Fifteen Suggestions for Developing a Successful Immersion Program

What does an immersion program look like?

Currently, we’re piloting a 14-week immersion program that focuses on an inspirational theme we knew would generate interest. Participants meet for 3.5 hours each Tuesday, with an all-day trip to neighboring institutions on the first Tuesday of each month. During the first half of the semester, the participants hear from on- and off-campus leaders to learn more about the university and its peer institutions. During the second half, they will explore a team project and ultimately deliver a presentation of their findings to the president and provost. Whereas the program’s specific theme is new, and whereas some of the participant makeup is new, the program’s general format parallels many of our other immersion programs’.

Regardless of the type of program, an immersion experience can accelerate the development of people’s leadership skills. Leadership skills benefit every individual, as well as the institution or community as a whole, irrespective of the person’s official position. People with leadership skills achieve more, develop a greater sense of purpose, and improve organizational or community health.

The very structure of an immersion program fosters those skills. Like most of our others, this pilot program challenges participants’ time-management skills in order to build their capacities for new initiatives, raises their institutional awareness, and organizes sustained engagements with diverse perspectives — not only to develop participants’ critical-thinking skills and diversify their problem-solving techniques, but also to encourage institutional thinking over departmental thinking.

Projects dramatically improve immersion programs. A project can help participants not only develop their teamwork skills, but also comprehend the value of collaborating with stakeholders and cultivating champions for the cause. Whereas everyone appears to understand the importance of buy-in, few demonstrate knowledge of how to cultivate it. The early, uncertain stages of our projects include structured conversations and brainstorming sessions with stakeholders, while the participants try to better understand and accommodate the stakeholders’ needs. This investigative process elevates stakeholder awareness of unmet needs. It also invites them to help shape the end result. Both of those aspects often generate champions for the cause. Behind the scenes, the champions then raise more awareness, and particularly if they come from diverse constituencies, they broaden buy-in. Without a project and structured reflection on the process, even immersion programs would have trouble raising awareness of how to generate buy-in.

Perhaps most importantly, immersion programs foster close friendships. Close friendships can lead to sustainable networks for increased knowledge-sharing, collaborations, and potentially even resource-sharing. Connectivity creates an adaptable and resourceful institution or community, capable of responding rapidly to threats and seizing timely opportunities. In fact, friendships succeed where reporting structures and other forced networks fail. Their tangential conversations can blossom into innovations, and intimacy can increase collaborators’ personal investments. That level of friendship necessitates not only ice-breakers, a “Vegas” environment, structured peer interactions, and scheduled time for group reflection, but also topic flexibility to accommodate tangential and idle conversations.

After last week’s day trip, a participant related how much she values our bus rides. The bus rides have helped her, in her words, “really get to know” some of her colleagues. She claimed their new-found friendships already have seeded potential collaborations. Bear in mind, she and her colleagues do not merely desire to maintain their relationships. They better comprehend each others’ needs, skills, and resources, as well as how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

That comprehension improves organizational culture and effectiveness, and well-structured immersion programs can not only replicate that comprehension. Well-structured immersion programs can scale it.

Here are fifteen suggestions for developing a successful immersion program:

1. Elevate the program’s profile by creating a competitive application process.

2. Clarify time and other obligations in the call for applications.

3. Further raise the program’s profile by outsourcing the participant-selection process to a committee.

4. Coach the selection committee to choose participants based on their diverse backgrounds, experiences, access to resources, …. In other words, select to create the best program experience. Selection is part of the design.

5. Schedule the program to meet routinely for multiple hours at a time; more frequent meetings can require fewer hours for fewer weeks, but less frequent meetings demand more consecutive hours for additional months.

6. Create a relevant ice-breaker activity.

7. Incorporate a relevant team project into the experience.

8. Craft a project charge that is broad enough to encourage team ownership but specific enough to provide structure.

9. Consider reserving a day for participants to shadow relevant but diverse colleagues, community members, or professionals.

