Even if Grant Cornwell had come to the College of Wooster unaware of the school’s deep commitment to tradition, it wouldn’t have taken him long to figure it out. As just the 11th president in nearly a century and a half, Cornwell recognized how the school’s traditional roots and mission had helped the college build a strong reputation in higher education. Yet after assuming his new office in 2007, he was also aware that it was time to bring some of those traditions into the next century.
“These are very traditional, tradition-bound places, and that pretty much creates a kind of stability that protects the integrity of the mission through time,” says Cornwell. “For the most part, that’s a very good thing. At the same time, what that means is when there is a leadership transition, it’s a time when nearly everything needs to be rethought. I think my greatest challenge has been systematically working through our business practices and our kind of culture of decision-making and trying to bring it into this new era of strategic management.”
Cornwell’s challenge was not to change the college’s mission but to make it more relevant and effective with the changing nature of knowledge and global society.
“I have spent a lot of time in my research and in my consulting helping tune liberal arts colleges for this era of globalization. … That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years, and that’s what Wooster felt it really needed to do now,” Cornwell says.
“As a college, Wooster is a great liberal arts college. In terms of the integrity of its core mission, it’s extraordinary: the teaching, the quality and depth and rigor of the teaching and learning that goes on here. At the same time, the college, the core mission, is supported by an organization, and I would say that the organization was only good. It emerged that really my work was to work with the organization to bring it to the level of performance worthy of the mission of the college, and move it from good to great.”
Though this kind of transformative change doesn’t happen overnight, to Cornwell, speed was not an issue at all. It would take a systematic change, and therefore, a systematic plan.
“We’ve had a very inclusive and transparent strategic planning process that has probably been slower and more complex than maybe some are used to, but that has been intentional because it’s gone in really three broad steps,” Cornwell says.
“If you look at other kinds of institutions of higher education, they can be whipsawed by trendiness. If something emerges on the landscape as a hot topic, they build a major in it and they hire faculty and then in five years it’s like, ‘What was that about?’ There’s a kind of stability and durability to an approach to liberal education that is deeply, deeply rooted in history yet not backward-looking.”
Communicate the plan
To get people on board with change, you first need to communicate what it means for them and for your organization.
Whether it’s through meetings, phone calls or informal chats, the more you actively involve people in building the new vision, the more you make change a blanket commitment across your organization.
“A leader has to know whether the ideas that they are putting forth are resonating with the people who have to move them forward and implement them, and so to be able to listen and meet in a common vision is critical for a leader,” Cornwell says. “What would be something to hold somebody back is the mistaken notion that leadership is the product of individual genius or a strong hand. I just don’t see that at all, at least, in the way that I conduct my work or what I see as successful. It has to be a commitment to listening, collaboration and building commonality of buy-in and inspiration.”
No matter what business you’re in, changing a vision doesn’t just affect employees but also customers, competitors, investors, the community and any number of people who are invested in its success. Facing the unique challenge of leading a college, Cornwell realized that the success of his vision involved a lot of people.
“These are complex organizations,” Cornwell says. “The stakeholders include students, of course, the faculty, of course, the board of trustees, the alumni, parents and the local community. So the first step was to work with all of those constituencies to rearticulate our mission and also articulate our vision of who we want to become to better realize our mission.”
It’s easy for people to grow accustomed to thinking and operating a certain way, and so it takes inspiring leadership to show people the benefit and the urgency of making changes.
“One critical element of success is the ability to articulate and communicate a vision in a way that is inspiring to others, because it doesn’t do any good to have a brilliant vision for a place if nobody else is inspired by that vision,” Cornwell says. “Communication is critical.”
By opening up communication with stakeholders, Cornwell was able to share the advantages that global learning and diversity could bring to further the mission of college, such as international learning opportunities for students, teachers and staff and a competitive edge in the higher education arena.
“It’s mostly a function of will,” he says. “Really, Wooster was completely ready to do this. The whole campus really just needed permission and a little urging to get on with it.”
Pick your battles
Now that you have a rearticulated sense of your mission and are clear about what you want to achieve, the next step is choosing which areas you want to track and show progress in carrying out the new vision.
“The second phase was going back to all of those same constituencies to say, ‘How will we know that we’re making progress?’” Cornwell says. “‘What are we going to measure? What are we going to attend to? What are we going to track? What are we going to study to know whether the things that we are doing differently are actually moving us from where we are to where we want to be?’”
In the strategic planning process, a pitfall of many businesses is to rush from point A to point B without thinking about what needs to happen in between. Strategic planning is meant to be a process, and while it’s tempting to start implementing changes right away and put your vision into action, it’s important to make sure the changes you’re making are set up for continuous improvement. Otherwise, the progress you make toward your goals will not be sustainable.
