Drake and his team are always gathering information to help them see where to focus. Every summer, he goes on road tours to talk to students and their parents in Ohio communities. He and his team hear from people who come to campus, and the alumni, donor and faculty communities give feedback on where they think the university needs to go.
Drake also co-teaches an undergraduate course, speaks to legislators in Columbus and Washington, D.C., and is involved in national higher education organizations, including being elected as the new chair of the Association of American Universities.
“One takes in all that information, and then tries to use the assets, the abilities and opportunities that we have at our university to be the best example of the highest standards in higher education that we can be,” he says.
But this isn’t Drake’s first strategic plan. In his last job as chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, an ambitious strategic plan had just been created.
“I remember seeing it and thinking that it was crazy. It was impossible. Nobody has ever done this. We can’t do this,” he says. “And then after we rolled our sleeves up, we exceeded the plan’s aspirations in every phase.”
While it was a lot of work, that success gave Drake the confidence that an aggressive strategic plan can transform an institution, not only for the people who go to school, teach or work there, but also for the entire community. He’s hoping to do the same at Ohio State.
However, with this kind of planning, you have to pick things you’re going to focus on. That leaves many people feeling left out, he says. You also have things that you need to stop, which are difficult decisions.
The primary areas of the new strategic plan only affect a small percentage of Ohio State’s activity.
“As I described this to everybody — to faculty, to our staff, to our donor community — the strategic plan is like the icing. The cake is our business as usual. So, we’re overwhelmingly cake, and that means we have to do a great job in all of those things that we’ve been so successful at already, every day going forward,” he says.
The icing shouldn’t diminish your commitment and focus on the 19 out of 20 things that you must keep doing at a high level.
“I say that to people over and over and over again — 95, 97 percent of what we’re doing will remain the same,” Drake says. “This is just a small bit of extra focus in some areas where we think we can make a critical difference.”
Drake says these kinds of messages cannot be communicated enough from the leadership. In his last job, he spent a lot of time talking about values-driven leadership.
“Finally, somebody said to me, ‘People here are sick of hearing about values-driven leadership.’ and I thought, ‘Well, great, that means I’m about where I need to be,’” he says.
Turn the table
Ohio State, like many universities has a large, distributed model of shared governance that might seem foreign to those used to the command control of for-profit business.
Drake says you have to work with and partner with people to elevate the institution. Even as they try to get more aligned and work better together, it still takes strong leaders across many disciplines to excel.
The faculty and staff know their careers are longer than university presidents, so Drake has to build consensus.
When he taught his son to play chess at age 12, Drake would play as hard as he could and get a dominant position. When his son was frustrated and wanted to quit, Drake would turn the board around and play from the other side.
“It was meant to be an example to him, that it’s not over until it’s over, and I think he got that. (Of course, within a few months, he’d beat me no matter what I did every time so I had no chance.) But what I remember also is it always helps when you’re looking at a situation, to look at it from the other person’s point of view,” he says.
If you can try to understand what it looks like from their side of the table, you can forge better partnerships.