Strengths-Based Leadership for a Global Organization | Webster University

Strengths-Based Leadership for a Global Organization

St. Louis Forum Speech
November 19, 2010

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to speak to you today about leadership in our global economy, a subject that intrigues and inspires me every day. I will share with you my thoughts on the strengths-based leadership revolution and how we are applying this methodology to our strategic leadership goals at Webster University.

Webster is a global organization, one that celebrates the diversity of our constituencies, which are comprised of people of various cultures, backgrounds and experiences that enrich our organization. We are keenly aware of our growing global society and how our mission and values guide us to transform our constituencies for responsible global citizenship and individual excellence.

This mission is rooted in our beginnings when, almost a century ago, the Sisters of Loretto opened one of the first women’s colleges west of the Mississippi.  I suspect those trailblazing nuns would have been excellent candidates for a Forum Trailblazer Award.  They were influential in the community and one of the first to make higher education available to women in St. Louis; they were training young women to serve their communities in a professional and charitable manner; and, by providing a quality education, elevated the role of women in the community.

We were formed by a progressive, committed, inclusive, and entrepreneurial community of women.  And while our demographics have changed over time, the values and commitments of those who preceded us have endured to mark us as those who care, who respond, who innovate, and who lead. 

As Webster approaches its centennial anniversary, it is important for us to remember the leadership and vision of our founders and our evolution from a local college for career-oriented young women… to a worldwide university, with 108 campuses in the U.S., Europe and Asia, whose 91st Commencement speaker was a Webster alum and a career-focused military man.  We’ve come a long way baby!

Speaking of a long way, I just returned from a trip to our Geneva campus, where I met with the Board of Directors of Foundation Webster.  While there, I had the opportunity to meet some of the extraordinarily diverse group of faculty, staff and students on our campus. I was struck by the myriad of backgrounds, degrees, work experiences, and nationalities they represented and the value those differences bring to the classroom and learning experience.

The same holds true for our global workplace. We must encourage and value diversity in broadening ways if we are to succeed in an international economy.  Diversity in the global workplace includes not only variety in backgrounds, degrees, work experiences, and nationalities, but also in point of view, language, culture, and strengths.   

Management of a global organization provides its own challenges and opportunities. I believe we must tap into what makes us different as a collective strength for communities and teams.  As individuals, as leaders, and as members of communities and organizations, I want to explore the paradox that each of us will become most effective when we focus on our strengths rather than focusing on our faults and failings.

This is not to say that weaknesses do not deserve study. The point is that doing so will not help us know our own strengths and the patterns that characterize them so we can refine, apply, and optimize what makes each of us unique and at the same time capitalize on the differences of those with whom we work.

My strengths work began when I led a diverse team of deans and provost’s office staff while at the University of Akron. In my search for leadership resources, I discovered the strengths revolution, documented in Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Dr. Donald O. Clifton.

We continued to use this resource as a tool for building the provost’s office team and thinking about new hires. We considered how to add missing strengths to our team and how to think differently about who on the team could complement our own strengths.  This format provided a framework from which we could tap into the strengths of people in the community to form task forces, work teams, search committees, and more.

Buckingham and Clifton based their work on a 30-year research project conducted by the Gallup Organization that included interviews with over two million people.  The most significant question posed to most of the people was, “At work do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?” You may be surprised to learn that, of the employees they surveyed in the large organizations, only twenty percent felt their strengths were used every day. This does not bode well for organizations that want to grow and prosper.

These results and strengths psychology suggest two assumptions about us and the organizations we lead:

“Each person’s talents are enduring and unique and, each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.”  In the past, we would look for training to fix the weaknesses.  This is a different way of looking at our people, our most dynamic resource.

At Webster we agree with these assumptions and are applying strengths principles internally and externally as we move forward in our plans to bring Webster to the next level. 
Internally, we are in the process of identifying our strengths in order to draw on the collective power of our differences. Last summer, many of us at Webster completed the Strengths Assessment based on Buckingham and Clifton’s work. 

What we gained were five top themes to describe our individual human talents, and what we also know are the clusters of talents within our groups.  In most cases, we found the themes descriptive of ourselves when we are performing at our best and so lost in the flow of work or play that our sense of time passing vanishes from consciousness.

What specifically did we discover about our individual strengths and those of Webster’s leadership team?  

My individual strengths, first assessed several years ago, are learner, focus, strategic, achiever and communication.  I find these to be true to form for, number one, I am happiest when I am learning new content, skills, people, roles, institutions, and communities.   

