I have written only one memo to the faculty since I came to UCF. I find them far too impersonal a way to manage and I would much prefer to start a conversation or float an idea via my blog. Can you imagine a memo entitled “I want to invite Popeil, Kiper and Snooki to the College” or “Your Friends Are Redundant”. So wherever possible, I leave the memo writing to Taylor and Foard.
But memos are appropriate to announce official policy and begin the process of embedding certain values, expectations, and actions into our organizational DNA. I have talked for most of the Spring semester about the need for our college to lie at the cross-roads of town and gown: to become an engaging place where people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives meet to get out of their comfort zones, collaborate across disciplines, take risks, and use real-time data in ways that revolutionize how we think, create value and shape the future.
It is time to put some weight behind these proclamations by proving rewards for people who help create this culture through their actions. So, I’m devoting about fifteen thousand dollars a year to annual awards to students, faculty, and staff who exhibit excellence in their efforts to engage others, collaborate across disciplines, take intelligent risks, and use real-time data to bring insight to a compelling problem or issue. Some of the awards will recognize classroom interaction, some service to our profession and community, and others to research. Some of the awards will be awarded by students, some by the college’s advisory board, and still others by elements of the faculty. All of the awards are meant to call attention to important contributions to our culture. I hope to announce these awards and recognize the winners at an annual Spring event in late April.
Look for the memo with all the details next week.
Foard tells me that it has become standard in job interviews for positions that report directly to me to ask: “How comfortable are you working for someone who walks into your office and says— I have a crazy idea.” I admit that I do this regularly. Sometimes I talk myself out of it. Sometimes I convince others the idea is worth pursuing. Always I am asking my staff to do more work or to do something in a different way.
One of my obsessions is to think about how to shape the culture of the college in ways that promote the qualities I want to instill in our students: risk-taking, a willingness to get out of your comfort zone, collaborating with people from different backgrounds, and making high-quality decisions based on real-time data.
My latest crazy idea is that I want to celebrate failure in the college. Why? Because nothing great happens without it. Only through failure will our students find great success. So, in many ways, failure is the doorway to greatness, we just aren’t comfortable with that idea. All the iconic business stories have failure right in the middle of them. Yet we push our students hard to be uncomfortable with failure so that when it inevitably happens, it is devastating to them.
I want to turn this dynamic on its head by creating a college-wide competition that requires every student to stand up, explain a failure that they have had and what they have learned from it. The event would be an exercise in story-telling, getting out of your comfort zone to describe a real life journey and share important lessons that can benefit others. It would also emphasize the point that everyone fails, survives it and needs to learn from it. The winner would be the student who told the most compelling story with the best learning lessons for business professionals. I would be willing to put significant prize money behind this (e.g., a one year scholarship) and perhaps a speaker series where we would ask alums to come in and tell their stories of risk-taking, failure, lessons learned and eventual success. I am even considering a similar event with awards for faculty and staff.
Think about the mentors and influencers in your life. What are the stories that they tell you to help frame up your pursuits? How many of these conversations deal with overcoming something…coping with and persevering through failure? World changers embrace risk and that can only happen if they have developed a good comfort level with failure.
So in the spirit of Foard’s interview question: who wants to work with me on this crazy idea?
I am hosting my second Tweetup of the semester on November 19th. It is one of the ways I try to connect with students, understand their aspirations and get feedback on the UCF experience. You can sign up by clicking (here). This Tweetup will focus on building a unique culture for the College: one that will help develop a distinctive set of qualities on our graduates that advantage Knights in their careers and life.
But before you attend the Tweetup, I’m asking that you watch this video from Seth Godin:
Seth is talking about primary and secondary education and how it was designed to ensure that we had a sufficient number of workers for our industrial society. I like this video for a variety of reasons, but the most relevant point for the Tweetup is that it shows how a culture was purposefully created that fostered certain qualities in people, qualities the economy of the time demanded and valued (e.g., respect, conformity).
Seth goes on to note that we are no longer an industrial society. That today, the American economy has a different set of drivers. So, he rightly asks in today’s world: “What is school for?” It is an excellent question. I doubt he means that we should stop teaching math or science or English. I also doubt that he thinks we should stop trying to create well-disciplined minds capable of solving complex problems. What he is really asking is: what set of characteristics should school foster in today’s students? Once we understand that, we can create physical spaces, design learning experiences, develop rituals, and extol role models that will help create a culture that supports our goals.
In searching for a unique culture for our College, I am essentially asking “What is College for?” Like Seth, I’m not asking whether or not we should teach students about net present value or the four Ps of marketing. I am asking: what qualities do we want to instill in our students? Which ones are most important to their success in life and which of these qualities do we choose to emphasize in building a distinctive brand for the College?