10. Invite diverse, but relevant contributors.

11. Schedule regular opportunities for reflection and discussion, away from contributors.

12. Have participants anonymously evaluate contributors in order to make program improvements.

13. Build time into the schedule for meetings with project stakeholders and for general project development.

14. Require a project presentation before an esteemed audience.

15. Additionally raise the program’s profile by utilizing that esteemed audience in a closeout ceremony.

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Professional Development as Rewiring the Institution for Adaptability

Here at the Center for Teaching and Learning, we have been socially networking the university in order to create a more adaptable institution, capable of rapid changes. By bridging the silos of academic departments and colleges, we thus far have facilitated not only the development of new ideas but also actual changes to the university’s organizational chart and processes. We’re becoming a stronger institution in the face of unprecedented technological, economic, and social changes.

In the spring, we will start bridging the gap between faculty and staff, and ideally, we’ll expand this framework to better connect the university’s employees with the surrounding community — the latter’s goal being to facilitate mutual sustainability and growth — and then with other TBR institutions to diversify the available problem-solving skills and overall knowledge and other resources.

But I had missed an additional component that’s structurally necessary for this vision.

Change-leadership scholar John P. Kotter (2014) suggests an additional component in the facilitation of rapid changes. Kotter argues for a dual organizational system, which our Center already facilitates minus a key ingredient. Counterbalancing the university’s hierarchical bureaucracy, a network of passionate people in Kotter’s ideal organization explores threats or opportunities and promotes rapid changes that the hierarchy otherwise cannot address in time. Here at Austin Peay, our Center’s cohort programs network people from across the organization who feel a sense of urgency and want to be change agents. But after they help communicate the change vision, if the administration cannot merely implement the change — as it could, for instance, in the relocation of our Career Services from Academic Affairs to Student Affairs — then the change initiative gets redirected to a taskforce within the very same bureaucratic organization. In other words, the bureaucracy recaptures it and deprives it of its momentum.

The solution? A facilitated (not chaired) guiding coalition.

Like a taskforce, the guiding coalition would further research what is already being done here and at peer institutions, what has been done here and at peer institutions, costs, available resources, … but it also would have design-school-esque facilitated discussions to “[identify] and [remove] barriers which slow or stop [this] strategically important activity” (Kotter, 2014, p. 32). That last part is what a taskforce cannot achieve.

This extra component to Kotter’s dual organizational system will enable us to oversee not only idea generation, but also, at least in certain instances, implementation. For a stronger Austin Peay. For a stronger community. For a stronger higher educational system.

Reference

Kotter, John P. (2014). Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

A Man Conducting a Workshop for Women on How to Work within a Male System

Yesterday, the H.R. Training Specialist requested that I conduct a workshop next month on “Negotiation Strategies for Women.” From my work in developing the Women’s Leadership Program and our discussions on the unique challenges and strategies for women in negotiations, she believes I’m the right man for the job. But that’s the problem.

I don’t want to mansplain how women should behave in order to get what they want. If men and women dismiss women for deploying the same negotiation strategies that men use, then we need better Title IX training, not to correct women’s negotiation strategies.

Unfortunately, a Title IX training session wouldn’t work. We’d need a Title IX immersion program. Developing equitable interpretive frames would require constant reevaluation of blind-spot preconceptions. This questioning process has to occur within sustained, in-depth collaborative learning engagements with people of different perspectives — and in high-trust environments. Since interpretive frames shape one’s own identity, the process reforms the self. It’s emotionally exhausting. It’s painful. Not many people want to go through that process, especially not for what, on a first glance, appears to benefit only others. Far more commonly, people reach for low-hanging skills, or at least skills that clearly benefit themselves.

And that brings us back to where we are: a man conducting a workshop for women on how to work within a male system.

Don’t get me wrong. Instead of presenting bullet-point slides on research, I will shift both the attention and source of knowledge to the participants. I will use research not to lecture, but rather to ask targeted questions. In other words, I can downplay or even somewhat undermine the structural parallel with the social problem.

But I’ll still be a man conducting a workshop for women on how to work within a male system.

