SNHU’s Paul LeBlanc on Higher Ed in a Time of Intense Change

April 8, 2020

In this episode of One Quick Thing, Paul LeBlanc discusses how coronavirus has impacted the world of higher education. LeBlanc is the President of Southern New Hampshire University, the largest nonprofit provider of online higher education in the US. Five takeaways from the conversation follow.

1. Know the Communities You Serve 

Southern New Hampshire University, LeBlanc says, serves two different communities. The first includes students in their late teens and early twenties who live and attend classes on campus. The second are online learners, who are mostly in their 30s. “That 30-year-old…86 percent of them are working. They have kids… The job they want done is, ‘Get me a degree that will unlock an opportunity and get me unstuck, and I want to do that fast,'” LeBlanc says. “In contrast, my 18-year-olds on campus…they’re really buying into a coming-of-age experience. So, ‘Do I like this community? Do I feel like I fit in?'”

LeBlanc says opportunities for connection and community-building vary for those two groups. Online learners want to attend webinars for networking opportunities. Former denizens of the campus who moved home due to coronavirus are searching for ways to stay social online. 

2. Find Ways to Stay Flexible 

During the conversation, LeBlanc referred to VUCA. This phrase from the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto refers to a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. For organizations confronting uncertain times, LeBlanc says, “Rigid equals brittle. It breaks fast, and it breaks hard. So I think those organizations — those leaders — who can put in place a kind of fluidity, agility, shape-shifting…who are able to get people working in interdependent ways, those are going to be really critical.”

3. Pay Attention to Strategy and Look for Leading Indicators

LeBlanc talked about some of the lessons that he learned from his friend Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who passed away earlier in 2020, and how they might apply to the current context. “A common mistake is that people think strategy is the answer to [the question of] what should we do,” LeBlanc says. “Strategy really is a framework for getting to those answers…. What I’ve been saying to our people is that we can’t answer the question ‘What should we do?’ The fog of war is too much around us at the moment.” However, he says, “What we can do right now is focus on the framework that will drive our decision-making as we start to get clarity.”

LeBlanc also talked about data being a rear-view mirror, reflecting mostly where you’ve been. “That has probably never been more true. All the benchmarks we used to use have been blown up. So we have to think about data differently,” he says. “The question we keep asking ourselves is, ‘If this is a scenario…What would have to be true for that to happen? Those will be your leading indicators. If we see this, this, and this, what do we think that is a signal of? What do we think happens next? Right now, everyone is desperate for those predictors.”

4. Manage Employees with Empathy  

During this period of remote work, LeBlanc says traditional hours may shift to allow workers more flexibility. “If your kids are underfoot, you can’t think about your productivity in an eight hour time span. That’s impossible. You’ll drive yourself crazy,” he says. “Think about your first obligation to your family… [Then,] think about the work you need to get done.” 

According to LeBlanc, a drop in productivity should be expected when managing teams during a global crisis. He recommends that managers stay connected with their employees and be understanding of work happening at odd hours. 

5. Do The Right Thing Consistently

At the end of the call, LeBlanc referred to another piece of advice from Christensen: “It’s far easier to do the right thing 100 percent of the time than 95 percent of the time.”

“It’s hard if you’re going to try to pick and choose the five percent when you [forgo] doing the right thing,” LeBlanc says. “Under pressure of crisis, and urgency, and expediency, you can’t compromise the things that we feel are the right thing. … In a SNHU context…the question that we have posted on every single conference room wall, is ‘[Are] the decisions we’re making here today good for our students?'”

This episode of One Quick Thing was sponsored by Captains of Innovation, CIC’s internal boutique consultancy. This full-spectrum corporate innovation program helps organizations develop innovative products, services, and technologies to remain competitive in today’s business climate.

Captains of Innovation is hosting a series of fireside chats in conjunction with Venture Cafe Cambridge. On April 16 at 4 pm ET, Carrie Allen from Captains of Innovation and Scott Kirsner from InnoLead will discuss how corporate innovation teams are changing amidst the COVID-19 crisis. They will also share advice on how to innovate when your whole team is working remotely. Register for the virtual event.

Forecasting the Fall: College Campuses 

InnoLead asked webcast attendees if they thought college campuses could safely reopen in the fall of 2020. Over 100 participants shared their answers. Respondents were divided, with 56 percent saying that campuses would be able to reopen. 

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