Tony Atwater Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

When Tony Atwater was advancing through the ranks several years ago, his father-in-law shared this wisdom: “There’s nothing new — just the undiscovered.” Today, Atwater has transformed that adage into ambition as president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In addition to managing a $209 million budget and 1,873 employees, the leader constantly re-evaluates the market and his own business practices seeking innovative ways to better serve his organization and constituents. The latest innovation is a multiphase construction plan to build the largest student residential facility in the United States. Smart Business spoke with Atwater about listening, evaluating data and why you need to do the who before the what.

Learn from the past. Organizations change just like human beings. You can look at your son or daughter; they’re not the same at age 25 or 30 as they were at 3 or 4. They’ve gone through experiences. Looking back at the history of your institution really provides a good education in terms of what has been tried and what needs to be tried.

Also, talking with other presidents and past CEOs and hearing the benefit of the challenges that they faced and the successes that they were able to achieve. See how you might utilize those contexts to build upon your performance and lead the organization.

Question your performance. Ask yourself one simple question: How do I increase my service to my constituents that are relying upon my service?

That’s an important question in terms of generating ideas on how new things can be done or how things can be done differently to improve overall services and performance.

Find out more of those things in terms of opportunities, methods and approaches to enhancing my service and contributions to base constituents. If I can find those new methods and new approaches and generate additional productivity and additional efficiency, then my constituents are being served through innovation.

Look at data in new ways. Use institutional research to generate data that will show what areas may be responsible for one method or one project not being successful.

If you are driving a car and all of a sudden your car stops, it’s being able to look under the hood and see whether it’s the carburetor or whether it’s the engine, and then finding out how to get the car back working the way that it should work.

We get a lot of data thrown at us as CEOs. Part of the challenge is having a good unit to provide analysis of that data and generate new ways of looking at it in various contexts so that it can be used productively.

You get the data, and you may get one impression of what it’s telling you, but there may be another message in that data that you missed.

We have an institutional research office here, and they’re doing that. They’re generating not only the numbers but also are able to provide qualitative analyses that help us to look at the data for its utilities in a number of contexts.

If you don’t have an institutional research operation, then it becomes very important for you to have an executive team that is also data-driven and that you provide venues for them to be able to have assistance for that kind of data generation. It then becomes an issue in terms of how they have access to data gathering, processing and analysis.

Being able to assess data qualitatively as well as quantitatively is extremely important, and that certainly helps in terms of making the right decisions.

Listen. You need to listen, not only to what is said but also to what is not said. You need to listen to concerns, to needs and to interests. By doing so, you are able to surmise what are the directions that an organization needs to go.

Of course, some of the input that you get may not be the most informed, but a lot of the feedback that you get by listening routinely can be utilized to advance your organization.

I have one-on-one meetings with my executive team, and we have an opportunity to exchange information and listen to one another. I also have a president’s cabinet meeting every week, where we have a pretty full agenda that allows us to discuss and talk about a lot of things.

I also entertain regular meetings with faculty members. I have breakfast with the faculty members routinely throughout a semester and discuss whatever they want to discuss.

I don’t think you will find and benefit from the listening if it’s not strategic and intentional. People say, ‘Well, listen. You have ears. Can’t you just listen?’ Well, listening goes beyond strictly having ears. You have to be intentional and strategic about gaining information that will be useful to you in terms of effecting positive change.

In the final analysis, that’s what good leaders really do: They effect positive change in a graceful fashion that lifts the institution or organization.

Do the who. A lot of leaders sometimes want to do the what before the who. The best leaders do the who and then the what.

CEOs need to take the time to ensure that their executive teams not only are capable but also are compatible. Sometimes it’s better to select someone who has a stronger compatibility with the leader’s vision — more so than the technical capabilities and skills.

It’s good to see the candidates both in small group contexts, when they’re interviewing with other people, but also being able to have a one-on-one interview process with that person — maybe even one that’s more informal in terms of either lunch or breakfast. Those give you a good feel.

It’s always possible that the person that you bring on board may not measure up. Strong leaders typically are going to be looking at what is it that the organization and its constituents need. If the person or persons on the management team are not allowing those people to be served in the way that you feel is satisfactory, then sometimes an adjustment is called for.

HOW TO REACH: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, (724) 357-2100 or www.iup.edu