How Our Ancient Brains Have Let Us Down

To paraphrase Alain de Botton, while humans have achieved remarkable advancements related to technology and life-span, we aren’t much evolved emotionally since we dwelt in caves. As a result, we are ill-equipped psychologically to deal with much of what is threatening us in the contemporary world. For example, long ago we developed a powerful fight or flight response, that instantly co-opts our endocrine, nervous, cardio-vascular, muscular and other systems. This process works brilliantly when activated to avoid a predator. Unfortunately, it’s activation is wholly ineffective and usually detrimental when the “threat” is related to a relationship, work conflict, financial stress, or global pandemic. Unfortunately, our otherwise very capable brains often can’t tell the difference.

It is a cruel truth that there simply is no comparable neuro-endocrine response designed for typical modern “threats” and stress. In fact, the part of the brain that we really need for most of today’s problems, the frontal cortex, actually gets subordinated by the fight or flight response from our older, mid-brain, and our powers of analysis, prediction, problem solving, and restraint become anywhere from compromised to totally “off-line.” In effect, for most contemporary threats, the fight or flight response is a false alarm, which in the absence of an actual need to run or go to battle, manifests as anxiety, which perpetuates the cycle, and can even lead to a state of hyperstimulation that does not return to normal.

For many of us, our vulnerability to fight or flight false alarms is related to previous, unresolved trauma, neglect, violence, etc. The most important thing for getting through the current morass, as well as supporting brains that did not evolve for this life, may be our willingness to explore in our own pasts what we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. The most important skill we can probably learn is to re-regulate ourselves once our amygdala has gone bonkers and the false alarms are ringing.

For more information on how to address modern problems with an ancient brain, click here.

The Impending Collapse in Higher Education

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I first wrote articles in 2017 and 2021 about the decline in traditional higher education. You can see them here and here. Back in 2017, higher education was six years into an enrollment decline with ballooning student debt, an increasingly unstable business model, and looming disconnects between what colleges and universities provided students vs. what that actually needed. By 2021, as the pandemic was nearly a year old, the landscape began to get more complicated with continuing enrollment declines, worsening demographic trends, increasingly negative public opinions about higher education, crippling student debt, further diminished ROI for students, and an increasing number of post-secondary alternatives to college. Even by 2019, before the COVID crisis, about a third of all colleges and universities were already operating in the red with additional enrollment and revenue declines still to come.

What’s happened since then?

Well, the underlying fundamentals have gotten quite a bit worse and it is arguable that a substantial swath of the higher ed industry may be vulnerable to collapse. No, that is not hyperbole. It simply reflects multiple underlying realities related to consumer behavior, market shifts, increasing student attrition, unstainable business models, and substantial moves away from college degrees as credentials for employment. A good private sector analogy would be store front retail. For perspective, over 1,200 institutions, mostly for-profit, closed between 2010 and 2019. Between 2016 and 2019, 86 non-profit colleges closed or merged and another 53 met the same fate in the 2019-2020 school year alone. The rate of closures and mergers is accelerating and shifting from the for-profit sector to non-profit schools. This trend will increase substantially over the next several years as institutions have exhausted pandemic funding and other short term cash management initiatives.

As of 2022, there are now 3.72 million fewer students attending college than in 2011 and a million fewer just since 2019, which is a decline of 8% since the pandemic began. In terms of consumer behavior, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in percentage of high school grads intending to attend 4-yr college from 71% in 2019 to 48% in 2022 and many potential students have simply abandoned traditional college programs altogether in favor of high value, short-term, industry focused options.

Going forward, demographics alone will likely decrease college enrollments by another 15% by 2029. And those students who are enrolled are far more fragile, both financially and in terms of general wellness, than even ten years ago. For example, three million students leave college each year because of a time-sensitive financial crisis of $500 or less. While many eventually return, many do not, and there are currently 39,000,000 dropouts in the U.S., which is up nearly 9% since 2018! Additionally, in the first six months of 2022, 41% of community college students and 32% of bachelor’s degree students reported considering leaving school due to mental health issues. As of late 2021, 70% of college students say that affordability has affected their enrollment plans. And although the perception is that most families have weathered the pandemic financially intact, 36% of parents reported having taken money from their children’s college funds to compensate for pandemic related financial challenges. In fact, the median family income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, is more than 10% lower today than in 2007! When we combine financial/economic, mental health, and family issues, the situation is potentially bleak, not just now, but for years into the future.

