When Dr. Michael V. Drake became president of The Ohio State University in 2014, he knew it would take a few years to get settled into the large, complex institution he now headed, which at the time was a $5.4 billion organization with more than 44,000 employees.
Luckily, he’s familiar with that feeling from his first leadership position at University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, where he’d gone to school.
“I was thrust into it a few years before I should have been,” Drake says. “I was joining a faculty when I was younger than many of the trainees and much younger than the professors.”
He was the youngest person at the table by 10 years and 25 years younger on average.
“I knew that since these had been my professors last week, they weren’t going to all of the sudden come to me now and ask me what to do. That just wasn’t going to happen,” he says.
“I had to do that at the very beginning to get anything to change, and it was extraordinarily good practice at an early age to try to formulate my ideas, make sure they were good ideas and then bring people along to build support,” Drake says.
With no experience and no authority, everything had to be built on good ideas and faith. He has decades more experience now and the track record to say: Here’s how I’ve done this in the past and here’s how successful it was. But as his experience and influence has grown, so have the opportunities.
“It feels pretty similar. I had small weapons to go small distances in the past,” he says. “Now I have a little more influence, but that just means the distances we have before us that look like they are achievable are even greater. So, I feel about the same, but I think we’re taking bigger steps.”
Elevate for a brighter future
As Drake finished his second year and headed into the third, things were going well. Ohio State was firing on all cylinders — hitting all-time highs for its graduation rates, philanthropy and faculty awards, with more impactful research and more patients with better outcomes at the Wexner Medical Center.
“We felt very good about the way things were going, but it also led me and others to say, ‘What next?’” Drake says. “We’re doing a really good job of being a good example of ourselves. What could we do, or what should we aspire to do next?”
In August, Ohio State rolled out a new strategic plan that highlights its aspirations for the future. It has five areas of broad focus: teaching and learning; access, affordability and excellence; research and creative expression; academic health care; and operational excellence and resource stewardship.
Over the course of many months, Drake and university leadership broke into groups and worked with consultants to define the parameters of success and how to measure that.
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.
Building consensus is about coming up with good ideas and then pretending you’re on the other side of the table, Drake says. When you say something, you want to figure out what it sounds like to others and make sure you communicate your points effectively, given who the listener is.
In all of his prior jobs, whether it was chancellor, president, vice president, professor or director, Drake has had the privilege of following people who had been very successful. He says that always meant he had a high bar at the beginning, which was satisfying to clear.
By working with others and using his good ideas, he’s helped implement a new strategic plan for the future, as well as other changes, such as more need-based aid to Ohioans of many different incomes to close the tuition gap; launching the University Institute for Teaching and Learning; and working with private industry to better manage Ohio State’s energy resources.
A new collaboration with Apple will establish an iOS design laboratory serving faculty, staff, students and members of the broader community. Plus, starting in fall 2018, new first-year students at all campuses will be provided iPads.
Apple, which is as innovative as any company in the world, chose to partner with Ohio State, Drake says.
“That’s terrific, and we want to be that university,” he says. “We’re very excited about the direction that we’re moving in.”
- Good ideas will generate support even in the face of inexperience.
- Strategy needs to be interpreted for those mentioned and those that aren’t.
- Put yourself on the other side of the table to build consensus.
The Drake File:
Name: Dr. Michael V. Drake
Company: The Ohio State University
Born: New York City
Education: Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies, Stanford University; Doctor of Medicine in Ophthalmology, University of California, San Francisco; Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I went to a high school of about 3,000 kids. I don’t know why, but I was asked by one of the teachers to work in the sports-related lunchroom. There was a regular cafeteria and then there was the Lion’s Den — our high school mascot was the lions — near the athletic part of the campus, with hot dogs, Cokes and soda fountain-type things. About half a dozen students worked there.
As a junior, I got a Social Security number and sold hot dogs at lunch time. It took me as a relatively anonymous one of 3,000 students and gave me a position where I met a lot of people. That job helped me get to know people, helped my confidence and helped me distinguish myself from the crowd. I didn’t apply for it. I didn’t know you could. I just got tapped on the shoulder one day.
My first job out in the world was working at Tower Records a couple of years later, selling records.
What I learned in both cases was that it was enjoyable to deal with people in short, earnest conversations and you could make connections over these transactions. Interfacing with the public was great fun.
In the Tower Records job, I learned a lot about music, which is still a hobby today. My course, Civil Rights, the Supreme Court and the Music of the Civil Rights Era, depends on music and uses much of what I learned when working at the record store.
What’s the hardest thing for you to do, from a management standpoint? The hardest thing is to make institutional decisions that are costly personnel decisions for good people. I’ve had circumstances where extraordinarily high-quality people were working hard to help us move forward, but were not as successful as they needed to be. It’s always difficult to move them aside or change what they’re doing when it’s necessary for the good of the organization. I’m a medical doctor, and I always want to fix things. I want to make things better.
The other thing that’s hard to do, I speak to parents when we’ve lost a student. We’re such a large institution that that happens several times a year. Time and time again, it breaks my heart. I’ve done it dozens of times and every time it feels like the first time.