06/26/2013 04:40 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Attentive Leadership Begins at the Top

A 2010 study conducted by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) introduced a concept called "attentive leadership." The study focused on student success and found that one key is a visible, action-oriented commitment to timely graduation by people at all levels of an institution: faculty, senior administrators, department chairs, student services professionals, non-academic staff, etc. In other words, achieving timely graduation is everyone's primary job.

I believe attentive leadership is critical, not just for improving graduation rates, but also on all top priority initiatives. I also believe that institution-wide attentive leadership starts at the top. Without clear, unwavering commitment backed by visible action from the president, success will be elusive.

I recognize that institutions of higher learning have an important and long-standing commitment to shared governance and that presidents cannot simply mandate change. However, shared governance is not an excuse for inaction. All presidents have some tools and must use them. Let me share a short case study.

When I arrived at Saint Leo University in 1997, signs of distress were everywhere. The roofs leaked (all of them), sidewalks were cracked, green grass was hard to find (we did have lots of weeds), there was little money in the bank, the administrative computer system was worthless, many staff received only a minimum wage and pay raises were infrequent. Morale was low, but we did have a coterie of dedicated and excellent people. We immediately sharpened a more meaningful mission and codified core values drawn from centuries of Benedictine tradition. Some solid programs for military personnel already offered at dispersed centers provided income, though not enough to balance the budget.

While this situation surely discouraged some people, my doctoral dissertation focused on turning around failing colleges, and I had worked at two institutions facing similar challenges prior to Saint Leo. Thus, I had a working model and confidence in it. Two of the cornerstones of the model, values and mission, were put in place in my first year, with two others needed: planning, which assumes a vision, and accountability, which requires execution.

While addressing daily fires, we held two short planning retreats to examine our current situation, gain consensus on a vision and determine the strategic priorities for achieving the vision. The entire planning process took only about six weeks.

In looking at the larger environment, we pictured Saint Leo as near the bottom of a ladder with the Ivy League universities at the top. The gap was large and difficult to close, so we decided that the only way we ever could be on a top rung was to construct a new ladder. Basically, this became our grand strategy and vision: to invent and become the private, not-for-profit university of the 21st century. In the first planning cycle, we identified just one key result area (KRA) where significant progress in the next year was critical if we were to have any hope of ever realizing the vision. The group nominated and discussed perhaps 25 potential KRAs. We knew that all were important and that, over time, we needed success on every one. But we "bet our jobs" on only one and made sure that the entire university community knew the top priority. (Note: we repeat this KRA identification process every year in our planning updates and now select four KRAs annually.)

As president, I commit that selected KRAs will receive necessary funding. For other things, we simply budget as best we can. To ensure that KRAs are well-funded, we estimate revenues for the year upcoming and earmark 3 percent for new initiatives. This money is not included in operating budget negotiations; we consider it as already spent.

In 1997-1998, after that first planning exercise, we identified a vehicle that appeared to have the potential to take us to our vision: online degree programs. While it was a new concept reliant on unfamiliar technologies, we were intrigued by its potential to help us create that new ladder. So, despite a plethora of other important institutional needs -- the roofs still leaked and salaries were low, among a daunting array of challenges -- Saint Leo took what noted consultant Ram Charan calls a "strategic bet": a major and dramatic investment. Saint Leo committed $600,000 to develop online courses to support our military students and a Center for Online Learning (COL) marketing full online degree programs to adult students nationally. We then developed and executed plans that required our continuous attention and revision. My role included visible involvement, regular monitoring and public recognition of successes and failures.

In that first year, there were myriad surprises and we lost $512,000. But we also learned that SLU could provide quality courses and degrees to adults who otherwise lacked access, and the potential was enormous. Thus, we continued the programs and the annual planning process to identify a new set of highest priorities, always paying attention to accountability and execution and remaining consistent with our values and mission.

It now is 16 years later. Our overall enrollment more than doubled to over 16,000. We have thousands of online undergraduate and graduate students. Our online offerings helped strengthen our dispersed centers, now serving the civilian population in addition to the military. Our revitalized traditional campus -- which has expansive lawns, no leaky roofs and 12 new buildings -- has attracted more first-year students in each of the past three years than the total campus enrollment when I arrived. We have never missed annual salary increases for our people.

One might say that this is a sign of good luck. I believe it is a testament to attentive leadership as provided by the entire Saint Leo University team. Everyone in the institution had a part and played it well.