So you can imagine how I have enjoyed the bounty of learning opportunities that have been presented to me as Webster’s eleventh president and as a new member of the St. Louis community!

The combination of focus and strategic has defined my leadership through the development of initiatives and partnerships that build on an institution’s strengths and the unique contributions an institution makes to the communities it serves. The achiever explains my drive and bolts of energy.  I am energized when bringing ideas to life by putting them into words.

As for the rest of the team, I was encouraged to discover that not only was learner a top strength for me, but it is also a strength for ten members of our leadership group of vice presidents and deans --  good news for a group in the business of higher education!  We also found that we cluster around strengths such as arranger, input, maximizer, and relator.

Since the publication of this book, the Gallup researchers have focused their attention on leadership, studying over one million work teams and interviewing tens of thousands of leaders and followers.  The findings from these studies are documented in Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie.

What they developed out of their research are the Four Domains of Leadership Strength.  They found that successful leadership teams possessed “broader groupings of strengths,” or domains, each with a healthy representation of strengths.  For example, under “Executing” you find “Arranger” the flexible conductor, the one who manages the variables and finds the best way to get things done. 

Under “Influencing” you find “Woo,” the networker’s networker, the one who is drawn to strangers and finds them energizing. “Woo” stands for winning others over. I suspect we have a lot of Woo’s in this audience. 

The domain “Relationship Building” has “Connectedness” the bridge builder; the one who believes we are all connected and is open to the mysteries of life.

And, “Strategic Thinking” has “Ideation" or the one fascinated by ideas with the kind of mind that looks for connections and is energized by new ideas.

Those are just a sample of what Rath and Conchie believe make a great leadership team.  You can see by the lists, that each domain has a complementary variety of strengths. Each team member leads based on the particular arrangement of strengths.

Strengths psychology is the bold notion that building on strengths is more productive than minimizing weaknesses focusing on the positive rather than the negative. We agree with that notion.

Our leadership team is using these principles and tools with their own teams.  They have come to understand how their strengths and those of their colleagues contribute to the whole.  One of our vice presidents found it to be an exercise in understanding how her colleagues lead. Another sees the value in widening the leadership circle by bringing in more people with a range of strengths that will add value and wisdom to the leadership process.

Gradually we are discovering how the knowledge of strengths and their value makes the most of the wealth of potential in our workplace. Imagine the impact on employees when their strengths are nurtured and they are presented with opportunities to “do what they do best, every day.”  How will that affect their levels of engagement, productivity and self-confidence and ultimately, the growth of the organization?

While there are many lenses through which we can frame the ways we lead, I have found the focus on strengths personally and professionally useful.   Simply put, strengths are the ability to consistently execute near-perfect performance based on investing time in practicing, developing skills, and building a knowledge base focused on a talent—a natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving.

I have been blessed with a natural desire and propensity to learn, and I focus my learning on the topic at hand.   Earlier in my career, I was eager to learn more about topics in history and English and how to help high school students learn.  When I moved into higher education, I quickly turned my learning to how to help teachers be more effective teachers.

Then, when I began a series of formal leadership roles, starting with associate dean and culminating in the presidency at Webster, my learning about leadership took on a relentless quality—through reading, formal study, workshops, mentoring programs, and so on.   I focused my team on learning how we could collectively lead by capitalizing on the diversity of our individual strengths.

This focus on optimizing strengths has helped me understand the me that I want to become more of—a better learner, more focused and strategic, more skilled as a communicator, etc.—and it helps me understand why I so enjoy the challenge of working in very diverse teams.  

Focusing on strengths helps to focus on the positive in each member of the team and think well about the roles we can play as individuals and as complements to other team members.  And the strengths work provides another way to appreciate the diversity of those we meet—beyond obvious differences in gender, age, and ethnicity.

As I applied for presidencies, I had a tool that helped me assess my fit with those who would form my team and with the institution—its strengths as well as the needs I could fill.   But more about that in a few minutes. . .

We are confident that the strengths revolution shows great promise for Webster’s internal organization and can be applied to our external, global outreach as well. 

We will extend our strengths-based leadership to the formation of professional development programs.

Our first initiative is the Global Leadership Academy, a program that will discover and grow the leadership potential of the Webster community. Built on the strengths model, the Global Leadership Academy is intended to fill Webster’s need for distributed leadership, which will bring solutions to our collective global challenges from various perspectives within our organization.

As we develop this program, we will partner with other leadership-focused organizations across the country like Boeing and the military.  We will also collaborate with respected leaders in the field of professional development to tap their strengths of focus and orientation.  This global nationwide advisory group will bring a wealth of experiences, ideas, and direction to the establishment of the Academy’s standards.