Women’s Leadership Program and Campus Integration

Since Spring 2013, multiple faculty and staff members have approached me and asked for a women’s leadership program. In Summer 2013, I started researching the unique concerns and strategies for circumnavigating them, particularly in academia. I learned more about the unparalleled familial support network that males have for entering into leadership and the constraints on the negotiation tactics women can use — not just for salaries or raises, but equally importantly, for the daily negotiations in teamwork, committee work, and even interactions with friends and family. After developing a strong enough knowledge base to ask questions, I conducted cross-campus interviews with faculty and staff to develop a better understanding of their specific needs and interests.

Many have asked me why I as a man have pushed so hard for this program. Particularly after reading the literature, I strongly support the cause. But based on my experiences with other leadership programs, I also recognized the importance and opportunity of a cohort program that can connect diverse areas of the university. I’m constantly thinking of ways to improve the university’s capacity for cross-campus knowledge transfers, resource sharing, and other collaborations. The more ways we can integrate faculty, professional staff, and non-professional staff, the better prepared the university will be for responding to external threats or opportunities.

Although we have done an excellent job of integrating different departments and academic colleges, we have not yet expanded our integration to include staff. For nearly two years, I have explored ways to include staff in our existing programs. Differences in approval hierarchies, pay structures, and especially cultures thwarted every attempt. I may be wrong, but I suspect the Women’s Leadership Program (WLP) overcame those differences because people stopped thinking of themselves as faculty or staff and started thinking of themselves as women — and then the men either supported it or got the heck out of the way. Whatever the reason, instead of thinking why not, people started figuring out how to.

Meanwhile, the WLP can build channels between faculty, professional staff, and administrative staff that will enable other integrative programs to navigate the system. It sets a precedent.

Unfortunately, the program’s timing thwarted my ability to see it to fruition. My office assumed a large amount of responsibility for the New Faculty Program and the highly ambitious Quality Enhancement Plan. I was asked not to roll out new programs.

With prior approval, I sought champions and initiated conversations with the faculty and staff senates to co-house the program. Before the senates could vote, the program’s champions proliferated, to the point of potentially tearing apart the program. Across campus, people made appointments to discuss the program’s design and funding without including each other or other essential stakeholders in the conversation. Rather than wait until the program had a proper home that could institutionalize it, I chose to appoint program co-directors, one faculty and one staff member, who could manage the champions and see the program to implementation. I gave them the names of program champions, the names of other stakeholders, the list of interviewee requests, and the program design I created.

One of the co-directors is a graduate of this spring’s Faculty Leadership Program, so I see this handing-off process at least in part as a continuation of that professional development.

As I saw today in the information session with the Staff Senate, the co-directors are working as a team, and the program design already is starting to change. Although I take pride in my design, their changing it means the co-directors have taken ownership over it. The change is good. It is a sign of life.

So now I will lose decision-making abilities, fall-out of the information loop, and watch with anticipation, and even a sense of loss, to see in what unpredictable ways the program will develop and grow.

Arming Faculty without Telling Them What to Do

By Day 1, new faculty need to know our students and how to reach them. They would need that kind of knowledge if we were Harvard, if we were a community college. No two campuses have the same demographics, so learning the different student bodies, characteristics, and learning preferences orients faculty to their new environment.

But I don’t tell faculty how to teach. They know better than I do how to teach their content. Any implication otherwise would be wrong and insulting.

I do provide faculty with teaching strategies. A simple cohort-building activity helps faculty acquire and assimilate the specific teaching strategies for those diverse student bodies — and this activity circumvents my “teaching” anyone anything.

Most strategies overlap for different demographics — like fostering a sense of classroom community in order to improve student-to-student knowledge transfer, socially incentivize attendance, and diversify classroom accountability structures. Participants encounter a short list of specific classroom activities, with their slightly different pedagogical intentions. And then we use think-pair-share: participants individually choose which activity they most likely would use and explain their reasoning to their neighbors.

The process of choosing only one forces the participants to evaluate and cognitively organize the options. Also, by selecting first and then discussing their reasoning, they activate multiple parts of their brains to access the same content, which increases the likelihood of their retaining that content. Participants also develop a vested interest in other people’s answers, and the in-depth discussion becomes a reflection activity that fosters metacognitive understanding. It also improves mutual understanding and peer relationships. The subsequent greater group discussion disseminates more information for improved reflection and understanding, but it also fosters a sense of cohort community. After an hour of tackling five strategies this way, the faculty see those five strategies in a list and take that list home with them. They’re also motivated, talkative, and reluctant to leave the conversation behind.

