Almost Random Thoughts on Being Unique

I’ve been thinking a lot about being unique lately. In addition to our “get to the one” concept, I have been pondering “uniqueness” as it relates to the University’s strategic planning exercise and the charge to the budget realignment committee, of which I am a member, to develop a financial model that supports the University’s strategic goals. It is always dangerous to gaze into a crystal ball, but my money is on the new strategic plan wanting to build areas of “uniqueness” at UCF.

Despite what our mothers tell us, we are not born unique. Yet with a little planning, foresight and luck, we can develop distinctive combinations of perspectives, relationships and experiences that set us apart in our quest to be the one. Even if this path doesn’t make us unique in the strict sense of the term, it can make us without a peer in the more limited places where we compete.

Unique programs or colleges are more difficult to come by. Sometimes your surroundings can give you a leg up (e.g., have NASA and the Cape just down the road from you). Other times, you can accrue the benefits of a first mover advantage (e.g., Entrepreneurship at Babson or International Business at South Carolina). But sustaining a unique program is difficult because the barriers to entry in academia are not that high: a copycat program just requires a brochure and a few people who can stay a chapter or two ahead of the students in the book. Witness the explosion in entrepreneurship programs.

So a more realistic goal is to create “sustainable distinctiveness” in key areas. These are relatively rare programs of quality that bring advantage and can be sustained with investment in the right people and organizational culture. Ideally these programs would also generate a premium in both societal impact and financial margin. Can a budget model be developed to support such programs? Sure so long as the model provides a feedback loop that allocates the resources to attract and develop the rare talent and culture necessary to sustain such programs.

Hmm….You know I think the same could be said for students seeking to get to “the one.” They too will need to defend their distinctive advantage by continuing to find the resources necessary to develop the perspectives, relationships and experiences that will continue to set them apart. They too will need a budget model with a feedback loop. Huh, maybe these two problems aren’t as different as i first thought…..

How to be One of “Thirty Under Thirty”

Last week was a killer. The College hosted ten events that required my attendance, including two in Tampa. To make matters even more challenging I had four different engagements on Friday, including two dinners. (If you’re not careful, you can gain a lot of weight on this job.) Yet, I ended up spending Friday night at an event that wasn’t our own: The UCF Alumni Association’s ” Thirty Under Thirty” Awards Dinner.

The event recognizes UCF’s rising stars. We had seven award winners, the most of any school. That should have been enough motivation for me to attend, but to be perfectly honest I went to share a table and celebrate with one of my favorite people: Bridget Downes Keefe. The College bought a table too, so I could invite some ambassadors along to network with our most successful young alums. 

Bridget is a Rosen College alum and did her graduate work in public administration at UCF. When I arrived in 2012, she was a junior development officer in the College who was transitioning to a role in alumni relations: development I was told by others, just wasn’t her thing. After I shook some things up staff wise, Bridget got to work with Tiffany Hughes on our 50th Anniversary celebration. It’s not easy to live up to Tiffany’s standards: she either kills you or makes you stronger. Some administrative assistants have run off screaming. Bridget blossomed. Her enthusiasm became contagious. People wanted to be around her. Alumni relations rocked. She was constantly coming to me with new ideas and working tirelessly to make them a success.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before she outgrew the job. Alumni relations is one of those areas with limited upward mobility. To move up, you have to move out. So Bridget got out of her comfort zone and used the extensive professional network she had built while Director of Alumni Relations to land a job as Executive Director of the Downtown Orlando Partnership. Not only did Bridget’s network help her transition to a new job, that same network is one of her best assets in her new role as primary promoter of downtown. Bridget reports to a 17 member board, has grown the organization’s membership, and has built her own support staff. Yes, Bridget now has people. With all those new and long-standing connections (she thanked seven mentors and had 121 likes on her Facebook post about the award) to go with her record of accomplishments, I’m guessing it won’t be long before opportunity knocks on her door again.

So, I’m sure it was extra sweet for Bridget to be honored by the very group that gave her a path to early success. And, despite my killer week there wasn’t any other place I wanted to be that night. I hope the ambassadors in attendance took note: the path to success is rarely traveled alone. To use Bridget’s words from her Facebook post, “it’s filled with mentors and cheerleaders” who help you along the way. Being awesome, contagious, and results-oriented doesn’t hurt either. You keep going girl, the stars are just the beginning.   

