Thursday, April 7, 2016

Interview with Paul LeBlanc - President/CEO of Southern New Hampshire University

I am thrilled to have my guest this month, Paul LeBlanc, President and CEO of Southern New Hampshire University. SNHU has experienced tremendous growth under Paul’s leadership requiring him to manage change, and the growing pains of the enterprise. This is not easy for any leader to accomplish, so I wanted to know how he is doing it and what he has learned. Welcome Paul!

JS: In your opinion, what skills should students be learning in college to make them well-rounded candidates upon entering the workforce? 

PL: We now describe T-shaped candidates (or graduates), those that have deep knowledge in a discipline (the vertical bar in the T; think Accounting or Computer Science or Nursing) and also broad skills and knowledge, the horizontal bar of the T (think “soft skills” such as collaboration, communication, and ethical reasoning).  This reflects the increasing complexity and challenge of workplace effectiveness.  For example, it’s not enough to be a really good programmer anymore.  You also need to work in teams, communicate well, work across disciplinary silos, and project manage.  It’s not unusual to hand off one’s work to a colleague in Europe at day’s end and then for that person to hand off the work to a colleague in Taiwan and then for you to return to work the next day with 16 hours of progress now completed on your project while you were away from work.  In that scenario, you have to navigate cultural difference, complex project management, and challenging communications.  So when we think of the competencies required here, something like the ability to navigate cultural difference (values, the way people speak to each other, what’s considered acceptable or not even in small talk – if the other person or team even does small talk) become a really important factor in effectiveness and is all part of being a T-shaped programmer. 
Consider too the characteristics of the generation coming out of our high schools today.  More comfortable in virtual spaces and social media than with face-to-face conversation or even the phone for that matter.  Some would argue they are thus less empathetic, more challenged in terms of social or emotional intelligence.  Living in a 145 character world and then being asked to write longer, more complex documents can be a challenge.  We are still getting our arms around the cognitive and social implications of our increasingly virtual lives and an overarching primacy of visual literacy over textual literacy that is taking hold in modern society.  We will increasingly communicate in visuals of one form or another.  High powered consultants no longer write reports for clients, they provide slide decks.  Twitter is giving way to Instagram.  No one prints MapQuest directions to read; they turn on their GPS and watch the route.  Even print journalists are now expected to also provide photos, video, and use social media.  Honestly, I’m not sure higher education is keeping up with the rapidly shifting world of work.
That said, there are some things we can reliably say about what graduates will need to be successful for the future workplace.  They will need to be comfortable and skilled in:
  • Working in virtual and distributed teams
  • Handling and understanding data (think big data and its impact on organizations)
  • Leveraging technology in a world of human-machine hybrid work
  • Communicating visually and graphically
In a future where machines do more and more rote or procedural work, humans will shift their toil to that with which machines struggle: creativity, synthesizing across boundaries, inventing, human engagement.  The very things that make us most human is where we will bring value to the world of work.  Often dismissed as “soft skills” and thus less valuable, our human emotional and psychological skills will be prized.  IBM’s Watson can diagnose a patient much more quickly than a doctor today and with amazing accuracy, but if that diagnosis is cancer, the real hard human work then begins.  No machine can have the painful discussion, help in the searing decision-making, or offer a comforting hand amidst tears.  That requires amazing human skills that can never be programmed. So I’ve either depressed you or made you excited about the possibilities.  I actually find heartening the notion that we might finally pay more for human abilities.

JS: Often times online students may feel more isolated than traditional students, so the connection to the instructor is critical. Emotional intelligence has been documented as a vital competency for success, have you seen any connection with its role and effective online instructors?

PL: The most powerful dynamic for the majority of online learners is an emotional one.  That it matters to someone that they are doing this hard, often isolated work.  In our model, instructors can provide that feedback, but the foundation in our model is our advising system.  Every student gets an advisor that stays with him or her for the duration of their online education.  That advisor is with you step-by-step, making sure you are in the right class, resolving bureaucratic hurdles, directing you to learning support or resources when you struggle.  Truthfully, a lot of the advisors’ work is in the emotional and psychological support that adult learners often need.  When they get that first bad grade and immediately think, “See, I knew I wasn’t college material.”  When life gets in the way and someone is ready to give up and drop out, surrendering their dream of a college degree and the better life it can help them provide to their families.  Students write notes all the time talking about this or that advisor, and how they helped them get to the finish line.
The military learned a long time ago that soldiers will go to extraordinary lengths not for the “cause” or because they have been ordered to, but because they have a bond with their fellow soldiers.  They do not want to let them down, to disappoint, to abandon them.   While not so high stakes as combat, our students often develop these bonds with their advisors and it’s what gets them through.  When I listen in on advisor calls, what I see on display is enormous emotional intelligence.  Knowing when to encourage, when to cajole, when to direct, and when to just listen and sigh in sympathy.  It’s a very powerful thing to see up close and it is why our online students persist and graduate at far higher rates than their peers at community colleges and many other online programs.

