One Question Higher Ed Leaders Should Ask Each Day

2020-09-23T18:00:55+00:00May 30, 2017|

All industries go through changes and cycles. All are impacted by shifting demographics, the economy and politics. But some cycles are especially challenging. When the entire industry is burdened with massive change from every angle at once, when foundations seem to fall away like quicksand, then your industry is going through disruption. When it happens to your industry, it can seem as if you’re lost in a cloud of confusion.

Over the course of my career in finance, higher education and technology, I’ve seen disruption in many forms — confusion, challenges, and upsets. But I’ve also seen innovation, and the reframing of problems to create better solutions than had existed before. Some companies find that the experience of disruption brings clarity and energy to their mission and values.

Through my own experiences with dynamic industries and higher education, I’ve learned to respect one basic question: “Why?”

Make it cultural
It’s a question that has served me well and a question that I want to instill within my own company’s culture. Collegis Education employees already love to learn and explore. It’s not unusual to find them testing theories and pushing boundaries in their quests to solve real-life business problems through the latest advances in technology and analytics. But I want to see all of us make a practice of asking “Why?” — and know that the question is encouraged.

Individuals and organizations alike benefit from asking why. It helps with both small and large questions. (Note: The answers to small questions can have a large effect!) On a personal level, it keeps me grounded. It demands that I choose paths that will be meaningful for me, personally. A person’s most valuable resource is time — and I want my time to go toward the people and goals that matter.

As the leader of an organization, I also want my employees’ time to be used in meaningful ways. Obviously, we want our company to be productive, and we want to serve our partners in higher education to the best of our abilities. But in addition, I and my leadership team hope that our employees are inspired by the company’s mission to make colleges and universities strong. It’s not by mistake that the majority of our employees have work experience in higher education.

How it helps
Asking “Why?” helps leaders understand when their organization has outgrown a practice that has become routine. Asking “Why?” helps organizations spot the processes that have faded into the background and become outdated, like machinery on autopilot. Asking “Why?” helps an organization identify where its processes have fallen out of alignment with its goals, mission or values. It clarifies focus.

Some would say that you can’t do something right unless you know why you’re doing it. Some claim that understanding the greater goal, the why, can serve as a motivator. Other say that understanding the why of something creates decision-making criteria — a roadmap. All of the above are true. All of the above also help organizations make informed decisions about how resources are best allocated. Asking “Why?’ helps individuals and organizations move forward with purpose.

Three important reasons that colleges and universities should apply the question of “Why?” are:

  1. To examine what parts of your school’s mission and values are non-negotiable.
  2. To understand how you will shore up your school’s strengths in order to hold steady in uncertain times.
  3. To understand what traditions might remain in place and which others may have to change.

We have seen from our associates in higher education that successful, adaptable schools have been proactive, rather than reactive, when asking this question.  Their “Why?” questions have led them to thoughtfully break away from historical norms and habitual practices. Indeed, they are asking why processes should be continued at every point.

By asking “Why?” at each step, you will find your path.                                      

About the Author
James Cowie
President and Chief Executive Officer, Collegis Education, as well as Trustee Emeritus of Colby College and Life Trustee of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Education: Colby College and Stanford University