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How to connect beliefs and values with writing a strategy

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Strategy isn’t just facts, figures and mission statements. It encompasses the breadth and depth of the people who lead and live it.

Drawing on two fictional universities facing real-life challenges, Paul Gentle examines how working with the grain can connect your strategy to the beliefs and values that people live by.

How do you know when you’re working with the grain of your institution, and not hacking through it with a chainsaw?

What are the signs, on the other hand, that tell you the new strategic direction you’re so keen to go in may not chime with the beliefs and values that people live by?

Against the Grain

There’s a gulf between those who decide and those who are ‘done to’.”

There’s an institution I know where morale is lower than it should be. Everybody says so. The staff engagement survey says so.

People feel bruised and battered. ‘We’ve lost the trust’ is a common mantra.

Sure, there were last year’s strikes. And then this year’s recruitment dips and financial challenges. But what hurts most for many is that senior managers either don’t care, or don’t take the trouble to find out, about the effects of their decisions on those working day to day with students and colleagues. There’s a gulf between those who decide and those who are ‘done to’.

This often becomes most visible when people get opportunities to revisit and debate institutional values. When we invite those who feel a sense of belonging in a university to articulate what they care about in its intrinsic credo, we see lots of energy being expended. Sparks fly over apparently minute semantic differences. People want to articulate something that’s succinct enough to remember, yet not so trite that it becomes reduced to an acronym that induces winces, or a contrived set of words all beginning with the same letter. A tricky challenge for those crafting the words that capture the passionate views often aired in discussions and consultations.

Here lie huge opportunities for senior leaders not only to listen and to learn, but also to reflect hard”

Here lie huge opportunities for senior leaders not only to listen and to learn, but also to reflect hard: to work out where their strengths lie and when they fall short of aligning how they behave with what the institution expects through its shared values. For some top teams, this can be very uncomfortable. It can seem that there’s a barrier of facing up to painful realities that appear impenetrable. Interpersonal politics make any of this undiscussable.

If this is the case in your institution, it may be difficult or impossible to make any attempted change stick. You might be beavering away at carving through logs, but if you don’t go with the grain of the culture and values that people live by, all you’ll do is grind your teeth down.

Working with the Grain

Somewhere at the other end of the country, and in a university with an altogether different mission, a newly-appointed Vice-Chancellor walks the corridors of the institution… at a pace slow enough to be open to conversations with students and colleagues they encounter along the way. The new appointee is already known for enthusing about being driven by curiosity.

This resonates well with people. It makes sense because it’s a state of mind that values listening and discovery. People are enjoying being invited to contribute ideas for a new strategy.

What’s built so much trust, so fast?

‘The VC gets this institution.’
‘It’s so refreshing to be understood and appreciated.’
‘At last there’s a chance to see some focus and direction!’

What they mean is that it’s clear people are not going to be asked to do things that don’t make sense. Their values are being respected.

What it takes to achieve this is space and time to feel the rhythm”

What it takes to achieve this is space and time to feel the rhythm, and being mindful of how far well-attuned appreciation can take everyone.

In three months’ time, there’ll be a new strategy. People will recognise their own voices in it. They’ll take pride in having helped to craft it – and they’ll notice, through the polish on the surface, the call to action that lies ingrained in the natural patterns of the wood beneath.

No teeth marks anywhere in sight.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

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