The Rev. Timothy R. Lannon readily admits that his vision for his institution is overly ambitious.
The president of Saint Joseph’s University wants his organization to be recognized as the pre-eminent Catholic comprehensive university in the Northeast, and the Jesuit priest and self-proclaimed extrovert says that he is ready to manage the challenges that might keep him from reaching that goal.
“The job of the leader is to show continual progress on the march toward that vision,” he says. “In any organization, you’re going to have skeptics. Some are reasonable, and some are unreasonable.”
Lannon says that as improvements begin to take shape within an organization even the dis-believers will acknowledge the positive movement.
Saint Joseph’s University has 950 full-time and 460 part-time employees and a fiscal 2008 operating budget of $206.6 million.
Smart Business spoke with Lannon on how he follows through on ideas and takes them from concept to reality.
Define your foundation. Mission is who you are and what you do. If you don’t clearly understand who you are and what you do, then your organization’s going to be in trouble. Mission helps to create the culture of the institution, and if there’s not an institutional culture, what’s unique about that place and its business?
You have to make sure that the mission is well-embraced and upheld by the community, and then the leader establishes a vision. You want to have a far-reaching vision to keep people moving toward it, but you have to realize that the destination is important but even more important is the journey.
Plan ahead. When you’re talking about the CEO, that person needs to be the visionary. Ultimately, you’re stewarding that organization. Every organization wants to become better, and in order to become better, you need to be able to do the things to make that happen. Any organization that sits still for a long time, it won’t survive.
I try to think, ‘Where do we want to be five or 10 years from now?’ and, ‘What do we need to do to get there?’ That’s got to be the first step, otherwise you subject yourself to fate: You let things happen instead of making things happen.
Listen to constituents and act quickly. As a new leader, you come in and listen to the community talk about the place. You let that surface and arrive at some type of vision.
I was here maybe three months when, at a convocation, I espoused my vision for Saint Joseph’s. I knew I was taking a risk by espousing a vision so quickly, but I also was hearing consistently from people that they were waiting for some sense of direction to be established. The members of the community were looking for, ‘What’s that next round going to be?’ I had people come up and say to me, ‘Thank you so much. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.’
Take a chance. For an institution to get better and to grow, you’ve got to take risks, and hopefully, they’re calculated risks. I had conversations with people and sensed that people were waiting for something to be said. I asked them, ‘What are you looking for from this institution?’
The question became the timing, and I thought to myself, ‘Better sooner than later.’ That’s a calculated risk: having a conversation, listening and then taking the dive.
Use a decision spectrum. With the vision in place and espoused by the leader of the institution, then there’s got to be a plan built to support the vision.
My leadership team — the President’s Cabinet — meets at least every other week. Each year, we establish priorities for the year that are normally linked to the vision plan. At each cabinet meeting, we always take a look at one or two of those priorities to take the pulse of how we’re proceeding with the priorities for that year.
In higher education, there is shared governance. As president, I work off of a decision spectrum. I’ll say to people: ‘This is my decision with no input,’ or, ‘This is my decision with your input,’ or, ‘This is our decision as a group,’ or, ‘This is your decision with my input,’ or, ‘This is your decision.’
When we’re looking at issues, my colleagues see a partnership in leading the university. They have responsibility for their divisions, but they’re also involved in universitywide issues and, in some cases, vote in regard to it.
Learn to make tough decisions. I was having a conversation with the President’s Cabinet about an opportunity for us at the university with a friend of mine but not a close friend. This person was going to provide a major gift to us, in terms of gift in kind.
This person had some difficulties with the law and in his personal life, and my colleagues were saying perhaps we shouldn’t do this, and I still wanted to do it.
One of my colleagues came to me and said, ‘You’re acting too pastoral here, like a priest. You need to act more like a CEO.’ That got my attention because sometimes I get caught in that.
Others would say when you have to make a decision, it’s intuition or leading by their gut, but I would say it’s more of a spiritual aspect of my life. If I’m considering a tough decision, and if I’m at peace with it, it’s the right decision.
HOW TO REACH: Saint Joseph’s University, (610) 660-1000 or www.sju.edu