High turnover and a lack of collaboration between units are the norm in higher education, but they aren't conditions we have to accept.
When Patrick Lynch started in his role as Director of Strategic Engagement and Alumni Relations at The Ohio State University's College of Engineering, he felt called to act after a number of his colleagues left within six months. He shared his experience working to create a culture of collaboration at the CASE District V Conference in December.
We asked Patrick to revisit that presentation and talk about his work for this extensive Q&A. In it, he touches on how he and his team are fostering collaboration, creating a share sense of purpose, and making changes internally that are improving their relationships with other teams.
Can you set the scene and talk about the culture you have been trying to create for your team?
I work directly for the College of Engineering at Ohio State and am embedded in the unit. The unique piece here is that Ohio State has central advancement functions and then we also have a lot of college and unit-based functions. Inherently in that, you’re going to have some replication of duties and overlap.
I was hired into a team that was a growing, high-performing team. Then about six months into being there, somebody started to leave, then three or four more people started to leave, then my supervisor transitioned internally. We went through this huge period of incredible turnover. People were leaving left and right. That’s what caused me to look a little deeper into what was happening. What was this stemming from? What could I do within the team to change the way people saw things? To make it a situation where no one wanted to leave, or, if they were thinking about leaving, we would have a dialogue where we'd ask what we could do for them?
What did trying to change that culture look like?
The biggest thing that I felt we needed to do was create awareness of everyone’s role on the team. And that actually started with myself, first and foremost. I was hired onto the team in a role that I learned was a little undefined, especially to the broader team. Creating this definition and understanding of what my role actually was and why I was doing it and what the value was was needed.
I took that same mentality to everyone else on the team. The thought was, if everyone else could see how their role impacted one another, it could create buy in and investment in our collective goal, collective mission, and collective understanding. There would be less of this “silo” mentality. That’s what we tried to do.
On the outreach and engagement team at the time we began, we had six members, including myself. I started by asking, what's the interconnectedness? Does everyone feel invested in each other, does everyone know what our goals are, do the donor relations staff know how their role fits into events, and why they should care? So we built this from the ground up. We went through three different retreats focused on education, awareness, setting goals, collaboration, finding a strategic priority for our team, and getting buy in.
How have things changed since you made that a focus?
In order to do all that it has to be genuine. It’s one thing for me to say, “Everyone needs to collaborate.” But to make it really genuine you have to do a couple things. One, people need to realize the value of everyone else on their team. That’s where education is important. And two, we’ve created within our own team team goals: initiatives that people are responsible for together. We created goals that you could not achieve without talking to others. In doing that, we force collaboration, but it comes from a genuine interest.
When we did that, it became natural that that mentality carried out to other functions of advancement. We started to actively reach out and collaborate with development officers. When we were doing events, Laura, our events manager, would ask a development officer, "Hey how can we leverage one of our prospects for this event," or, “We’re going to be in this area, do you have anybody you’d like to engage for this event?” By starting internally with our own team and seeing some successes and wins, it became natural to for them to go out and seek others.
Additionally, my role in this process was to help the team see some of these solutions themselves. To ask them questions that would naturally lead them down the path of reaching out to other team members. To guide them towards collaborating without telling them to do it. This entire process only works if you can start to alter the way people think through a situation. At times it takes a little longer, but the end results are much more meaningful and overall impact is greater. So in that scenario with our events manager, what questions could I ask her about the event that might guide her to coming up with the idea of collaborating with the development officers herself? How could I begin to evolve the way she thought through the planning process to make this a natural outcome? In the back of my mind, I might already know the answer or the outcome I am looking for, but found this approach to be much more impactful.
It’s about helping, guiding them toward an idea. So, broadly, we took this approach: Make everyone understand what their role is and what their teammates roles are. Integrate them to collaborate on shared goals. And then through that evolution it became natural to start reaching out across team lines to collaborate and coordinate with the other units.
And how many people are there on your team?
There are three functional areas within the College of Engineering advancement team. There’s outreach and engagement, which I work on. The other is our communications team. And then we’ve got our development team. The standard three legs of the stool. In total we have 26 people on our advancement team.
Are there particular projects or examples that stand out in your mind as examples of the success of this new culture?
I can think of a couple.
We launched a new event series that would have been easy to launch for the sake of launching. But we launched it with the understanding that it would be a way for our development officers to find, develop, and cultivate prospects. It would give our communications team a chance to broaden their social media and outreach efforts. And it would help our overall engagement of our alumni base. It was a roadshow initiative where we took our dean to six cities throughout the state of Ohio. He talked about the college, and we engaged with some speakers. Our development officers could strategically use this; they saw the value in finding and developing new areas. We pitched the idea as a value-add to the whole team. That is one example.
