I looked around the room at the other 22 people on the University of Minnesota Presidential Search Advisory Council and thought to myself, “This will never work.”
There were four of us from industry, three regents, a pair of students, as well as faculty and staff from a variety of the campuses across the state. This group was not only diverse, it was eclectic. The only thing we may have shared was a love of the University of Minnesota and a belief in its importance to the state.
But a funny thing happened as I got to know these people through meetings and listening sessions. I realized that my preconceived notions about who should be the next president were embarrassingly simple — and it was these differences within our group that led to the desired outcomes. I want to share with you some of what I learned.
Collective wisdom is greater than individual wisdom. When members of a diverse group listen to each other, more and better questions get asked and answered. I went into the search with an image of what I wanted in the next president. I suspect many people did. But those images tended to be one-dimensional. For example, when you think of a businessperson, who are you imagining? Jack Welch? Sheryl Sandburg? Yvon Chouinard? What we really want are behaviors and traits that will make for an effective president. I learned that rather than a simplistic archetype, the next president could be multi-dimensional. As others in the group raised issues that were important to them, it became more clear that the group’s intelligence was far superior than just my own.
Really listening is not waiting to make your point. Because of preconceived notions, I believe I entered the discussions wanting to convince rather than wanting to converse. Because of how the chair and co-chair led the discussions, that was not possible. And through that I learned about issues I would not have fully considered. By being more open to what others were saying, I was able to moderate my own opinions.
We often have to look at things as more good than bad rather than right or wrong. We had a great pool of candidates. Most had good jobs in which they were happy. A strong search firm contacts these generally satisfied prospects and encourages them to think about a new position. We were charged with presenting to the regents the three or four candidates we felt could be the next great president of the University of Minnesota. As a committee, we did not have to consider issues such as who would be willing to go public or what compensation the candidate wanted. Those are important issues, but ones that would potentially limit the pool of candidates.
As our objective was to try to hire a great president, discouraging candidates from applying who were sitting presidents or provosts and happy in their jobs because of privacy or pay issues would have seemed counterproductive. Presenting candidates to the regents who were well qualified, but not wanting to go public was not ideal, but I suggest it was more good than bad.
Collaboration is better than compromise. Compromise involves each party giving up something. Collaboration is parties working together for a creative outcome. This committee collaborated. There were candidates some people wanted and others they didn’t, but by focusing on the core leadership criteria for the next president, we were able to creatively see possibilities in candidates we all could enthusiastically support.
Values over principles. Values and principles are often described differently. What I learned through this process was that my values were my personal belief systems that I could not compromise, but some of the things that I wanted in a president were principles with which I could be flexible. I didn’t need a businessperson, I needed someone who understood business and could lead a complex organization. I didn’t need an academic, I needed someone steeped in academia who could relate to colleagues, speak their language and earn their trust. If, on principle, I only wanted a nontraditional candidate I would have been closed to the candidates who surfaced.
We won’t know for several years how the presidency of Joan Gabel is going to be remembered. But I know for certain that there are some tremendous people who would love to be president at the University of Minnesota and we found one of them. And I believe the process worked.
Ross Levin is chief executive officer and founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management.