On the contrary, non-credit / non-degree programs are growing. For example, enrollment in coding boot camps grew by 70% in 2020 and as of May, 2022, over half a million students were enrolled in short-term certificate courses through Amazon Web Services with similar numbers from Grow with Google, Microsoft Education Center, and other very large purveyors of non-college, post-secondary education. This doesn’t even include the millions of people taking industry delivered entry-level and upskill training in the workplace. AWS alone has committed to provide upskilling courses to 29 million people who don’t work for Amazon – no that is not a typo – by 2025 for free. Moreover, a survey conducted during the pandemic found that 63% of adults who were out of school said that if they did pursue an educational program, they would prefer non-degree skills training or certificates rather than a degree program at any level, so it’s clear that given a choice, much of the student market is rapidly moving away from college degrees as a preferred option within the broader post-secondary ecosystem.

And to be clear, the exodus away from traditional higher education is not just about cost. It is about perceived value. A great example is Calbright College, a publicly funded institution in California, that literally can not give away free certificate programs paid for by the state. After somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000,000 of public funds spent on startup and operations, and close to three years of operation, the institution enrolls about a thousand students and still hasn’t conferred even a thousand certificates.

The simple fact is that the market changes and disruptions impacting much of higher education are so profound that in the absence of foundational changes in both funding models and consumer behavior, neither of which are likely, there simply will not be enough demand over the next decade to support all of the thousands of colleges and universities operating today. About a third of the wealthiest and most exclusive colleges and universities are likely to continue operating with viable financial models for the foreseeable future—although with less exclusivity at the bottom of that elite group. The other two thirds will exist on a spectrum of risk, with many simply unable to survive in their current state, or at all, and with others operating as “zombie” institutions, technically alive, but shells of their former selves. Keep in mind that nearly one third of all colleges were spending more than they were taking in before the pandemic and many have exhausted most of the short-term tricks for preserving cash (layoffs, borrowing, elimination of sports teams and academic majors, delaying maintenance and accounts payable, etc.). And of more recent concern, the federal pandemic relief via the CARES act, roughly $50 billion dollars for higher education, has been disbursed and mostly spent. This substantial cash influx papered over cash crises and even insolvency at many institutions, but no more is coming and those institutions that were at greatest risk will soon be unable to operate.

As noted earlier in this article, the notion of at least partial collapse of the higher education system is not alarmist hyperbole. There simply are not enough students with enough money to support all of the institutions that exist now and that will get worse, not better, over time. For institutions of higher education (IHEs) existing somewhere on the risk spectrum, those with the most compelling need to reinvent themselves are those in moderate peril. The “code blue” schools will not have the resources or time to change and the most elite won’t need to. In short, a substantial number of IHEs whose survival horizon is several years out must aggressively begin the process of reinvention now, before it’s too late.

Note: The data in this article come from a variety of primarily governmental and some private organizational sources, all of which have been vetted by the Transformation Collaborative™.

Whatever Else You Do, It’s About the People

Unsurprisingly, according to Gallup, employee engagement levels in early 2022 have fallen to less than a third of all employees, with nearly one fifth actively disengaged. Gallup also found an eight-point decline in the percentage of employees who are extremely satisfied with their organization as a place to work and an even sharper drop in the number of employees who believe their employer cares about their wellbeing.

The areas of engagement reflecting the greatest declines relate to having clear expectations, the tools to do the job, the opportunity to focus on what they do best, and a connection to their organization’s purpose.

On the other hand, Gallup also identified a number of organizations whose employee engagement is more than double the national average, so called “exceptional workplaces.”

What separates organizations who are losing employee commitment from those that are excelling? As is often the case, it is not rocket science, but it does take a clear, dedicated approach on the part of leadership.