Another has been working with our communications team to help get our event communications out. We built a simple template structure, used universal imagery, things that made it easier to collaborate. That also got us talking and asking, "What do you need?" and making decisions in a more streamlined way.
Has that generated prospect leads? What was the outcome there?
We’ve seen gifts come in through our annual giving program because of the event series, and we have a few development officers who are now in gift conversations because of it. At a minimum I know of a $25,000 scholarship commitment that came from someone who attended one of these events last year. It was their first ever engagement with the college. That one outcome alone has made the initiative worth it.
What do you and your team have in your sights for the next year or two?
I’m a firm believer in “the work is never finished.” We’ve added new members to the team. We’ve taken donor relations and shifted it to development. Those changes cause us to continue to revamp our approach and remind people what our goals are and what our outcomes are.
I’m a big process and efficiencies person, which is also why doing this is important—to get everyone on the same page.
We’re in the process of revamping our meeting structure to become more collaborative in nature and turning our team into functional units, functional areas. We have four people who focus on annual giving, but we don’t meet together as an annual giving team because our roles aren’t directly the same. Now we’ll meet more intentionally. Our constituent engagement team will meet as a functional team. We meet as one big team once a month and as these functional teams every two weeks.
As things evolve and as new people come on the team, you’re always going to be revisiting your approach. We rolled out priorities last fiscal year, and with this new fiscal year we revisited those as a team and did some of the exercises we did before to build the culture and welcome new members. You never want to take things for granted, and you want to continue to reinforce things you find valuable and important.
When you talk about your strategy, it sounds kind of intuitive. But I know it’s not.
It felt that way for us, for me, too. It felt that way when I was presenting. But then I saw nods from the team. To me it didn’t seem crazy, but it was really important to set the stage for everyone and give everyone some anecdotes they could relate to. I wanted to talk to people about our process and the idea of repetition, sticking to this, consistency—that even though it sounds simple, it isn’t solved in one meeting. You can’t sit around at table and say, "Hey, this isn’t working. We need to be collaborative. Let’s all work together."
As simple as it sounds, there is some intentionality about it. I was over-the-top intentional, gimmicky if you will—using cheesy quotes, having a theme. We used the theme of superheroes. Everyone has their own super hero, but together our super team is more effective. Silliness is there, but the team responded well and knew that I wasn’t going to drop it. I gave everyone a superhero poster and a superhero figure and put it on their desk. I put them on mine. I’d come by and say, "Hey, your poster’s not up!" That was my way to remind them that it was more than just an exercise.
And I want to share some simple, valuable experiences. We actually changed the name of our team. When I came on board, I was overseeing the "operations team." While that was a lot of what we did, operational pieces, that name did a disservice to us and what we did. So we changed it from operations to the outreach and engagement team. That’s not a revolutionary change, but we went through brainstorming sessions together to come up with it. Now our development officers can sit down with a prospect and say, "Let me check with our outreach and engagement team," or, "There’s someone on our outreach and engagement team I’d really like to connect you with." It added value and validity to our work instead of just sounding like a service group.
Then people started to think of us differently, and we thought of ourselves differently. We had goals, and we had objectives, and, yes, part of that mission was to support development activities and support what our communication team is doing. But it also reminded us that we have other things that we are tasked with doing ourselves, too. This change created value not just for members of our team, but for our development officers.
Another example. We instituted what we call Conference Room Friday. Every other Friday from 11 to the end of the day, we block time on our calendars to go and work collaboratively in the conference room. That idea of collaborative work environments and being mobile is very West Coast, that’s what people there do anyway. But here in the Midwest, I’m in a big office, and my team members are in offices with doors. It brings us together. We have a sheet on the conference room door where you can add agenda items or talking points. Inevitably what happens is people start to trickle in there around lunch, and then someone says, "Hey, Matt, I meant to ask you about XYZ," and the next thing you know, we’re working on the whiteboard and hooking laptops to the TV and talking through things.
We also invite our development officers and our communications team to join us. People realize that if you need something, that is the best time to get it. Just go there and everyone you need to talk to is in that room. A lot of work gets done in that time period, and a lot of strategic thinking also gets done.
We also implemented No Meeting Fridays so that on those same days, we try not to schedule meetings with each other and if people schedule meetings with us, we try to say, "Hey this is Conference Room Friday, come to the conference room and come talk to us, or let’s pick a different day." Those are two things that are probably so ingrained that no one thinks about them, but those two shifts—the name change and Conference Room Fridays—have made a big difference.