Amid the pandemic, many people in the world experienced an awakening: to strive to include more people into the benefits we ourselves have enjoyed. This was seen first, last, and loudest on school campuses, where young people exercised their new-found power to voice both their complaints and their recommendations for change.
As the dean of a business school campus for the past two years, I saw at least one major conflict a week and one minor conflict a day around the desire for more inclusivity among students, staff, and faculty. At first, I saw these as problems to solve so that I could return to my “real” job of improving the student experience. Eventually, I determined that inclusivity was my primary job. Here are some of the daily methods that I used. Hopefully, some will resonate not just with academic administrators but also managers and other community leaders.
1. The Staff Meeting
As with most organizations, we held a weekly hour-long meeting with campus staff to coordinate our activities for the weeks and months ahead. We sat in a large room with moveable chairs in a circle. This physically demonstrated that every person in the room was equal. We even made room for a large screen and camera so those attending the meeting by Zoom would be the same size – and have the same view – as everyone else. I typically opened the meeting with a simple declaration: “Please tell us what you’re working on, where you need help, and any life events (positive or negative) that might impact your performance on campus.” And then I would pick a person at random to start. Every now and then, I would ask another person on campus to start with this invitation and selection to show, again, that everyone is a leader and a follower simultaneously.
In these meetings, I was actively listening. No phone, no laptop. I would ask questions, give affirmations (more on that later), and insert quick humor to show that I was fully present and that this was the most important hour of my week.
I would always go last. Frequently, I would not deliver my own update because many of those could be delivered by email or one-to-one conversations. This act again shows that title or hierarchy have no place in this meeting.
I also invited every member of the campus staff to this meeting, even if they did not directly report to me. For example, our enrollment team attended and shared their updates and priorities. Far from distracting, this gave everyone else on campus an expanded, detailed view of the processes and infrastructure of the school, beyond just the operations on campus.
Six months after my last staff meeting, I still feel that this single hour was the most powerful mechanism to physically, emotionally, and intellectually demonstrate and propel inclusivity.
This meeting was not ideal for generating new plans and following up on the implementation of existing plans. Those meetings were conducted in much smaller groups at other times during the week.
2. Virtual Coffee Chats with Students
We had about 350 graduate students on campus during my tenure. (That number has risen as COVID has abated.) I arranged bi-weekly meetings – Virtual Coffee with the Dean – with no more than 10 students in a session via Zoom. At the start of each of those 35 meetings, I issued the rules: we will not talk about the school or the course work. Instead, we will focus on physical and emotional well-being and, if time allowed, on ambition.
These sessions revealed more to me about our students’ attitudes and desires than any survey could deliver. It was during one of these sessions that I encountered an unexpected example of the Imposter Syndrome from two our most successful MBAs. (See my previous Confession of a COVID Dean.)
Moreover, these sessions showed the students that I, too, am human. We developed a connection with each other. The result was tangible: when I sent a campus-wide email about COVID rules or attendance, students heard it as a message from their trusted Dean Ted, not from some anonymous administrator.
3. Staff Exposure
Normally, orientation for new students recites the rules and regulations for the campus. We extended our orientation timeline to insert more members of the staff into the first week of students on campus. One of the more impactful sessions was hosted by A., a member of the enrollment team. (I’ve removed the names to preserve some anonymity.) She positioned this as the official hand-over of the student journey from the admission function to the campus academic, careers, and operations functions. She explained the school’s core value of the Growth Mindset, which highlights the choice that every individual faces when confronted with failure: to embrace and learn from it instead of rejecting, dismissing, or resenting it. To help students practice this mindset, she required all students to create a TikTok-style video in 15 minutes about their ambitions for themselves during the program, to be shared with everyone else in their group. The feedback from the session was even more influential than the videos. Students reported that the act of creating the video – something few had ever experienced – was itself empowering because it shared and then reduced the embarrassment that each individual thought was only in their head alone.
As a side note, A. was – and remains – a vital and trusted resource for me. The Dean’s position is lonely and stressful, filled with difficult choices and often-unwinnable political battles. (My grandfather was the president of Reed College in the 1930s. He reported that academic conflict is amplified because the stakes are so low. There are few bonuses, promotions or opportunities for recognition. So fights over titles, desk position, travel policy or schedules gain outsized importance.) Having a person outside of my direct reporting structure as a confidant relieved some of the stress, allowed me to test some of my possible actions or reactions with a trusted advisor and, simultaneously, gave me a deep appreciation for other people and roles within the organizations.
4. Opportunities for Affirmation
People in my Gen X generation recall the days when the losing football team slinked off the field as the victors celebrated. There was no trophy for 2nd Place. Now, we often grumble that the expectations and rewards have changed for the worse: everyone in Gen Z and now Gen Alpha expects a prize for everything. After eight years of teaching and two years of managing, I agree with the observation, but do not grumble about it. If affirmation, even if earned for minor acts, generates better results, why not do it? There is a direct link between confidence and performance. So even if the affirmation rests on tenuous grounds, the action improves everyone’s work. (I’ve researched this phenomenon, labeled pedagogical self-efficacy, and the numbers support my assertion.) The affirmation costs me nothing. To the contrary, it feels great to give someone praise and see them smile. I have yet to hear from a recipient that my frequent affirmations somehow dilute their impact. More is better.
During the lock-down in San Francisco during the early days of the pandemic, all students had to work from home. Staff were also encouraged to work remotely. As a result, our campus, which had once hosted 1,116 students (I don’t know why I remember this number of 2019 enrollment!), now only held two people: me and another leader, W. His office on the first floor was “socially distanced” from my office on the fourth floor. We only saw each other on video calls.
During one particular staff meeting on Zoom, W. reported that he had just received a call from some angry parents. They were not kind or civil. While W. was professional during the call with the parents, he revealed to the staff that the interaction had been traumatic for him personally. He was very upset. He showed me that honesty about personal pain is not self-deprecating but instead inspiring, giving permission to others to also be vulnerable. Leadership does not require stoicism.
Towards the end of my tenure as dean, when I was feeling overwhelmed with the drama of the position and the transition out of the role, W.’s example prompted me to inform the campus staff that I was struggling to rebound every morning to face the new day with my typical optimistic energy. Not only did they each pick up more responsibility, but they also felt empowered to inquire after – and improve – my own welfare. They literally cared for me, just as I had endeavored to care for them.
6. Team vs Tribe
A team coalesces around a set of goals and works together to achieve those outcomes. While the noun is common, the action is rare. Often, members of the “team” have different goals and varying commitment to any shared goals. A tribe, in contrast, is more than a team. In addition to shared goals, which everyone acknowledges are vital for the group to even exist together, a tribe simultaneously affirms each individual’s identities and non-work goals. Our campus became a tribe.
This tribe did exclude others; we were not “tribal” as it’s sometimes defined. Our identity as a tribe was not defined as an exclusion of others outside of the tribe. To the contrary, because we trusted each other to be our true selves, we welcomed others quickly and authentically. And these new members of the tribe also seemed to appreciate and soon adopt our openness.
To be sure, there were many times that I made a decision or followed a policy that was not inclusive. Some of these were required for the campus to function. Others were my mistakes as I was learning new practices. And still others occurred because I did not have the strength, patience, wisdom, power, and/or attention to follow a more difficult but more inclusive path. Those failures still haunt me. I am slowing forgiving myself to clear my attention for moving ahead to invent new practices of inclusivity as I return to the classroom.