Excelling organizations:

  1. Make decisions, and especially difficult decisions, based on values rather than short term wins, convenience, fear, etc. As such, employees know what to expect and what their employers’ stand for.
  2. Embrace flexible work environments based on how that flexibility will directly benefit employees.
  3. Prioritize employee wellbeing and focus on the whole person. The pandemic has dramatically ripped the band aid off the notion that people stop being human at work.
  4. Customize communications based on locations, technology/media, accessibility and other elements that keep employees not only informed, but participating.
  5. Empower and upskill managers for the jobs they have now, not the ones they used to have. This includes a focus on supporting employees through coaching, resources, flexibility, collaboration, etc.

While the last two years have not been “normal” by any stretch of the imagination, a shift to viewing people as long-term competitive assets rather than expense lines on a P&L, started in enlightened companies and organizations before the pandemic, which has positioned them with a clear competitive advantage as they transition into the next normal, whatever that is.

We know that engaged employees are:

"far more productive and the work they do tends to result in greater performance, particularly around outcomes that are most important to the organization. They also tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges, have a greater sense of their own efficacy, are able to work with less direct supervision, manifest a more internalized sense of accountability, and are more likely to feel that they are an important part of the organization.”

Sounds like a pretty good payoff for simply doing the right thing.

Why Are We Unhappy When We’re Working So Hard to Be Happy? Maybe We’re Pursuing the Wrong Thing

Most of us want to be “happy.” As parents we want that for our children as well, but are we in pursuit of the wrong thing? Interestingly, even when we do achieve happiness or contentment or pleasure, it tends to be temporary, particularly if we associate happiness with acquiring something. The reward is short lived.

Also, if we’re constantly in search of happiness we likely find ourselves in a cycle of pursuit, short term reward then back to pursuit. It is not only unfulfilling, but it is ultimately exhausting and includes periods of disappointment and frustration when we’re “not happy.”

If this is correct, and a great deal of research suggests that it is, then what might be a better alternative?

Both my personal experience and a growing body of research suggest that building purpose into one’s life is much more sustainable and satisfying than pleasure, happiness, etc. This does not mean that feeling contentment or pleasure is bad nor that we shouldn’t want those experiences. It simply means that having a life worth living and feeling fulfillment over time is much more likely to come from nurturing a reason for being than from the pursuit of self-gratification.

More than a half century of living, and my more recent work as a psychotherapist, has taught me that enjoying and appreciating life is based on a fairly simple set of human needs. I’ve also come to understand that not very many of us base key decisions in our lives on those needs, which explains at least part of the dissonance that so many people are feeling!

In addition to purpose, having healthy human relationships, some sense of spirituality, gratitude, and underlying health and wellness are genuinely foundational to long term fulfillment and a life worth living. You may have noticed that this foundation is based primarily on internally derived meaning and sustenance rather than external sources of reward. It is also based on our existence being additive and beneficial at some level to others.

Although the model may be fairly simple, unlearning lifetimes of contrary beliefs and behavior is not. And even if we come to understand that we’ve likely been sold a bill of goods about much in life, actually changing how we live and what we value requires deep work and acceptance of new truths. For many of us, it actually requires a life changing crisis to nudge us forward. Regardless, it is possible at any point in life to shift from an unfulfilling pursuit of self-gratification based on external rewards to an internally focused pursuit of purpose and meaning.

And even though we all face different levels of challenge and privilege, identifying our purpose in life, creating some level of human connection, recognizing our relationship to something bigger than ourselves, and acknowledging gratitude is possible in almost all situations. In fact, one of the most eloquent descriptions of this notion can be found in Victor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, about surviving nearly three years in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. While few of us will experience that depth of existential crisis, it shows the potential of human resilience.

If you’d like more information on how to implement the model described here in your own life, including both purpose and wellness, please reach out to me via a contact form or directly via email at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

Wellness as a Foundation for Mental Health

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I work with a broad range of counseling clients, who present with a wide variety of issues, some relatively benign and others devastating.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my time as a psychotherapist intern is that no matter what else you are dealing with, you will achieve better outcomes in your life if you are operating from a baseline of reasonably good health and wellness.

