IMPACT IN THE INTERIM
From 2013 until 2019, University of West Georgia President, Dr. Kyle Marrero, led the University to achieve records in enrollment, graduation rates, and to develop new student-centered partnerships. He worked to develop a strategic plan within his first year and established Engage West, their continuous improvement movement. In 2015 UWG was selected as the Institution of the Year and Marrero as the President of the Year by the Chancellor’s Service Excellence Awards.
UWG established a mantra: Be the best place to work, learn, and succeed.
In January of 2019, Marrero announced that he would transition from UWG to become the President of Georgia Southern University. At this time, UWG’s provost, Micheal Crafton stepped up to become the university’s Interim President beginning April 1.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE LEADER LEAVES?
During Crafton’s presentation at Destination High Performance this past September, he spoke about Marrero’s departure. “He left and so we have to fill in or stitch over all of the missing parts that result when a key leader leaves campus. And in our case, it wasn’t just the President, but he also took with him the Vice President for Student Affairs and the Director of Communications.”
The Age of the Interim
A leadership transition can often have a ripple effect causing engagement, performance and accountability to decrease. People feel uncertain and anxious about their jobs and the direction of the organization.
In UWG’s case, five other leadership positions were also vacant for various reasons at the same time. Thankfully, UWG was prepared for a transition and actively engaged in succession planning, “We already had a sense of how we could come together as a team and solve this problem,” Crafton explained.
Appointing interims is the first step, but what else needs to be addressed? Crafton admits the Engage West movement as a whole came into question. Employees were at a loss about what to do now that Marrero was gone.
WHAT ABOUT ENGAGE WEST?
Some employees wanted to give up all together. They no longer felt accountable to the movement.
“Janet [Studer Education Coach] was very helpful in this,” Crafton describes, “She said, ‘Look, we got all these tools of leadership, we got all these tools of decision-making, let’s just put them into place right now.”
Crafton knew during this time that the employees needed him and other leaders to role model accountability. The executive team met and decided they were proud of what Engage West had accomplished. They also discovered the importance of maintaining that momentum while being open to making changes. They decided to view this transition period as an important opportunity to care for and connect with their employees.
When the leadership team met with employees they focused on 3 objectives:
“Once we opened it up and said we’re willing to talk about anything and change anything, there was an overwhelming support for the program [Engage West]…there were suggested changes, but they were minor,” reflects Crafton.
What Did UWG Change?
Crafton knew any changes he made during a transition would need to be sensible and evidence-based. As an interim leader making too many changes can further disrupt employees and the organizational outcomes. It’s important to be cautious of voices that are taking advantage of the transition period by asking for unnecessary changes.
In some cases, needed changes may not have been obvious before the transition. However, now that they were surfaced, this was a good opportunity for the interim to effect positive change.
The team at UWG realized three opportunities for improvements to their Engage West approach:
- They reduced the number of Leadership Development Institutes from 4 to 3 based on their semester-based schedule. Also, they realized that as an organization they think in terms of semesters rather than quarters and the shift better aligned to everyone’s schedule.
- They moved their annual Employee Engagement Survey to every other year. Leaders explained they didn’t feel like they had enough time after the annual survey to rollout the actions and make improvements before employees were already taking another survey.
- They moved the now biannual Employee Engagement Survey from the spring to the winter to separate the survey from annual evaluations. It was important to UWG to ensure results from the survey weren’t muddied by evaluations.
SUCCESS FACTORS DURING LEADERSHIP TRANSITIONS
- Established Succession Plan – UWG had already implemented leadership development programs through Engage West, and over the years had made leadership development opportunities available to a larger number of interested employees.“It was a massive kind of operation when you think about leadership training, leadership development, or leadership motivation,” describes Crafton. The executive team already had a good idea of who would fill each role as an interim. So, they were able to do that quickly to keep momentum going.
- Lines of Communication Previously Opened – Beginning in 2013, university leaders met with 250 employees four times per year. Executive leadership communicating with leaders at all levels to show employees their value.“There was a growing sense, I think, that the university actually cared about the leadership. That it, four times a year, gathered everybody up, talked to them all day, worked with them all, and they spent the whole day because the entire executive team was there. Nobody gets a pass,” Crafton concludes.
- Listening – Before, during, and after the transition, Crafton and the Executive team at UWG made listening to their employees a priority. They didn’t set out to make changes for the sake of changing things. They engaged their employees in clarifying changes they wanted to make.“The voice mattered and that was something. Not just ‘I get to make this point’ but, ‘I get to speak, my voice is heard,'” Crafton accounts from his employees’ perspectives.
- Increasing Trust, Connectedness, and Confidence – Using effective communication with employees and making only evidence-based changes, Crafton and his executive team at UWG were able to increase trust and confidence during uncertain times.“The engagement secondary effect, overall, was a kind of connectedness among leadership and confidence in what we are doing that actually, maybe, maybe we knew what we were doing,” interprets Crafton.