Leaders have a tough job these days. Although they are mere mortals, they are required to craft compelling visions for organizations, not just to make money, but to save the world and make us all better people at the same time.
Recently, here at Brescia (my wonderful little college) we experienced a major clash between organizational values and the need to evolve and change to attract new students. You see, Brescia is the last, yes the last, women’s college in Canada. With upwards of 60% of all undergraduate students in this country being female, it would appear that the role of a women’s college today might be a bit irrelevant. It isn’t. Brescia is a place where young women see other women breaking the glass ceiling. Taking leadership roles in managing the institution. In most academic environments, men still run the show. What we do is important.
That said, the staff and faculty are aggressively working to ensure that Brescia has a viable future. That means that we need to be perceived to be relevant by the young women in their last two years of high school. And their world, well, their world is not like the world many of us grew up in. So we market to them differently.
Our marketing department developed a campaign with a tag line, “Her mind is as sharp as her shoes”. You wouldn’t believe the fuss this one little ad created. First item on the local news, coverage in the paper, the student paper, the university press. Phone calls from unhappy alumnae, community members, staff and faculty. Many people were very uncomfortable with the use of high heels as a representation of sexuality, of women dressing to attract men.
Wow. I really don’t know if this is a bad message. I do know that it reaches many of our target students. I also know that the edgy, tongue in cheek approach has improved the number of applications and enrollment at Brescia.
Maybe it’s healthy to challenge ourselves and our long-held beliefs and values. Otherwise we can become staid. A little controversy is probably good. First, it’s likely that this is the first time that half of the city has ever heard of our little college. The old saw that any news is good news might apply. Second, a healthy public debate about the role of our college is good for us. It makes us think about what’s important. I don’t know who’s right in this particular debate. What I do know, is that it’s good we’re talking about it.
And that is what I think all organizations need to do. Question their values, beliefs and philosophies. Do they fit in a changing environment? Are they still appropriate? Or are they leading your organizational to irrelevance?