Help Me to Understand

An epic failure culminated in the resignation of the President of the University of Missouri on Monday. It was a failure of leadership.  Like most failures it was because the leader wasn’t listening and failed to understand.  Sometimes the message comes from the market and the leader refuses to change when the market does.  Sometimes the message comes from people who are different from the leader asking for respect and the opportunity to succeed. Frequently in these situations the leader refuses to reach out and try to understand things outside their own experience.  In this instance, it took a football team willing to take a stand to get people to listen.  When they did, the President was done.  Game over.

I try to practice what I preach– to learn from failure and seek out people who are different from me to help me understand what is going on. I pride myself on having a very extensive and diverse network built on thirty years of experience and I knew just who to seek out in this instance: The people behind the Coke machines in BA-2.  They are the National Consortium on Academics and Sports.  I sit on their board and they specialize in using the power of sports to promote positive social change.  Missouri was clearly in their wheelhouse.

Now when the Dean shows up unannounced in your office at 8 am on a Tuesday morning, you think something bad is about to happen.  Keith had that look on his face when I knocked on his door.  Then we started a dialogue and he “helped me to start to understand, what I didn’t understand” (a phrase he used in our discussion that stuck) about Missouri.  I continued this conversation in the afternoon with a wider group because I wanted to bring this dialogue to our students.  It is a conversation that involves risk taking, collaborating with people different from you and getting way outside your comfort zone: things the President of Missouri didn’t want to do.  And he learned ignoring the problem was his most risky choice–doing nothing cost him his job. I do not want to repeat his mistakes.

The Exchange was built for exactly this reason: To have conversations important to your future. So on Monday, we are going to have a very special Exchange. I am asking Keith and Ericka Dunlap (our alum and Miss America) to lead a conversation about Missouri and what we can all do to make sure we have a culture of engagement for everyone in the College. We are going to hold two sessions: One at 10 am and another at 2 pm. Sign up for one session only. Get involved and make a difference where it matters most- in the relationships you can build with your fellow students.  I will see you there.

It’s Time for the #UCFBusiness Failure Competition

At our 2014 Hall of Fame event, we featured a video of then Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley who is also CEO of Florida Hospital, Winter Park. The video starts out with Ken saying the following: “I came to UCF as a failure and left a success.” Ken had seen his dream to enter medical school dashed, but found his future at UCF. He has gone on to great things and now has doctors reporting to him! His achievements landed him in our Hall of Fame, a place where only 64 of our more than 50,000 alums have been recognized for their accomplishments.

Despite what helicopter parents think, everyone fails. It is part of life. A Knight should never fear failure. Getting comfortable with failure is a key step in becoming a better risk–taker and successful leader. That is why we celebrate failure and persistence in the college. Today, we begin the eighth installment of our Failure Competition. As in past semesters, I will be explaining the details of this semester’s competition to students in our Capstone Course. But we are adding two new twists to the competition this semester:

First, your failure story has to focus on a new experience, a time you stepped out of your comfort zone: the farther the better. Tell us why this was such a stretch for you, the failure that resulted and what you learned from the experience that would be of interest to others.

In the past I have limited this competition to students in our capstone class, but this semester I am opening it to any student on campus: undergraduate, graduate or EMBA, business, education, engineering or whatever. The only requirement is that you currently be enrolled at UCF.

Here are the ground rules, complete with important deadlines:

  1. To enter you must post your essay in response to this blog. If you are a capstone student this semester include your section number and name of your instructor. If you are not in this class, tell me your class standing ( e.g., freshman, senior, graduate student) and your field of study. You must complete this exercise by 5 pm on Nov. 17th.
  2. Instructors from the Capstone Course will then choose a winner from their section and explain why they chose the essay they did. A panel of College staff will choose no more than five finalists for me to consider from the rest of campus. I need these on Nov. 20th by 5 pm.
  3. Those winning entries are then sent to me. I will select three finalists by Nov. 23 at 5 pm.
  4. The finalists will be asked to submit short videos based on their essays. They must have those videos to me by Friday Dec 4 at 5 pm.
  5. I will then feature one video each day on my blog  Dec.7-10 with a vote taking place to determine the winner on Friday Dec 11th.
  6. The winner will get a letter of recommendation from me along with a $500 prize. Second place will get $300, third place $200. These monies are awarded through our financial aid office.

Who knew failing could be this good? Good Luck!