Defining excellence Featured

8:00pm EDT October 28, 2006
 When Luis Proenza became president of the University of Akron, he wasn’t exactly taking the helm of an Ivy League institution. The university had a reputation problem, and Proenza’s top priority was to change that.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Campus buildings were deteriorating, and Akron was the only university in the Mid-American Conference that didn’t have a student recreation center. Students were spending their tuition dollars elsewhere, because the university needed major changes to compare favorably to its peers.

“The university had never lifted its own image,” Proenza says.

His task was finding a way to make the University of Akron known as the premier higher-education institution in Ohio. Working with employees throughout the organization, he took an in-depth look at the state of the university, then developed a plan to shine a light on what was good and improve what was not.

“It was a declaration of strategic intent, with a sense of positioning the institution in the environment in which we found ourselves and having a goal that was not just a stretch goal, but one that fit the domains of what we had seen,” says Proenza. “It’s a way of talking about strengths, weakness, threats and opportunities, to get a clear sense of where you can go.”

Under Proenza’s leadership, the university has risen from stagnation and financed a $300 million campus revitalization project that included nine new buildings and the renovation of 14 others. Two new branch campuses have been created, and the university has built a wireless Internet infrastructure that has been recognized as the third-best in the nation by a 2005 Intel Corp. survey.

The University of Akron has also made great gains in college-ranking publications such as U.S. News and World Report and the Princeton Review. In 2004, Careers and Colleges magazine named it one of 14 “Schools That Rule” because of its cutting-edge curriculum, reasonable tuition and the opportunities offered to its students.

Here are some of Proenza’s keys to rebranding an organization.

Find a successful strategy
Marketing the organization as a leading academic institution required some thought and a clever plan. Proenza and members of his staff spent every Wednesday for six months unearthing documented facts and figures to support their claim of excellence. They called the sessions “Wild On Wednesdays” or simply, “WOW.”

“WOW was a metaphor for the fact that we had found a lot of academically documentable excellence that nobody had bothered to catalogue,” he says. “It made us all go ‘Wow,’ and it also surprised people.”

Those facts and figures became the focal point of a series of radio and TV ads highlighting “The Akron Advantage.”

“When we found as much as we did, we felt it was a natural thing to start telling the story,” says Proenza. “Virtually every ad you see says we are setting the standard for student success in Northern Ohio. Then it hits a point on bar passage rates, or nursing licenses or student competitions. In short, it projects an image of the university based on exciting, important facts that position the university as a leader.”

Relentless communication
After the strategy has been agreed upon, you still have to get everyone on board. That is a difficult challenge at any large organization with a diverse workforce, and Proenza says the key to getting that crucial buy-in from everyone is involving them from step one.

“What we’ve tried to do is involve everyone in the generation of a vision,” he says. “Our fervent hope is by uniting everyone around a powerful vision, people will more easily know what each of them contributes to the attainment of that vision. We’ve spent a lot of time communicating the vision, encouraging and energizing people around the vision and trying to show different segments of our employee groups just how the different pieces of the puzzle come together to empower that vision.”

Under Proenza’s plan, every employee is critical to the improvement of the organization. Whether the person teaches algebra or washes the windows of the student center, if they do their jobs well, the plan works, and the organization prospers.

“For example, you have the grounds crew,” Proenza says. “Just making the place look better contributes to the definition of excellence.”

Putting those pieces together is one of the highest hurdles a CEO faces. Just ask anyone who has tried to manage independent employees who are all working on their individual goals. Proenza jokes that coordinating everything from the faculty to the grounds crew is like herding cats, but he gets it done by hammering home his vision until it becomes enmeshed in the very fabric of the organization.

“It’s relentless communication,” he says. “You talk about it until it resonates — over and over in different groups and different settings, individually and in groups of 10, 20 or 100,” he says. “It’s never done. A friend of mine used to say this business is like talking to a parade. No sooner than you do it, there’s a new fresh face around here.

“So you’re repeating it and repeating it, and just about the time you’re thoroughly exhausted by it is when it barely begins to make a difference.”

Lead and delegate
Proenza says a CEO can be the catalyst for change in any organization. The leader just needs to show that he or she is invested in the organization.

“Simply by walking around and talking to the staff and making modest suggestions or complimenting certain things that are being done and calling attention to other things that need to be done — that creates a sense that a leader cares about the environment, and things begin to happen,” he says.

Those things can happen even sooner if your people believe wholeheartedly in your vision. To get that belief, Proenza says you need employees to know you are behind your plan 100 percent.

“You have to project energy if people are going to feel like there is something to follow,” he says. “You have to project some degree of enthusiasm for what you are espousing or proposing. You have to have a rationale for moving from here to there — that’s the concept of foresight in that context.

“It’s really the three E’s of leadership: Encouragement, enthusiasm and energy. If you’ve hired a person who has the requisite knowledge as you’ve assessed it, it’s simply a question of conveying to them an energy for the setting, the opportunity and hopefully giving them a bit of enthusiasm.”

Of course, no one can be everywhere at once. Proenza oversees the university’s $350 million budget and provides leadership to 4,500 faculty and staff members. So how can you be sure your vision is being carried out at every level?

That’s where the importance of delegation comes in. It’s a fine line to tread between managing and micromanaging, so he focuses on the big picture while instilling in his employees the importance of getting the little things right.

“A leader needs to be visible and attentive to detail, but not engaged in every little detail,” he says. “You can’t think of every detail, and if you try to think of every detail, you certainly don’t need people to delegate work to, and you also wouldn’t have time to do things yourself. It’s really an awareness of detail and communication of detail but not an involvement in the detail. The key is creating an awareness that the detail is important without taking over other people’s responsibilities.”

Half the battle is having the right people in place to get the job done. Proenza takes the qualities listed on a resume and the impression he gets from interviews and combines them with an assessment of the person’s match with a particular position.

“You need people to pick up a vision, pick up a strand and run with it,” he says. “A leader creates the context in which others devote their productive energies. If that context is related to a vision, those creative energies get reasonably harnessed to an outcome that contributes to that vision.”

If you find the right people, then you can comfortably delegate more authority to them, freeing you up to focus on the vision for the organization.

Proenza says one of the most important tasks of a leader is to convey a sense of possibility. For a strategic plan to be successful, the entire work force must keep believing in the power of the vision, and relating to it emotionally. That is why planning is a delicate exercise in balance.

“You take your best instincts of where you are and where you see things going and try to envision that future,” says Proenza. “If you know Hamel and Prahalad’s book (“Competing for the Future”), it’s like trying to define a competitive space for your organization and moving toward it. In the business literature, the trite side of it is looking at strengths, weakness, threats and opportunities and trying to make a coherent story out of that and go forward.

“If you have a pretty good sense of where the industry is going, you try to match that up and hopefully try not to be so far ahead of the game that it makes everybody feel you’re either crazy or disconnected from reality. It’s trying to create the best possible picture of an achievable future that is still different enough from today but exciting enough to not be frightening.”

How to reach: University of Akron,