JS: Under your tenure, the SNHU online university has grown tremendously. I am sure you have learned a lot. What advice do you have for other organizations who are experiencing similar rapid growth?

PL: Mario Andretti once said, "If you are not feeling a little out of control, you’re not going fast enough."  So, with rapid scale, there is an inherent feeling of feeling a little out of control and that’s natural enough.  As in race cars, however, losing control can mean a very bad crash and we’ve come close a couple of times in the last five years.  So what have we learned?  There are three key points I think I’d make here.
  •      Lean forward on staffing.  It can feel wasteful to overstaff, but playing catch up on staffing puts ongoing stress on an organization.  You burn out your people, who have to do more to cover, and you end up rushing on-boarding and training and the combination of all that can often mean a drop off in quality of service and productivity.  Get better at your growth projections, your associated staffing ratios, and then hire ahead of the curve.

  •      The governance, systems, policies, procedures, modes of communication, and organizational structure that serve you well at size X may not work well for size Y and be disastrous at size Z.  You must constantly assess and plan ahead and not be afraid to make necessary changes. 

  •      Your key leaders, the ones who could know every detail in their areas at a smaller size, will necessarily know less or manage well every detail with size and scale, so their people need to be as strong as they have been.  This means more focus on leadership development at that third level, especially as spans of control shift.  Also more stress on successor planning.  The ying to the yang of individual talent development is culture, the collective “society” that is your institution or organization.  You may change a lot of what you do and how you do it with scale (you better), but you need to keep a sharp eye on core values and mission drift.  We spend a lot of time talking about how to inculcate our values in our new employees especially.  As a leader, you’ll almost certainly be pulled into more external work as you get large, so you need a good operations person to complement your work, a strong team steeped in the values of the organization, and ways to keep your own ear to the ground.
Finally, as the CEO you need to be wary of drinking your own Kool-Aid, in believing that what you brought you to this level of success (and by extension, your organization) will be what the organization needs going forward.  Can you grow, adjust, and change in the ways the organization needs you to?  We have all seen examples of those who can’t, the leaders who were just right for one phase of an organization’s life, but not for the next phase.  Having a little meta-cognition, finding ways to get feedback and assess, and a healthy dose of humility serve one well, I think.

Southern New Hampshire University Manchester, N.H.

Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Under the ten years of Paul's direction, SNHU has more than tripled in size and is the largest provider of online higher education in New England, one of the five largest in the country, and the first to have a full competency-based degree program (untethered to the credit hour or classes) approved by a regional accreditor and the US Department of Education. In 2012 the university was #12 on Fast Company magazine's ''World's Fifty Most Innovative Companies'' list and was the only university included. Paul won a New England Higher Education Excellence Award in 2012 and was named one of ''New Hampshire’s Most Influential People'' by New Hampshire Business Review. In 2012 Forbes Magazine listed him as one of its 15 ''Classroom Revolutionaries,'' and he was featured on Bloomberg TV's ''Innovators'' series. He speaks frequently to industry, IHEs, national policy makers, and other higher education stakeholders and often appears in the media.

Paul immigrated to the United States as a child, was the first person in his extended family to attend college, and is a graduate of Framingham State University (BA), Boston College (MA), and the University of Massachusetts (PhD). From 1993 to 1996 he directed a technology start up for Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, was President of Marlboro College (VT) from 1996 to 2003, and became President of SNHU in 2003. His wife Patricia is an attorney and their daughter Emma is a Rhodes Scholar completing a D.Phil at Oxford University. Younger daughter Hannah is completing her PhD at Stanford University. Annie, their black Labrador Retriever, studies sleeping on the couch and ways to steal food from the counter tops.

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