The most successful organizations have proactive leaders who focus on maximizing their own performance, which influences results throughout their team and the entire system. Proactive leadership means leaders consistently assess and refine processes using targeted tools and techniques that create the excellence needed to deliver high-quality results.

Leader behaviors and actions show others how they will be held accountable for clearly defined outcomes and measures. It also shows that leaders want to work collectively with their teams to achieve these outcomes.

High-performing leaders at the University of West Georgia (UWG) are holding themselves accountable for achieving results through the establishment of what they call a “Barriers Team.” So, what are barriers? We have found that the top five barriers organizations face are 1) Denial, 2) Rationalization, 3) Blame, 4) Discomfort, and 5) Lack of Skill. UWG’s Barriers Team was created as a proactive tool to minimize and prevent disruptions to the organization. Below, we hear from members of this successful Barriers Team, Dr. Amber Smallwood and Denise Overfield, on the creation of the team, the barriers faced, and the results achieved:

Getting Started

When the Barriers Team was first formed, there was a concern expressed by several members that individuals or offices would be blamed for barriers. Our focus on linking barriers to strategic imperatives helped us avoid that, and our approach to forming subcommittees (if you suggest a barrier that the team takes on, you will be a part of the subcommittee that explores solutions) helped us to keep a positive, constructive approach rather than a negative, blaming one.

Facing Barriers

Many of the barriers UWG worked to overcome in our first years through the Barriers Team were communication and process related. An early solution included developing a single landing page for faculty to easily and quickly find student- and class-related resources. Other solutions were the Faculty Toolkit (developing a process to allow departments to operate efficiently when an employee takes extended leave), Extended Leave Replacement (developing a process to build out the academic calendar five years in advance), and Revised Academic Calendar. More sledgehammers (aka “smashed barriers”) and details about each can be found on our Sledgehammers Awarded page at

Addressing Barriers

Our Barriers Team, a cross-division team of 21 leaders and representatives, realized that if the recommended changes to overcome barriers were to be sustainable, we needed to develop a subcommittee structure. Every barrier that is brought to the team is first reviewed to determine whether or not it is truly a barrier, rather than simply a misunderstanding or lack of information. If it is a barrier, we work to identify and define the barrier in order to decide which units, offices and positions across campus need to be involved in the discussion for full understanding and effective resolution. Subcommittees of interested and relevant parties, including the person who introduced the barrier to the team, are formed to research the barrier and propose solutions back to the Barriers Team. The team then discusses the research and recommendations and may move the recommendation forward to the president (or other relevant position) or return the barrier to the subcommittee with requests or suggestions to consider.

Dr. Denise Overfield, AVP Academic Affairs and Dean of the Graduate School, was the first chair of the Barriers Team. At the end of her two-year rotation, she noted that one of the biggest achievements of the team wasn’t actually the solutions proposed and actions implemented, but rather the problem-solving culture that the Barriers Team may have helped create across campus.

It seemed that more and more people were reaching across divisions to begin conversations about issues of efficiency and effectiveness generally and around particular issues. Rather than items coming to the Barriers Team, colleagues were forming cross-unit/division groups to discuss concerns, doing research, proposing and enacting solutions on their own. The Barriers Team is a place that unresolved and often difficult barriers can be, and still are, brought.

Celebrating Results

President Dr. Kyle Marrero’s investment in this team and our process has been a major factor in the success of our work. His personal invitation to each of the original members of the Barriers Team offered legitimacy to this newly formed team. We found that the cross-divisional nature of the team’s membership along with the selection of team members who have the “clout” to make things happen is critical. (This is not the kind of committee for junior faculty, say, to get service experience.) A sledgehammer, symbolizing each barrier “smashed,” is presented to the team at the university’s quarterly leadership development institutes and hung on the wall outside the president’s office. At the same time, barriers come to the team organically, usually through area representatives. Engaging colleagues across campus in discussions about barriers, including research and proposing solutions, has resulted in a process that is organic and engages faculty, staff and students at multiple levels across the university. The simultaneous top-down and bottom-up approaches create legitimacy while embracing engagement and sustainability. And be patient. Some barriers are brought to resolution in a matter of months, but others have taken several years to overcome.

Whether you are seeking to prevent barriers or are already in the face of barriers, UWG’s Barriers Team should certainly serve as a model to support and motivate building in proactive processes at your organization. Will you take the next step toward organizational excellence through the establishment of a team solely dedicated to overcoming barriers?

Asti Kelley, Studer Education℠

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