Leadership and Culture

For the past two weeks, I’ve been conducting interviews with various colleagues for my cultural analysis paper – most of which are my indirect or direct supervisors. In my interview with the new Associate Vice Provost  (AVP) for Academic Advising, we had a long discussion about how we do things in higher education based on the leadership at the time. For instance, VCU’s previous Provost, AVP for Learning and Student Success, and VP  for Academic and Faculty Affairs were focused on an online advising tool that was going to help us track students better and come up with early intervention campaigns never before tried during the Spring 2014. However, they all left shortly after the tool was purchased and the only person left to implement the online platform was an Associate Dean who didn’t have a say in the decision making to begin with.  The new leadership that came in had no attachment to this product, other than it came with a large price tag, so we should fulfill our contract.

The new Provost and AVP for Advising are getting rid of the online advising tool when the contract ends this year. They are adopting another tool that will help streamline advising, career center, and learning support services at VCU. It sounds like a great product, but needless to say, the shifts come and go with the leadership. I feel as though big agenda items for one leader becomes part of the departmental culture. In other words, org culture can be cyclical in nature. The way we do things or as Schein likes to call them the underlying assumptions that determine our behavior are based on the leadership’s initiatives. If the leadership changes, so can the culture. Schein states that one of the ways cultures form is “new beliefs, values, and assumptions brought in by new members and new leaders” (Schein, 2010, pg. 219). I know I wrote about this in my article review, but I am even more convinced that the culture comes from the top as a result of this class. I feel as though the leader “embeds” the vision of the organization (Schein, 2010, pg. 235).  They are the ones that create momentum around a particular task that becomes a part of the advising culture.  Once that leader is replaced, the group (or department in my case) looks to the new leader for critical reflection and new ways of doing things.

I know I’ve blogged about my new boss a lot in this class, but her style of leadership has been fascinating to watch. She is already changing the culture in our department based on observable things like dress code to new underlying assumptions like accountability and follow through. I can see the class materials being revisited as I continue working in this unit.

Different Advising Cultures @ VCU

In last week’s class, we started a new unit on organizational culture. I’ve been looking forward to discussing culture because I find myself a part of two subcultures in my current role. The main “macroculture” if you will being VCU – the institution. I won’t get into a discussion on VCU culture in this blog because I mainly attach myself to departmental culture. I work in a general advising department that has to collaborate with the School of Business, Undergraduate Studies department on a regular basis on items such as appeals, curriculum changes, orientation, etc. My office culture, though, couldn’t be more different from the School of Business advising culture in terms of the artifacts or “climate”. However, our espoused beliefs and underlying assumptions when it comes to a student-centered advising model are very much the same.

Both advising offices operate on the espoused belief that we should provide streamlined initiatives for the students to successfully transition to their major; therefore, we try and meet monthly with them and have as much face to face interaction as possible to discuss potential issues. One cultural similarity or basic assumption is that we all try to be as proactive as possible in order to mitigate any student issues. Our units both assume that the individual advisor is responsible for bringing up agenda items that are relevant to the team. There is a Director of Advising at the School of Business who oversees the meetings, but she does not assume a position of power and control. Again, the advisors are the ones who lead the meetings and bring up agenda items to discuss. It is also assumed that business advisors should always be on the look out for innovative, creative strategies for student success and retention. The monthly meetings are a forum to discuss best practices.

Nevertheless, I find it so odd that the artifacts or what Schein calls the “visible and observable behaviors” are so different. For example, the School of Business employees have a stricter dress code. The advisors must wear dressy, business professional attire compared to our department’s casual dress attire. Some people in our office use to wear jeans every day, and the School of Business doesn’t even allow jeans on Fridays. The formal atmosphere in the school immediately resonates with you when you walk into the building. In addition to the dress code differences, I notice that the advisors are not as “close” with one another. The typical bantor in our office or “hallway chat” doesn’t exist in their office. The advisors present a much more individualistic culture than our advising office. Our advisors are very close with one another. Most of us have worked with each other for a long time, so we feel very comfortable chatting about everything under the sun. When both our units come together though we click! I think it’s because of the shared beliefs and values when it comes our advising model.

Schein says “The power of culture comes about through the fact that the assumptions are shared and therefore mutually reinforced” (Schein pg. 31). I’m fascinated how complex and layered culture is at the same institution. I’m looking forward to breaking down the layers even more in my paper.