Northern Kentucky University demolishes the ivory tower Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

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

was created.

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

impact you.

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

any leader.

HOW TO REACH: Northern Kentucky University, (859) 572-5100 or