Try not to bother Nancy L. Zimpher with something that doesn’t concern improving the University of Cincinnati. Sure, Zimpher, president of the university, probably wouldn’t mind having a conversation about something else, but as a leader with a budget of more than $1 billion, she uses every moment of the day to push the academic institution forward. For Zimpher, her main job as a leader is to spark the action that will drive the university, and that’s her priority when it comes to everything, so if you’re not on the same page, you probably won’t end up on her calendar. Smart Business spoke with Zimpher about how she inspires action and how she interacts with her 14,000 full- and part-time employees.
Don’t just listen, interact. You need to use the common courtesy of an interaction style, and that is respectful and, at the same time, responsive. Notice I did not say listening, because listening is a one-way street.
People want to be heard, and that’s what I mean by being respectful, but they want a response. They want to know, ‘Is what I said to you making any sense, are you going to do anything about it?’ and that’s the responsive part, and you have to do that every day.
It’s all about getting something done, and people need visible signs that things are moving forward for the better. So when you respond and say, ‘I’ll follow up on that,’ or, ‘I’ll send you an e-mail on that,’ or, ‘I’ll take that issue to another department,’ they want to know that you’re going to do it. It’s all about action, and that builds confidence and keeps hope alive, and it says to people, ‘Boy, eventually this is going to work. This is hard, but I think we’re going to get somewhere.’ That’s human nature; everybody wants betterment.
Lead by creating action. You have to have a sense of who you are and what you believe, and that provides the context for your day-to-day actions. Leaders are expected to be visionary, to have a big-picture idea of where the organization is going, and to inspire others to move in that direction. So beneath all that is a need to be action-oriented and get things done.
Every day is organized around how to get things done, how to take the big idea, the vision, and that makes organizing the day really very purposeful. You have to work to have the right people in a room and agree on the next steps in the action plan to really move forward.
Remember that you’re always in the spotlight.
Everything is a committee meeting. Even a dinner is a committee meeting. If you have a group of diverse people at the table, you’re trying to get something done.
I spend a lot of time meeting with groups, with policymakers, I lead organizations at the national level, and I go to a lot of events and performances. What I carry with me to all of those is the plan, and I try to see our strategic plan as scaffolding. Then the meetings I go to, the speeches I give, the groups I engage with, need to hook onto that scaffolding, or I don’t go there. You have to constantly say, ‘Is this thing I’m being asked to do instrumental to the goals that we’ve set for this university?’
I’ve always felt that you are the key spokesperson for the institution; you are the personification of the university. I have a lot of red and black in my wardrobe, and I’ve had people tell me it looks like I’m wearing the brand, and it almost comes down to that because wherever you are, people see you as a representative of the institution; that can be at a casual dinner at a local restaurant or that can be at a meeting of the chamber of commerce. I don’t think you can avoid that.
Hire to fit your plan. During a 16-month period, we recruited four new deans, and we told them about our strategic plan. In every instance, what we did during that recruitment process is selected someone who understood the context of that plan and eagerly embraced the opportunity to craft a vision for their individual college unit that would be complementary or aligned with the larger plan. They may have small variations on the plan, but there would be enough alignment that they would be leading us on the same path to a new future for that particular college.
We have a pattern of using one dean to recruit another dean’s position, which really works well because that lateral person can really be the authentic communicator to prospective candidates that, ‘This is how I work within the university, and this is something like what it might look for you.’ I look for integration from potential candidates. We are looking for people with a great track record of getting things done in similar environments.
By and large, the candidates we want are going to be people who understand this establishment.
Focus on today and tomorrow. I don’t know the true shelf life of a strategic plan, but we are in about the fourth year of a plan that probably has about a six- to eight-year shelf life. At the same time, I personally have been participating in some futures workshops and have set some time away from the dayto-day to engage key leaders to do some visioning work around the future of the university.
I know that while the plan we are working on has currency today and even tomorrow, it might not have the same currency a few years down the pipe. Most of my life is defined by the notion of a ‘yes and’ strategy. First, you have to articulate this plan to get it done, and then you have to keep an eye on the future.
HOW TO REACH: University of Cincinnati, (513) 556-6000 or www.uc.edu