Balancing act Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Mark S. Wrighton is traversing a theoretical high wire.

On one side, the chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis stares down the hands-on styling of micromanagement.

On the other side, he sees a macro approach facilitated by an autonomous group of direct reports. Finding the balance between those two, he says, has been one of the keys to his successful tenure at the university.

Wrighton says that to strike that balance and establish your footing, you need to recognize your limitations: Participate in areas where you can make a positive impact, but let key managers make the day-to-day decisions in areas where your expertise is limited. By taking his own advice, the chancellor has found his balance while juggling the needs of approximately 12,000 full-time faculty and staff members while managing an operating budget of $1.7 billion.

Smart Business spoke with Wrighton about how to develop a strong sense of community and how being consistent inspires confidence in employees.

Practice consistency in leadership. Tell everybody that you interact with the same thing. Tell each person that here are the priorities, and do not change them depending on who you speak to.

That relates to integrity. Be honest in all that you do. Not only say, ‘We are committed to high integrity,’ but also live that way — conscientiousness, doing what you say you’ll do and being attentive to detail.

I would like (my direct reports) to have confidence in the person who does have the responsibilities that a president has. I’d like them to feel that they’re working with a person they can trust, a person who would be willing to listen to them and a person who will be honest and conduct not only the affairs of the institution but also their personal affairs, with integrity.

Create opportunities for participation. When we talk about setting up priorities, another characteristic I strive for is to be a good listener. What are my key leaders telling me that’s necessary to bring about great success for them and, therefore, for our university?

Collaboration is key in any organization. No unit is completely independent; otherwise they wouldn’t be part of the organization. It’s important to provide opportunities for people to share their ideas openly and to have people offer their own views, the ideas of others and what makes most sense in terms of pursuing a plan.

People that would have an interest in a potential area of development should all have an opportunity to help shape a plan.

We are in the midst of a major planning process. We are drawing on all of the stakeholders, so to speak, and encouraging everybody to take part.

Everybody will have been able to play a role in shaping that set of priorities.

It’s very consultative. It involved lots of people. It takes time. It’s a process that enables people to not only put forward suggestions but to rationalize them and to critique the suggestions of others.

When one thinks about setting priorities, these key groups need to be included. Customers need to be consulted. People who are the front lines of executing the plan must be consulted.

Celebrate achievement. We have a strong sense of community. (To develop that,) one of the key things is to lift up what each part of the organization is doing and to make others the focus of attention and to encourage them by being willing to stand alongside them and to be with them at events and activities of importance to them.

Celebrate individual achievement and encourage individual initiatives and entrepreneurship within the organization, and celebrate those successes.

The principle outcome is one that it provides the best environment to realize the great potential of our students and faculty. Therefore, that makes us a stronger, higher-impact university.

Maintain momentum and stay focused. One of our biggest challenges is maintaining momentum. We cannot rest on our laurels. We cannot become complacent.

When communicating about both the new opportunities and the challenges that we face, you need continuity. No amount of communication can really ever be enough.

They have to be effective communications, but we need to start early and go late and work hard every day to keep people informed and enthusiastic about what we’re doing. It’s easy to backslide.

Another challenge is to remain focused on your core responsibilities. With the passage of time, more people are anxious to interact and take part in the life of the institution, and it’s easy to be distracted.

There are a lot of things that can consume time and energy and resources, and I need to weigh how they stack up against this priority of remaining focused on the mission.

Approach each year with enthusiasm. I once heard a bit of interesting advice that I often remind myself of: Every organization that has some maturity has an annual cycle of activities and events. For a public company, every quarter you come out with your earnings. You have your annual meetings. There are seasons.

For universities, that is certainly true. We welcome students. They graduate in the spring.

It’s important to try to treat every year like it’s your first year. Exhibit the same enthusiasm — the same sense of renewal — and treat each year as if it’s going to be a new and exciting undertaking.

Associate Editor Patrick Mayock also contributed to this story.

HOW TO REACH: Washington University in St. Louis, (314) 935-5000 or