A good place to start is with a simple wellness inventory, which you can find here or here. Both are slightly geared toward college students, but they’re free and will apply to most anyone. Once you have the results, you’ll have an idea of which areas present the most risk to your wellness and where your relative strengths are.

In addition to the information provided by the assessments, I have created a 15-item checklist of activities to focus on relative to building greater health and wellness across multiple domains. The checklist is also free and can be used alone or with a therapist.

If you’d like to discuss your own wellness profile and strategies for building resilience, contact me directly via email, contact form, or phone at (719) 781-6349.

The Top Task for CEOs in 2022? It Might Be Managing Fear

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An end of year survey by Axios found that people of all political persuasions are substantially more fearful about 2022 than they were about 2021. And to be clear, they were already trepidatious about 2021. Overall, we’ve moved from 36% of the population to 54% being more fearful than hopeful—a year over year increase of 34%!

Why should this matter to CEOs? Because the most important lesson the pandemic has taught us is that people don’t stop being human at work. They bring their humanity, including their fears and aspirations, to work. When work itself is a source of stress, and when people don’t feel either safe or valued, their engagement and productivity plummet. The fact that the number one worry reported in the survey is the stability of respondents’ own jobs and the broader economy, CEOs ignore this at their own peril. The “great resignation” of 2021 makes it clear that tens of millions of employees are willing to leave their jobs if the conditions are, on balance, more negative than positive.

After jobs and the economy, the number two fear is for democracy itself, followed by healthcare. Since many Americans get their healthcare through their employer, two of the top four worries are work related!

So, what are executives to do?

First, the lessons of the initial two years of pandemic are as urgent in 2022 as they have been so far. Executives must focus on people leadership and that includes a few central issues.

  • Making the work environment safe and stable
  • Supporting employee wellbeing, including mental health
  • Focusing on coaching and development rather than performance evaluation
  • Recognizing and validating the humanity at the core of employees/personnel/workers

Leading in the current environment is more natural for some executives than others. The reality is that many leaders came up through the ranks in organizations that look little like what is described above and were trained to see employees as an expense line item whose value was measured solely by productivity. In fact, it is fair to say that in many cases people have been seen as disposable, not much different from technologies or marketing campaigns. That approach is proving to be broadly untenable in today’s world.

The most effective contemporary leaders have several traits in common. Probably most importantly, after an uncompromised focus on people, they recognize that they achieve more success through others than through their own efforts or technical expertise, which, of course, requires a focus on people! Secondly, they are comfortable, if not enthusiastic, about decentralizing control across the organization, thereby empowering the human capital under their purview. Relatedly, they reward innovation and risk-taking, which not only meets employee needs for self-efficacy and self-actualization, it also dramatically increases the organization’s capacity to operate in hyperchange, hypercompetitive markets! Lastly, effective leaders use emotional intelligence to know when to engage the people in their sphere with compassion and empathy. They are also comfortable expressing their own vulnerability and humanity, which by the way, is essential to reducing fear and creating a sense of safety. As noted in the title of this article, that may be the most important task of CEOs in 2022.

The really good news is that even leaders for whom the traits and skills described above do not match how they were developed or what they typically lean on in difficult times, it is possible to learn new ways of leading and being. At the Transformation Collaborative™, our leadership development opportunities are frankly unlike anything available elsewhere. We work with small groups to stretch leaders beyond where they’ve gone before and challenge them to consider more than they thought possible. If you’d like to talk about how we can help you transform as a leader, reach out to us here.

The Great Resignation: What We Can Learn from the Employee Exodus

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A recent article in the American Prospect  by David Dayan caught my attention with this simple quote: “You can measure a worker’s worth by how they were treated in the pandemic.”

Mark Cuban made a similar comment earlier in the pandemic to the effect that companies will be judged by how they treated employees in a time a crisis.

