What causes businesses
and institutions to become detached from the people they
For James C. Votruba, it boils
down to one word: arrogance.
As president of 1,800-employee Northern Kentucky University,
one of Votruba’s primary
responsibilities is to keep his
school connected to the surrounding community, which he
does through a series of meetings with community leaders every time the university revisits
its five-year strategic plan.
But, too often, in the world of
successful, growing businesses
and large institutions, Votruba
says the practice is not to engage
patrons, clients and customers
but instead to assume that everything is positive and that the people you serve are completely satisfied with your products.
And that, he says, is an
assumption that could kill your
company if you’re not careful.
Smart Business spoke with
Votruba about how to avoid big-business arrogance and why
staying connected to the people
you serve is essential.
Avoid arrogance. Thirty years
ago, I was on a fellowship program that was designed to produce a generation of leaders
who would have a broad perspective on leadership. We
would get together at various
times throughout the year to
interact with leaders from various industries. In this case, the
leader with whom we were
interacting was the just-retired
president and chairman of the
General Motors Corp.
He was asked, what was it that
caused the American auto industry to fall so far, so fast during
the 1970s. I’ve never forgotten
his response. He said it wasn’t
unions, it wasn’t plant obsolescence, it wasn’t the time it took
to get designs into production.
He said that fundamentally it
was hubris, arrogance. He said
that it was a belief on the part of
the industry that we always built
the best vehicles, that we would
always build the best vehicles
and the problem was not a
product problem but a marketing problem because the public
would buy anything they made.
So arrogance can lead you to
believe the product is about as
good as it can be, and GM defined it as a marketing problem.
They changed marketing firms
again and again until they finally
woke up and realized that they
had lost market share and that
the problem wasn’t with the
marketing but with the vehicles
they were manufacturing.
Universities and other industries can become full of hubris,
as well. The more mature you
become and the more often
you’re told how good you are,
the more vulnerable you are to
losing touch with the public
you serve. Leaders always
have to do whatever is necessary to stay in touch with
those you serve.
In our case, the planning
process ensures that at least
every five years, we have a
structured interaction with the
community. In addition, we
have advisory boards for every
one of our colleges and all of
our departments, and these are
all public advisory boards.
People come in and tell us
whether our programs are
aligned with the needs of the
Remember whom you serve. You
have to remember why you
exist. We exist to serve the community. They are, in a very real
sense, the reason we exist.
That’s been the case for public
higher education ever since it
In order for us to stay in touch
with those we serve, I have to
be out there, and I encourage
our vice presidents, our deans
and our faculty to be out there,
as well. What happens in my
view is that in mature industries, whether it is higher education or any one of a number of
industries in the business world,
is as they grow more mature,
they often lose touch with their
customers, those whom they
exist to serve. When that happens, it’s a slippery slope.
Any organization depends on
the external environment to sustain it, but as industries become
more mature and isolated from
that external environment, they
become more vulnerable. That
would be true of financial service, auto industry, tech firms.
Look and see if you can find a tech firm that doesn’t understand the impact of iPods or
anything else you could think of.
When you start losing touch
with the market environment,
the government environment,
the social environment, the
demographic environment, all
of those things are going to
Stay connected on a personal level. One of the risks in any leadership position is that you can
become isolated. If I spent all
my time in the office on the
eighth floor of the administration building, I would not
have the opportunity to see
the university through the
eyes of others.
I try to make sure that, in addition to my own eyes and what I
see, I see the university through
the eyes of our students, through
the eyes of our underrepresented students, through the eyes of
our faculty and staff, in addition
to other people with whom I
interact quite regularly.
I’ll often stop someone who is
mowing our lawn or painting
one of our buildings and ask
them how they feel about the
university. E-mail has also been
a great opportunity for people
to violate hierarchy and let me
know what is on their mind. I
answer all my own e-mails, and
frequently, it will be folks who I
might not meet with on a regular basis. But they see an opportunity to tell me something and
they take it. That assumes a
trust level that is important for
HOW TO REACH: Northern Kentucky University, (859) 572-5100 or www.nku.edu