Bobby Fong

 Bobby Fong has the same problems leading a college that any other leader has running his or her business. The president of Butler University says some of the hardest decisions are over who is going to get resources for which projects, but it all comes back to making decisions that fit with the mission meant to guide himself and his 800 employees. Smart Business spoke with Fong about how he communicates with employees, and the importance of listening to others and constantly stating your message.

Be consistent with direction.
In terms of overall strategic direction, we may be allowed one or two misfires but not more than that. I’ve seen organizations and individuals come up with a new strategic plan or set of goals every year. That is not going to redound to the health of the organization.

On a more tactical — but in some ways a more important — level there has to be a consistency of policy through the organization. I have seen organizations disintegrate because people feel protocols are not being applied equitably.

There are favorites in an organization and what matters is not strategy or protocol but whether the boss likes you or not. That’s coercive.

It’s important to be constantly asking yourself and other people, do we have protocols, or is it just a patronage system? Are we applying them appropriately and equitably? Do people feel that … the process of decision-making is equitable, even if the results end up with someone feeling disadvantaged?

Listen to others.
There is a difference between giving each person due consideration and doing what the other person suggests. Very frequently, an employee appreciates being given serious consideration regardless of the decision that has been made.

We have in any organization people saying, ‘You didn’t listen to me.’ What they mean is, ‘You didn’t do what I suggested.’ It’s important in terms of leadership to be able to find people who have expertise in particular areas and to be able to grant them the responsibility and independence to work in their areas of expertise.

For example, I know as much about academics as my own provost. But even there, it’s important because he is provost and I’m the president, and I have to grant him an independence of movement. Most decisions are made with contingent information.

You are trying to make the best call you can. It doesn’t mean there is only one right call. It means that, within the range of responses, we try and react within the culture of the university, and the professional and personal values we bring into it. You have to not only make a good decision, but you have to move people to embrace the decision.

Look for integrity and a team attitude when hiring.
I need to believe what I hear is the constant message being sent. The hardest thing within an organization is when one person seems to be responsible for multiple messages on the same issue.

There’s got to be a consistency of message, and that goes back to a matter of integrity. Sometimes its hard to say, ‘This is where I am,’ because you can get heat from superiors and heat from reports.

Secondly, there has to be a sense of teamwork within the organization. Because we’ve all acted as a team to make that decision work as best we could, we can say, ‘Look, it was unsuccessful not because we didn’t try, but because it was a bad call.’

What have we learned? What can we do to either repair the situation or say, ‘That was awful, let’s go on to something else.’

I’m a baseball fan. I’m reminded that you are successful three out of 10 times at the plate and you are a candidate for the Hall of Fame. We can’t keep harping on the areas where our decisions turn out to be less than optimal. What that creates is not a bad decision, but a situation where new decisions have to be made.

Make yourself available.
Something I want to do is actually visit the departments during the course of the year to interact with them in smaller groups. My second year here we had invitations to the entire faculty to come over to my house in groups of 15 over the course of the year.

I need to be more mindful that I need to do similar things with staff so they can see me in their context and get a sense that the message of the university has particular application in individual ways to their areas.

Something I learned … is to take an hour each week and just sit at Starbucks. Anybody can come talk to me. It cuts across the line of appointments. You hear things out there from people who never have an opportunity to interact with you otherwise.

My staff feels an obligation to protect my time, and it’s not unusual to come in, ask for an appointment and be told, ‘Three weeks out.’ It’s important to create occasions in any organization where, if you want to talk to the person at the top, the pledge is you will be able to get to them fairly quickly.

Repeat your message, and show progress.
You have to reiterate the same message again and again and again. I’m constantly reminded just because it feels like I’ve said it for the umpteenth time, I’m speaking before so many constituencies there may be always people hearing it for only the first, second or third time.

Reiteration is one thing, but if we are talking about direction, there has to be some sense of progress, something that can be pointed to. It’s a way of saying, ‘Three months ago, I said this was going to be one of the priorities of the university.’ Three months later, ‘Here are some of the things we have done to make that real.’

To the degree that you can get people nodding, ‘Yes, that is progression,’ you get more buy-in because those people are saying, ‘We are really moving in that direction.’ It’s not just words, it’s actions as well.

HOW TO REACH: Butler University, (800) 368-6852 or