This article originally appeared in Forbes.
What if the most critical change in any organizational change is within the leaders?
When Timothy Renick, Ph.D., joined Georgia State University (GSU), he was a new professor in a large, research-oriented university with a big problem, retention. Especially acute among students from underserved backgrounds, Renick realized that not only were students suffering, but so was GSU. Thus, began work that caused a shift so profound that GSU now achieves stunning results in graduation rates. Again, this is especially true for students from underserved backgrounds (235% increase in undergraduate degrees awarded to Hispanic students.)
Renick now leads the National Institute for Student Success(NISS), where the research continues. In addition, he and his team share the lessons with other institutions that wrestle with the same problems.
Fundamental to the work of GSU and NISS is the willingness to ask a question that, taken seriously, often leads to significant shifts. The question, “Are we the problem?” It is prominent on the NISS homepage and is not rhetorical. Finding the answer requires hard data, understanding born of sincerely tuning-in to what students have to say, and paying attention to the habits and sacred cows that exist in any organization.
Seismic shifts are within and between
Michelle Johnston, Ph.D., Gaston Chair of Business at Loyola University in New Orleans, uses seismic shift to describe the profound power and value of a change so deep that it reorganizes how we think about ourselves and connect with others. Her book, The Seismic Shift in Leadership: How to thrive in a new era of connection, offers stories of people from many walks of life whose own shifts spurred deeper and more valuable connections within themselves, their teams, and entire organizations.
Some, like John Nickens IV, now CEO of Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, are about knowing and embracing who you are, including mistakes and detours that may be embarrassing. Nickens honesty about his early detour is admirable. Forced by his father to take responsibility for his decisions at a young age, he admits to feelings of loss and embarrassment. Later, he embraced his past, including what might have been a derailing event, and now shares his whole story.
Seismic shifts are personal
Some seismic shifts cause changes in how a leader relates to others, and Johnston includes herself in this category. In a life-changing moment, she realized that her teaching style, including her appearance, was based on other professors – primarily men. Unwittingly, she assumed a persona of toughness and distance from her students. If you met her today, you would find that hard to imagine. In her attempt to fit in, she was obscuring her best qualities of warmth and empathy that enable her to connect with people, including students, rather than scare them.
Seismic shifts in crisis
Great leaders look for opportunities and lessons from crises. Johnston highlights Todd Graves, founder, and CEO of Raising Cane’s, a fast-growing fast-food chain, who recalls the lessons from the COVID pandemic. Graves recognized early on that he felt “like a huge failure.” Feeling the need to continue routine meetings with the top leaders, he shifted to a focus on connection. He asked people how they were feeling and, importantly, what they knew that other team members should know. Turning the focus allowed people to talk, listen and begin to regain a sense of purpose essential to working in any crisis.
As the crisis continued, Graves used video technology to communicate and realized that doing so in real-time in an organic way had profound benefits. He doesn’t dismiss the need for prepared talks, carefully constructed and polished, at other times, but sees the value of less formal communication to help people feel informed, important, and connected.
The secret sauce, says Johnston, is connection, starting with what is true about us, our teams, and entire organizations – successes, failures, and embarrassing mistakes. Leaders who develop the habit of connecting can do more than react to seismic shifts; they can create them when necessary.