The Preemptive College (Part 2) – Trust Oriented

The Preemptive College is a framework that consists of four traits.  When these traits are applied throughout an organization, I contend that they help position that institution to take advantage of new and emerging opportunities and enhances its ability to perform more effectively compared to other organizations. Ultimately, these organizations experienced enhanced financial and reputational outcomes.

Framework for The Preemptive College (cc) - Kent D. MacDonald

Framework for The Preemptive College

The first trait practiced within a preemptive organization is to be Externally Focused. As explained in an earlier post these colleges and universities have a bias to cast their view outwards. They observe environmental trends and their employees build strong relationships with individuals and other organizations.  This outward-looking disposition helps these organizations react faster to the market, take advantage of emerging opportunities and better serve the needs of their clients (mostly but not always students in the case of colleges and universities) and the broader community.

This blog focuses on the second trait of preemptive colleges. These high performing organizations create a high level of faith in their people and in their culture; they are Trust Oriented.

Trust Oriented

High performing colleges and universities have developed a high level of trust among employees. They nurture this trait among current employees and they commit to recruiting, supporting and promoting staff and faculty who exude this value.

High performing colleges trust their employees are not only doing things right but also that they are doing the right things. These colleges and universities believe in their staff and faculty and therefore they provide them with the autonomy they require to make decisions.  There is a benefit in this approach because it allows the institution to respond to issues and opportunities more quickly.

Max Weber in 1894

German Sociologist – Philosopher Max Weber

Most public colleges are constrained by public policy and bureaucracy, yet preemptive colleges champion an anti-bureaucratic environment.  They understand what renowned German sociologist Max Weber’s meant when he warned  bureaucracy “was so efficient and powerful a means of controlling men and women that, once established, the momentum of bureaucratization was irreversible”.  Preemptive colleges and universities resist the tendency to become bureaucratic; a trait unfortunately increasingly practiced by many public entities and subtly endorsed by their funding partners.

High performing colleges have a different view of the world when it comes to bureaucracy.  Rather than centralized, bureaucratic cultures, these organizations embrace entrepreneurial practices and thereafter celebrate innovative action. They also have leaders who believe their organization is filled with competent staff and faculty who are personally committed to serving the best interests of the institution. Further, these leaders also believe their employees perform best when they are not constrained by tightly controlled systems and supervision.  This belief is reflected by one manager I interviewed who proudly declared, “We trust people to do the job they were hired to do”.

Several attributes reflect a Trust Oriented organization and two are described here. 

1.   Getting and Retaining Change-Adept People 

Good To Great

Jim Collins           Good to Great

Preemptive Colleges understand the importance of hiring the right people.  Collins (2001) describes this concept as “getting the right people on the bus”.  Effective managers take the time to recruit great people and once hired, they ensure they are connected with other employees.  High performing colleges and universities expect faculty and staff to work with one another, not in institutional silos.  Humber College President Emeritus Robert Gordon once told me “we would develop inter-team dependencies in order to avoid prima donnas”.  These are insightful words from one of Canada’s great educational leaders and the person most responsible for Humber’s success today.

Roseabeth Moss Kanter

Roseabeth Moss Kanter

Once new employees are oriented to their workplace, there is a belief that their behaviour will be reflected in a kind of institutional dexterity. Preemptive colleges remain nimble and their employees understand they simply cannot follow a pre-determined path of action.  Wharton profession Peter Capelli suggested that these organizations know they “cannot plan their way around uncertainty” while Harvard’s Roseabeth Moss Kanter described these cultures as  being “change-adept”.

In order to react to opportunities, preemptive colleges put practices in place that decentralize operations. Leaders shift decision-making authority from the central office to those employees closest to the client.  There is of course a limit to autonomy provided any employees, however generally speaking, getting the right people into the organization and providing them with a healthy level of professional autonomy is a critical component a preemptive institution’s success.

2.   A Family with Trust and Respect

A second theme that emerged in my high performing colleges and universities research is that these organizations have an environment that feels more like a family than a professional organization.  There is a caring climate and even though there can be disagreements among the members, there is a high level of trust and respect for one another.

This trust and respectful climate  is nurtured and supported by all employees including those within a unionized environment. This is an important point because most colleges and universities in Canada have at least one union (this is not so in America where the higher education scene is led by private colleges, most of which are not organized).

Although not a focus of my research, what became apparent in speaking with dozens of individuals is that administrators and union members in preemptive colleges have a high level of respect for one another. They appear to have a common commitment to work positively with one another and their respect for each is both mutual and reciprocal.

Union leaders understand that their active involvement to work collegially with management has a positive impact on their institution and the members who pay union dues.  These leaders also seem to remain focused on the reason they joined the organization.  As an example, faculty union leaders considered themselves educators first, union leaders second.  Furthermore, unionized employees understand that they belong to a union, but they also believe that their first loyalty is to the institution that hired them and pays them.

A very experienced union leader I interviewed made it clear that the union had a responsibility to represent members and that was a job taken very seriously.  However the same union leader made it clear that they “would never embarrass the college.  We all worked too hard to make this place great”.  On several occasions  union leaders, employees and managers described their respective organization as a family.  One very experienced union leaders told me “We are like a family here and many of us grew up together at this college”.   Another union leader said “we are all brothers and sisters here. We are like a family and that includes our managers”.   In retrospect, I found it interesting and inspiring that the term family was used by both administrators and union leaders.

In high performing college and universities, there is a professional respect between the union and the institution.  This results in unexpected benefits including what appeared to be a higher level of satisfaction for these employees.  Although I have not researched this theory, dozens of people I have interviewed have stated their love of their jobs, their commitment to their institution and to the people who worked with them.

Additional benefits includes fewer expensive and hurtful grievances and arbitrations.  One manager boasted “we have a handful of grievances each year. That is it”!   This same view was shared by a senior leader of one of the unions at that same institution. That union leader viewed their success not on how many grievances they dealt with but rather by how many they did not have to file.


Dr. Robert Birnbaum – Professor Emeritus

In what has become one of higher education’s most cited leadership authors, Robert Birnbaum (1992) reported that high performing colleges and universities have staff and faculty who “develop a sense of institutional loyalty, feelings of shared responsibility and respect, and a commitment to common academic values”.   These employees seem to remember an academic institution’s purpose.  They also enjoyed being a member of the unique environment of a post secondary institution.


My research indicates that employees in preemptive colleges appreciate the collective benefit accrued by being part of the institution more than the individual benefits of a collective agreement.  They take their respective jobs seriously yet they are also committed to supporting one another.  All employees (including union leadership) are deeply committed to contributing to the mission and purpose of their institution and each wants to achieve organizational success.

It takes time to develop a trusting culture; a climate where staff, faculty and administration respect and support one another. Dr. Gordon supports this perspective. He told me “Leaders need to know that some key decision makers do not have big titles. I don’t understand why people do not understand this”.   The second trait of The Preemptive College is Trust Oriented yet in many ways, perhaps the President Emeritus summarized the situation best when he told me, “You need to move people from cynic to supporter”.  This can be accomplished when the institution is trust oriented, the second trait of The Preemptive College.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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