Tom Barry’s new blog series, “OWNING the New Normal: Innovators creating the way forward,” will focus on business leaders exploring the current and evolving business environment. The discussion will revolve around recognizing that leaders must innovate and pivot to “own” the future and move forward. This is the first in the series.

Higher education has seen huge changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were sent home, classes moved online and college campuses were forced to continue their operations remotely in order to survive.

Recently, I was fortunate to have a conversation with Dayle Smith, PhD, the Dean of Loyola Marymount University’s College of Business Administration, about how she led that monumental pivot at her school. Dean Smith has been a leader in higher education for almost 30 years, has contributed to several national and international collaboratives and has authored 25 books and numerous articles on leadership, communication and organizational behavior. We had an insightful conversation about how leaders can adapt and succeed in an ever-changing environment.

Managing the Reaction

TOM BARRY: At what point in time did you realize that coronavirus had truly changed things, and that the school had to make drastic changes in order to adapt?

DEAN DAYLE SMITH: I think the point at which we realized the world permanently changed was when we were on spring break, and it became obvious that the students would not be returning.

As a leader, I saw what was happening and how other schools were starting to shift to remote work. I brought my leadership team together that week. I said that I recognized that the University is expecting that this will be a couple of weeks, but my gut is telling me that it might be much longer. So we prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.

We not only planned for the next couple of weeks; but, we imagined what we might have to do to operate the school if we became completely virtual tomorrow, so if the world ever did get to that point, which we now know that it did, we would be ready, and we were.

I think it made our leadership team feel ready for anything that would be thrown at us, and it really unleashed people's ability to be even more creative than they were in a traditional office setting. People said, “Okay, we are going to try to take what we are really good at and figure out what we have to do to make it work,” and we came together and did it.

It has also made me confident that when we all come out of this, we will be much more resilient and stronger.

NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Innovating through adversity creates resilience.

TOM BARRY: What silver linings do you see coming from our experience with COVID-19?

DEAN DAYLE SMITH: Online learning is a great example. LMU was exploring the move to online, but it was very slow, plodding and experimental. As soon as the need became urgent, things started to happen.

When it comes to organizational change, I am a fan of John Kotter, who talks about the importance of demonstrating urgency. If people do not see urgency and do not have the understanding that it is important, it is going to be a mile of bad road, so to speak.

NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Urgency can be an antidote to complacency.

Leading Different Constituencies

TOM BARRY: Yesterday I sat in on a recruiting conversation at Villanova (my alma mater). I was able to get involved for a half an hour, and that was across the country in Philadelphia. I love speaking to young people beginning their careers, and it would have been something I would not have been able to do in the past. The current world order has removed this specific geographic challenge and barrier.

What was the biggest challenge that you had?

DEAN DAYLE SMITH: I think one of the biggest challenges was retooling our organization. We knew that if we wanted to really be agile, we needed to cross train our employees.

It could have been a difficult transition, but everybody came together. People were motivated to get trained, and by solving the question of “What are the barriers?” we freed up creativity, innovation and gave permission for our staff to use workarounds and be more efficient.

Another challenge I still struggle with is the media framing around higher education. The New York Times wrote an article a few months ago asking “Will they (students) come back?”

I believe the media is asking the wrong question. It should be framed as, “why should students come back?” The answer is that they need to come back because the skills of agility that they are learning will be an asset to them in the workforce. Employers want students who can have an interview on a computer and be able to manage clients and customer relationships over a Zoom meeting. Those are skills that you cannot develop in a traditional classroom.

NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Agility skills are a powerful workplace asset.

Challenge, Change and Advantage

TOM BARRY: What do you think has changed the most in your leadership style over the last three months?

DEAN DAYLE SMITH: That there is no such thing as over communicating. As a leadership professor, I have had some training in crisis management, so I intuitively knew it, but knowing it and doing it are two different things. I am used to simulating many of those strategies in class with students, but this was not a simulation. This is real, and when you think you have communicated enough, do more and check in on what you thought you communicated. How were you perceived? What follow-ups are necessary. Close the loop by communicating more —and check in by asking for feedback. That is how you know communication is really working —in uncertain times, more is better.

NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Over-communication is a myth.

TOM BARRY: I have one last question for you, do you have anything in your mind that you need to work on as you continue to grow as a leader?

DEAN DAYLE SMITH: To continue to be a more effective leader and meet challenges ahead, I need to remember not to lose sight of all the stakeholders — and there are many: the immediate stakeholders, the indirect stakeholders and the environment around them.

As dean of a college, that means my immediate stakeholders are my faculty and staff, and through the faculty — the students. I am also recognizing that their parents are an indirect stakeholder. Also, I am eager to focus on how the business landscape in 2020-21 and beyond is going to be different and how these differences affect all stakeholders in the value chain. The industry, often times, changes so much faster than business curriculum, and our curriculum must be adjusted to meet “just in time” needs. Good stakeholder analysis that is continuous and adaptive ensures an ability to do just in time corrections.

NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Pay attention to both direct and indirect stakeholders.

As COVID-19 continuously shapes the new business landscape, there are new skillsets being acquired and mindsets being shifted. Both educators and businesses have to be agile and nimble enough to successfully navigate through today’s ongoing opportunities and challenges.

If you have any questions, GHJ’s COVID-19 Response Team has as an experienced team of consultants specializing in COVID-related laws and programs and can provide the tools your business needs to help it recover from this business disruption. We are here to assist organizations to succeed in these very challenging times.

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Tom Barry

Tom Barry, CPA, believes in building a successful life one day at a time. He does that by leveraging technology to create a flexible schedule that allows him to be a father and husband in addition to fully committing to his career at GHJ, where he has worked since 1997. Tom’s role as GHJ’s Managing…Learn More