“If you are really going to make this kind of transformation, there’s no single tactic,” Cornwell says. “It has to be a systemic commitment, and so everything that you do has to be insolent by that set of values and that vision. So yes, it has to influence faculty hiring and staff hiring. It certainly influences new student recruitment. It also influences how you organize your work on campus, what the curriculum looks like and how you provide kind of developmental support for the community to become more diverse and international.”
A vision filters throughout an entire organization, so there isn’t just one way to measure its success but many. To create a road map for Wooster’s progress, Cornwell again worked all of his constituencies to develop key metrics that would be a good reflection of the changes Wooster was making.
“Each metric that we look at is itself a composite of a number of metrics, some of which are quantitative and some of which are qualitative. … It’s structured and systematic,” he says.
While using a systematic approach can take longer, it gives you a better opportunity to assess how your goals align with the vision while keeping focus on your core mission.
Implement your strategy
With the plan in place, and people rallied behind your vision, it’s now a matter of putting your goals and vision into an actionable strategy.
“That’s the most fun part of leadership, because it’s translating vision into practice,” Cornwell says. … “I’m a philosopher by training and I love ideas, but I think ideas are most interesting when they are actually put on the ground and put to practice in the world.”
You know who you are, what you want to accomplish and how you are going to measure the progress on your plan. Now your job as the vision leader is to help your senior leadership team execute it to the best of their ability.
“A leader has to have this mix of compassion and high expectations,” Cornwell says. “My real job is to help everybody else be successful. The role of the president is to try and make everybody around me as successful as possible, and that means making sure that they are satisfied, that they have a scope of creativity but also that they are held to account for their performance. They all have very clear goals that we talk about and negotiate on an annual basis, and we refer to those goals in every single meeting — how are we doing on achieving those goals? It’s a constant check-in with what we agreed that we’re doing.”
From bringing an international focus and diversity to Wooster’s campus, to implementing new studying abroad programs, student recruitment pipelines, and channels for student, faculty and alumni research around the world, Cornwell’s strategic planning process has successfully married the tradition and history of Wooster with a global approach to liberal learning.
In his first two years, more than half of the new tenure-tracked faculty hired brought either domestic or international diversity. The newly recruited classes have been the most diverse in Wooster history, in the number of international students, countries represented, as well as in the number of U.S. minorities attending.
For Cornwell, the goal again was not to change the mission but take it to the next level. So far the new vision has succeeded in helping Wooster carry out its mission better. In 2009 and 2010, U.S. News & World Report ranked the College of Wooster fifth out of the top 10 colleges in undergraduate teaching.
“The important thing for the College of Wooster and what I’m trying to do in my time here is not change Wooster but help it more fully realize its potential in who it already is,” Cornwell says. “That means both being committed to continuous improvement on the delivery of our mission, but it also means that making sure that more and more of that market knows how good we are. That’s what I get up and do every day.
“Tradition is not something that needs a lot of care and feeding. If anything, you have to always say, ‘Listen, we value these traditions, but we have to have them be dynamic traditions. Tradition doesn’t mean you do things the way you’ve always done them; it means that you hold on to a sense of yourself while you continually innovate.”
How to reach: The College of Wooster, (330) 263-2000 or www.wooster.edu
The Cornwell File
The College of Wooster
Born: Aurora, Ill.
Education: B.A., St. Lawrence University —1979, M.A.; University of Chicago —1982 Ph.D.; University of Chicago —1989
Affiliations: Serves on the advisory board for the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education; member of the SAGE Group, a collective of national educational leaders formed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities
If you could have dinner with any one person who you’ve never met, who would it be and why?
I would definitely have dinner with Obama. Actually, what I’d love to do is play basketball with Obama. I’m a basketball player, and I have this idea that I’d just love to be in a game with him.
Who are your role models for success?
I’ve had a number of very influential mentors throughout my career and they’ve been different people at different times, but I’ve learned a lot by watching people lead and talking to them about leading. A lot of what I’ve learned has been learning what not to do, too. Even mentors and leaders who I admire, I see how they have had shortcomings that have kept them from fully realizing their aspirations. I’ve learned a lot from those, too. So it’s been more a series of more personal mentors throughout my career.
What is your favorite part of your job?
What I like most about my job is when I walk out of my home and walk to work every day and I walk past thousands of students and know that these are wonderful young people whose lives are being changed by their time here, and that I have a part in that. That’s deeply inspiring on a day-to-day basis.