Of course, the pandemic of 2020, 2021, and soon to be 2022, has generated a combination of factors that are unique for just about everyone alive today, but one, unexpected outcome has been the rebellion of many workers, across the spectrum of employment, to working conditions that employees previously broadly “put up with,” despite often debilitating effects. Although we’ve seen frequent mention in the media throughout the pandemic of the need for organizations and their leaders to support their employees needs as people as well as employees, my sense is that the “great resignation” suggests that huge numbers of employers have failed the test. Of course, there are almost certainly multiple potential variables driving the exodus, such as increased savings for some families, historically low unemployment (and thus availability of other jobs), stimulus and unemployment benefits, etc. However, what is likely at the core of the massive, collective decision to quit jobs, sometimes in dramatic fashion, is the calculus now shared by so many Americans that even if they have to give up income and make different life choices, working conditions in many cases have simply become untenable to the point that they would rather make potentially substantial sacrifices to avoid the drudgery, disrespect, health-risk, and even abuse that come with many jobs. In fact, we’ve learned that even $15 or $16 per hour is not enough to compensate misery for many workers.

Just how big is the phenomenon?

In August and September of this year combined, over 6% of the entire U.S. workforce quit, followed by another 4.2 million workers in October, for a staggering total of over 12.5 million! That has never happened before in American history. This trend has continued through November and December, but we don’t have official USBLS data yet for the most recent two months. In fact, New York Times estimates that approximately 25,000,000 Americans left their jobs in the second half of 2021. And as Noreen Malone notes in the same article, “When 25 million people leave their jobs, it’s about more than just burnout. Job satisfaction has gone through the floor.”

One thing the unprecedented labor realities of the pandemic has demonstrated is that showing tangible care for employees may itself turn into a significant competitive advantage over time even if it compromises profits in the short term. And in many cases, it will actually drive growth and profits, even in the short term. An interesting example is in the shipping and logistics industry. UPS has experienced a fraction of the turnover during the pandemic experienced by FedEx and Amazon. Why might this be? UPS has a stable, unionized workforce, that not only makes more money, but receives good benefits, and works in more employee-friendly and stable environments. Amazon had to spend billions of dollars in just the second half of 2021 to hire both new and replacement workers and suffers substantial turnover. Only one small part of FedEx’s workforce is unionized, and with the exception of their pilots, have suffered significant turnover as well. To be clear, this is not an argument for unionization per se. In fact, unionization does not make sense in many smaller, modestly paid workplaces. It is an argument for recognizing that workers/personnel/employees/labor also happen to be human beings and that even when wages are low, the work environment can be fair, respectful, stable, and supportive of employee wellbeing. When it’s not, employers will pay a far higher cost in the long run.

If your organization is ready to transform its view of human capital and reap huge rewards, reach out to us at the Transformation Collaborative™ for a complimentary consult on what that might look like for you.

Using What We’ve Learned from the Pandemic to Succeed in the Future

As terrible as the pandemic has been, it has also provided some very valuable insights. In fact, no organization should get through the pandemic without a comprehensive post-mortem on what worked, didn’t work, could have been done differently, and was learned through the entire process. In what ways is the organization stronger? What fault lines were revealed? What are the greatest risks and opportunities going forward? What problems weren’t fixed or are worse? At the very least, a key responsibility of organizational leaders at this point is to carefully inventory everything they have done differently as a result of the pandemic, then assess what changes and interventions should be preserved and potentially optimized going forward. This includes processes and procedures, policies, applications of technology & automation, and ways of thinking and being. It is strategic, operational, and cultural.

One of the most interesting takeaways from the COVID crisis is the extent to which things that many believed were simply not possible beforehand became possible! The pandemic demonstrated the power of context on perspective (and proved that we have likely overstated the significance of time and place). Many people became less risk-averse and more open to experimentation. Many of us also embraced the notion of “good enough” relative to the alternative. We also discovered that, when time is of the essence, we can make decisions much more quickly than we ever did in the past. This may be a watershed for higher education in particular, which has historically been deeply risk-averse and unable to act quickly and nimbly.

A silver lining of the pandemic is not only the realization that some things, both in terms of services and educational delivery, that we previously did not think were possible or advisable, are not only possible, but in many cases have proven advantageous and even preferable. As institutions begin to assess whether or not a change/intervention merits preservation in the next normal, there are multiple potential criteria for such an evaluation. These include outcomes like convenience, time, accessibility, cost & efficiency, efficacy, accuracy, quality, ancillary benefits, and others. If you’d like a free consult on how to formulate and implement such an assessment reach out to us at the Transformation Collaborative™ and we’ll lend a hand.