This activity is an example of how to help faculty develop new understandings, without boring them with a lecture or their perceiving the faculty developer as trying to rob them of their academic freedom. Regardless of the topic, look for opportunities to deliver information as tools — for socializing, problem-solving, designing a project … — not as endpoints. When information becomes the endpoint, it should become a handout; the interaction, only an email. Otherwise, we’re wasting both good will and everyone’s time.

Reflections on the Faculty Leadership Program

Participants in the Faculty Leadership Program sacrifice 1/5 of their work week for an entire semester. This sacrifice not only impacts their time, but also their capacities. At least some participants discover a new normal in what they can achieve.

This semester, participants met with over thirty campus contributors from every university division. They explored the inner workings of Austin Peay, and then they focused their interviews. The faculty investigated a personal frustration that negatively impacts student success. They compared Austin Peay to peer institutions, met with stakeholders, and learned whether this frustration was a high enough priority for the university to dedicate resources to remedy. During that process, they discovered a few champions for their cause — people who behind the scenes not only supported their goal, but also looked for ways to help achieve it. Although this was a truly campus-led program, it was very much the participants’. To change even one of them would have changed everything about it. They’re proud of their accomplishment, and they should be. One faculty member claimed she felt transformed by the experience.

Not everyone in the program wants to enter into administration, but everyone leaves feeling empowered. Program alumni know enough about the institution and how it works to connect disparate parts of the university and make something happen. Even if they don’t take advantage of that superpower for their own ideas, they might connect others who otherwise lack the resources to see their ideas come to fruition.

In other words, these faculty members’ very presence makes this university stronger.

 

Chair Leadership Development

We’re currently piloting a Chair Leadership Program with future, new, and relatively new academic chairs. Over the course of two semesters, participants meet twice a month for 3.5 hours, and then the program will funnel into a chair organization that will start in Spring 2015. Although both the program and organization sound like excessive burdens on precious time, the participants begged for these opportunities, and they repeatedly express their appreciation in both conversation and program assessments. The program and hopefully the organization benefit participants, contributors, and the institution enough for people to want to make that sacrifice.

Some program sessions improve campus efficiency, and not just by creating more knowledgeable chairs. After presenting on the university’s budget, the Director of Budgets worked closely with participants over multiple days, learned about the chairs’ needs, collaborated to streamline certain processes, and shared upcoming changes. Similarly, the University Attorney and her senior administrative assistant discussed the approval process for software agreements, learned about chairs’ concerns, and collaborated to streamline the process for everyone involved.

These interactions were not merely information sessions; the chairs, contributors, and institution truly benefited. As a result of these meetings, chair participants now receive monthly — or in one case, weekly — automated budget updates that help them determine when and from where to move money to prevent shortfalls, which will save the Director of Budgets from having to resolve problems on the back end. They also will acquire a PDF list of clauses that cannot appear in contracts, which chairs then can send to software and other service providers. Eliminating these clauses on the front end speeds up the approval process and reduces the Legal Office’s workload. They also make the chairs’ lives a lot easier.

All program sessions improve inter-divisional relations and mutual understanding. The Chief Human Resources Officer, Director of H.R., and Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action explained the hiring and firing process and participated in a Q&A that cleared potentially poisonous misconceptions. They also helped a chair develop action steps to resolve a specific problem.

As much as the participants appreciate these meetings with cross-campus representatives, they truly value the cohort-building opportunities to share freely, discuss and even laugh at their experiences, and collaboratively brainstorm solutions to their problems. They covet these experiences so much, the participants want to make these opportunities permanent, which is why we’re creating the funnel organization.

The Chair Leadership Program and its corresponding chair organization are part of our overall aim to improve cross-campus knowledge transfer, collaborations, and resource sharing. We’re building campus capacity for responding rapidly to external threats or opportunities, one program at a time.