another saying that finds it way several times within the pages of this book. In fact it is the essence of scalability:

What got us here won’t get us there.

That’s a paraphrase of author Marshall Goldsmith, who is cited in the very first chapter. There are “beliefs, behaviors, and rituals that once bolstered excellence but now undermine it,” write Sutton and Rao. Successful scaling requires that leaders remain vigilant about reviewing processes that helped to get the organization to where it is today, but won’t necessarily help move it along the next steps of the journey.

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Follow Bob Sutton on Twitter at @work_matters. Follow Huggy Rao on Twitter at @huggyrao. Join the conversation about this book at #scalingup.