Lastly, we also need to be cautious about misconstruing the nature of the interventions we have made during the pandemic. The vast majority of change has been incremental and transactional and the product of crisis management rather than genuine reinvention. We have achieved phenomenal things in the face of unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, but we also need to guard against misunderstanding the extent to which what we’ve embraced is a change in how we do something, than changing the something itself. For example, shifting financial aid to an online, self-service modality might be convenient, faster, cheaper, and preferable, but it doesn’t change or improve anything about the tuition model or how students pay for school!

The Three Most Important Things Research Has Discovered in the Last Few Years about Successful Organizations

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Gallup, originally a public opinion polling company from the 1930s, has been gathering data on the U.S. and global workplace for 50 years. Their combination of reputation for independence and quality, as well as their unrivaled database of workplace data, has allowed them to mine significant conclusions about what matters in organizations. Three of the most salient discoveries of the last several years, right up through 2021, relate to the criticality of 1) employee engagement, 2) organizational purpose, and 3) coaching as the single most productive activity a manager can do. In fact, there are likely not three more powerful causative variables for success than these three.

Engagement

Why does employee engagement matter? Engaged employees are far more productive and the work they do tends to result in greater performance, particularly around outcomes that are most important to the organization. They also tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges, have a greater sense of their own efficacy, are able to work with less direct supervision, manifest a more internalized sense of accountability, and are more likely to feel that they are an important part of the organization. Unfortunately, 50 years of research by Gallup suggests that only about a third of employees in the U.S. regularly display behaviors associated with “engagement.”

Fortunately, there are traits and behaviors associated with engagement, which can be observed in both employees and leaders. They include things such as intentionality, planning, collaboration, internalized motivation and accountability, resilience, and a tendency to play to strengths to get the job done—including accepting challenges that stretch one’s capabilities. Engaged workers are also comfortable working for extended periods without supervisor feedback, but do not hesitate to request input when they believe the boss might have an insight that would be helpful. In other words, they don’t reach out to a supervisor for approval or permission, they reach out for support.

Purpose

It’s widely accepted that culture plays a powerful role in determining how people in organizations behave, but we rarely talk about an organization’s purpose in the context of its success. While there are many cultural values that support the achievement of strategic objectives and operational KPIs, purpose turns out to be at the top of the list, as reported by Gallup in the fall of 2021.

This trend has been at play for years, but the pandemic has accelerated a seismic shift in how people, both employees and consumers, feel about purpose in the companies they work for and buy from. In fact, majorities of both millennials (now the single largest consumer group in the U.S.) and Gen Zers, evaluate alignment in values as an element of buying decisions and there is a growing expectation that companies don’t just deliver a quality product at a fair price, but that the world is, in some way, better off because the company is in business. And, as Gallup notes, unlike their Gen X and Boomer elders, younger employees have no compunction about publicly protesting their own companies if they feel leadership is failing to meet ethical obligations. One might argue that the flip side of businesses abandoning any pretense of loyalty or commitment to their employees has freed employees of any sense of obligation to the company—even to the extent of protecting an employer’s public image. A genuinely purpose driven culture is one powerful way for management to address that challenge.

This notion of “net-positive” organizations, in which all stakeholders benefit directly and the collective “we” benefits at least indirectly, while aspirational, is becoming part of how both internal and external stakeholders evaluate institutions.

Coaching

Gallup recently used AI algorithms to process millions of personnel data files and interviews and what they discovered is that the single, number one most important thing managers can do to support success in their employees is to engage in regular coaching.

“Gallup has discovered — through studying what the best managers do differently — that great managing is an act of coaching, not one of directing and administrating.”

In fact, coaching is so powerful that Jim Clifton, Gallup Chairman, recommends getting rid of all performance rating activities and shifting to regular, goals based coaching conversations. Yes, this would be a transformational cultural and operational change for most organizations, but the performance outcomes would be greater than from any other single initiative an organization could pursue.

So, if you are in a leadership role, the evidence suggests that engagement, purpose, and coaching should be on your list of prioritized initiatives regardless of the nature of your organization. If you want to engage in transformative change that generates game-changing results, you know where to start.

