Out to lunch Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

If you would have asked Gary Streit a year ago where in town to get your shoes shined, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you. A self-proclaimed outsider, the Virginia native knew very little about Canton, let alone Ohio, before assuming the role of president at Malone College last July.

Because of his unfamiliarity with the institution, Streit didn’t impose his own agenda when he stepped in to manage the college’s 2007-2008 budget of approximately $44 million.

Instead, he did what anyone with an appetite for the unknown would do — he sat down for lunch. Well, make that 10 lunches.

Streit hosted a series of meals during which Malone’s 297 full-time employees shared their concerns, hopes and dreams for the institution. Not only did the hourlong sessions provide the president with an intimate introduction to the college and its constituents, they also set the tone for his decidedly informal style of clear communication.

Smart Business spoke with Streit about how to listen with discipline and how to continuously unlearn that which you already know.

Give people your full attention. I have set up 10 lunches scattered over three months. I go, I greet, we sit down, and, within seven minutes, they get their soup and sandwich. I set it up and remind them of why we’re there, and then I sit and listen to the people talk. I take notes.

Good listening is disciplining yourself to be quiet and to give full attention to what someone is saying. It’s also giving full attention to what is not being said.

I’m hearing a lot of things, and I’m getting some good information, but I’m also getting a lot of good affirmation: ‘Thank you for giving us a chance to talk about the things that are important to us,’ be it a member of the housekeeping staff, be it a security guard, be it a professor of economics, whatever.

At every one of these luncheons, I have a very mixed bag of folk — faculty and staff representing everything from housekeeping to administrative staff. They’re very heterogeneous groups.

This is giving all of these folks at the college a great opportunity to hear other points of view that they often do not get to hear

Share directions before you start the journey. It’s unfair to any member of your executive team if that person doesn’t really know what he or she is being held accountable for. Clear expectations on the front end are extremely important so that everybody knows what’s being evaluated.

One of the biggest problems that presidents face is a lack of clear expectations on the front end as to what that board might expect. Six months into the journey, the president realizes that the board may or may not be headed in the direction that he or she thought the institution would have been headed.

Establish the rules before you start the journey. When you pull out of your driveway, it’s important to know where you’re going on vacation so you know where to turn. You don’t know whether to turn right or left at the stoplight unless you know where you’re headed.

Learn, unlearn and relearn. That concept is really [author Alvin] Toffler’s concept. Basically what he said is the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but rather, the illiterate of the 21st century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn what they no longer need to know and relearn that which is essential for what this world requires.

Our world is changing so rapidly because of technology, this availability of knowledge, this explosion of knowledge and this rapidity of change.

Leadership teams have to get it. That applies not just to knowledge, facts and disciplines, but it applies to protocols and procedures and policies and the ways in which institutions do things.

In higher education, you see a lot of antiquity still operationalized. Nobody can really tell you why we do it this way other than, at some point in the history of the institution, somebody thought it was a good idea.

Every piece of the operation needs to be audited continually. Ask the question, ‘Does it make sense? Does form follow function? Are we administering this organization to meet the needs of the clientele of whom we serve today?’

If institutions aren’t aware that those are the sorts of things that the ‘consumer’ is looking for, you’re not going to make it in the days ahead.

Share the credit. It’s really important as a CEO, as a president, as the leader, to be able to share that success with those persons who actually effect that and make that happen.

You’d better give kudos and accolades where those are due and share that, or you’re not going to inspire, and you’re not going to have much integrity with those folk.

Stephen Covey talks about two mentalities: the scarcity mentality and the abundance mentality. Those who subscribe to the scarcity mentality believe that you’d better hold it pretty close to the vest because there’s not enough to go around.

I don’t believe that. If I brag on you, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to take away from me. Good will and generosity and affirmation beget good will and generosity and affirmation.

HOW TO REACH: Malone College, (800) 521-1146 or www.malone.edu