Just last week, we welcomed Colonel Joseph Sanders, director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the U. S. Air Force Academy and the first Senior Fellow at the Center, Arthur Schwartz, to our campus to discuss the program and get their input as we work to build a first-class curriculum for our employees.   

We learned at that meeting that those in Corporate America and military education also embrace the strengths theory and that our vision for the Global Leadership Academy is on target.

As we explore the many ways the theory of strengths-based leadership can be applied to our organization, I stepped back for a moment and asked, what would we discover if Webster University took the strengths assessment? I found what I believe to be are strengths that turn out to be remarkable for a global institution:

Adaptability: Webster responds willingly to the demands of the moment and sees the future as a place that is created out of choices made right now. 

Some examples of our adaptability include the opening of our first extended campus in Kansas City in the mid sixties;  

In 1967, the Sisters of Loretto, turned ownership of the University over to a lay board in order to ensure the University’s potential for growth and development;

Webster  further adapted to student needs by providing educational opportunities to our military on bases across the United States.

Belief:   Webster has core values that are enduring, that provide direction toward a consistent set of priorities.  For example, we of course value our students and place them first -  in front of everyone and everything else.  But now we intend to take that a step further and place our students first among students

We strive to teach, develop, and prepare our students to be of absolute first level quality in their knowledge, skills, talents; in their careers; in their pursuit of advanced study; in their service to others; in their leadership; and certainly, in their citizenship of the globe. 

We focus on learning, much like the St. Louis Forum.  We see the value in combining theory and practice and personalized learning in our classrooms; we encourage creativity and scholarship, foster a lifelong desire to learn and actively serve in our communities, and yes, provide an international perspective.

Diversity – that international perspective includes creating environments that are accessible to individuals of diverse cultures, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds where we instill in students a respect for and an understanding of their own diversity and that of others.

Global Citizenship – by filling the unmet educational needs of the diverse communities we serve, we are setting an example of our responsible global citizenship.

Developer: Webster sees the potential in others and finds ways to help others experience success. 

For example, our Delegates Agenda is an award-winning student leadership program that brings student leaders together each fall and spring to share their goals and ideas for improving various aspects of campus life with University leadership. 

This is a unique opportunity, not only for students to work with the administration to advocate necessary change on campus, but also for the students to gain valuable public speaking and presentation experience. 

We fill the needs of working adults looking for opportunities to pursue advanced degrees;

35% of our undergraduates are first generation college students;

Futuristic: Webster sees what the future might hold and is fascinated by it.

In 1978, we opened our first international campus in Geneva.

In 1996, we initiated a joint MBA in Shanghai, China.  Webster was global before global was cool.

And with the opening of the Confucius Institute in 2009, we were designated by the Chinese Ministry of Education   to bring Chinese language and culture to the region.   Staff of the Confucius Institute contribute also through their work with China Hub Commission.

We were early pioneers in creating fully on-line  programs for students – from a kitchen in North Dakota to a tent in the Middle East… 

Webster University’s Global MBA program and Global MA program in international relations provide students with the opportunity to learn and interact in five countries on five Webster campuses overseas within one eleven-month academic program.

Includer: Webster includes people.  Our accepting nature is based on the belief that we are all fundamentally worthy and equally valued.  Our diversity encompasses socio-economics, age, culture, experiences, religions, gender, ability/disability,  and many other valued differences.

As an "includer" we know we each possess a unique collection of experiences and arrangement of strengths.  It is important that we simultaneously value our own and each other’s uniqueness and see that as the power of community.  A diverse community is a strong community and will enhance each individual’s uniqueness in ways that free all of us to be our very best individual selves.

We celebrate diversity in our bricks and mortar classrooms and virtual classrooms around the world.

At Webster we embrace the diversity of our student, faculty and staff populations-their experiences, their cultures, their ideas, and their strengths and create nurturing learning and working environments in which they will reach their best potential. 

For Webster to function as a leader in our global communities and in higher education, our employees and students must be able to lead from where they are. The function of leadership is to serve and we all need to lead and serve our best, which means optimizing everyone’s diverse contributions for the collective good to meet the challenges and opportunities of managing a global organization.

And, we will build on the recognition we have received the last three years from the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the best colleges to work for and aspiring to become one of the best “GLOBAL” colleges to work for. We will accomplish this by playing to our strengths and giving every member of our organization the opportunity and the environment where each can do their best every day.