If you’d like to talk about transformation, reach out to us at the Transformation Collaborative™, and we’ll help you plan for a relevant, robust, and sustainable future.

Risking the Future Because You’re Too Busy Now

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The vast majority of the 1,500 or so higher education institutions that merged, were acquired under duress, or simply closed since 2010 did not explore or implement options for reinvention. Some engaged in deep expense cuts, layoffs, elimination of programs, or launching Hail Mary new programs, etc., but those were band aids on gaping flesh wounds. They were last ditch attempts to manage liquidity rather than efforts to transform themselves to meet the structural challenges of a declining market and huge shifts in buying decisions by students.

Even before the pandemic, many, many college administrators were engaged in fire-fighting and crisis management—admittedly exhausting work—but not work that solves systemic problems and a diminishing value proposition for customers.

In my work and dialog with a wide-variety of higher education leaders, one very disturbing trend that I see permeating all sectors of higher education, is the decision to delay or simply avoid initiatives that will increase the likelihood of thriving in the future due to challenges faced in the present. In short, most institutions are genuinely risking their futures because they are too busy with the present. While this same phenomenon resulted in the outright closure of over 1,200 institutions between 2010 and 2020, the risk is even higher now because[1]:

  • The number of post-secondary alternatives available to consumers in the market is greater.
  • Public opinions about traditional higher education and its related ROI are worse.
  • Average institutional financial health is worse.
  • Demographics are less favorable.
  • The number of potential students who can or will pay or borrow for credit-bearing, degree programs are fewer than in the previous decade.
  • In fact, the enrollment decline between 2020 and 2021 alone is approximately half a million students, taking the ten year total over 3,000,000.

Tragically, over the last ten-plus years, the vast majority of schools that merged, were acquired in distress, or closed, met their fate without engaging in any transformative initiatives. They simply rode a dying horse into the ground. Potentially more tragically, because we should know better, I see the same dynamic in play today.

Of course, managing through disruption and crisis consumes huge amounts of energy and bandwidth. Moreover, most leadership teams had no previous lived experience of running the daily operation, managing through disruption, and planning for a transformed future all at the same time before the pandemic. However, my greatest fear is that many colleges and universities will win the battle (survive the short-term crisis) and lose the war (enter a state of irrelevance and fiscal paralysis or simply cease to operate) because they were too busy in the present to ensure relevance, sustainability, and prosperity in the future.

In effect, many leaders are currently on a path in which their legacy will be that they kept the doors open during the crisis, but were at the helm when the ship foundered and sank.

A Call to Action

When thinking about transformative opportunities for the future, if you’ve heard yourself or your leadership say things like, “We’re just too busy,” “There is too much on our plate,” “We don’t have the resources,” “We’re too tired from the pandemic,” “We need to fix other things first,” or other versions on a similar theme, BEWARE: you are rehearsing your excuses for when it’s too late. Just change each of the statements above to the past tense and you’ve moved from today’s lost opportunity and leadership failure to tomorrow’s regret.

What I’ve also observed—and this is equally critical—is that although few higher education institutions are both willing and able to engage in the kind of reinvention that will greatly increase the likelihood of surviving and thriving now and into the next normal, for those that are at least willing, there is a path forward. There are ways to “borrow” bandwidth, resources, expertise, etc. for assessing the current state, identifying the highest ROI initiatives, and executing on those opportunities. The Transformation Collaborative™ was designed from the ground up to be an embedded partner, with access to many individual and organizational affiliates, who, unlike typical consultancies, share accountability for execution and results. At least talk to us. Even if you’re busy. There is no obligation and you may be just in time to save your future.


[1] https://www.chronicle.com/article/undergraduate-enrollment-continues-its-slide-dipping-3-2-percent-from-last-year?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=campaign_3087091_nl_Academe-Today_date_20211026&cid=at&source=ams&sourceid=

https://www.highereddive.com/news/moodys-lowers-higher-ed-outlook-to-negative-amid-coronavirus-crisis/574414/

https://hechingerreport.org/analysis-hundreds-of-colleges-and-universities-show-financial-warning-signs/