According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the American college and university workforce has shrunk at least seven percent since the onslaught of Covid-19. Between February and August, our institutions of higher learning have contracted by 337,000 jobs, placing the sector in fifth place behind losses posted by restaurants, manufacturing, hospitality, and retail. And the 2020-21 academic year does not look any more promising.
No Pause From VUCA
There is simply no clear map for colleges and universities to follow right now. As I referenced in my last article, all of us have arrived with an unceremonious thud into a situation that is VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). For my clients who build their professional reputations in the Academy, this may read as the understatement of 2020. Nearly everything about how they execute their jobs, how they lead their teams, and how they pursue their own aspirations—everything has been flipped upside down. It’s dizzying. Every bit of e-communication from their presidents’ offices is sliced and diced for signs of what the future may hold. Even on campuses skilled in transparent decision-making, senior leaders just don’t know, plain and simple. None of us do. Add to that the scramble for departments to save what they can, the race is on to be endorsed as “essential” employees, an oddly misplaced categorization in a higher education context.
Intuition Replaces Data
There is some good news here though. Since March, our colleges and universities have demonstrated that they are fully capable of nimble experimentation. Much to the surprise of higher education critics, our campuses switched their teaching and learning models with lightning speed, many over spring break. They demonstrated their agility and delivered an educational experience with no play book, no preparation, and a VUCA environment fueled with high anxiety from parents, students, faculty, and staff.
What makes this pivot especially impressive is that higher education’s achievement was opposite of what many expect from a traditionally slow-motion, shared governance, don’t-rock-the-boat sector. With little reliable pandemic data to drive decision making, senior college and university administrators had no choice but to rely on a strategy that they couldn’t grind out of Excel spreadsheets, colorful graphs, or elaborate decision trees. Instead, they needed to leverage what is not terribly evidence-based at all—that being their unconscious cognition, inner insight, or gut. They needed to operate largely from their Intuition. They still do. And the way things are going, their Intuition muscles will get rigorous work-outs throughout this academic year, and beyond.
The Paradox of Intuition
For those of us trained as Co-Active coaches, we spend considerable time in our coursework digesting, discussing, and practicing Intuition. We learn how to dance with our hunches, intuitive hits, and inner knowing. Intuition, also called Intuitive Intelligence, is rather elusive, according to the authors of Co-Active Coaching (Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, and Laura Whitworth). Intuition, argue the authors, is largely about our creative ability to improvise, to play, to make it up as we go, and to be extra-curious about the clues before us. Strategic plans, data sets, and survey results be damned. What’s more, the harder we work to command our Intuition, the harder it is to find. Indeed, Intuition is a paradox. “An open hand will hold it; it will slip through a fist” (Kimsey-House, et al).
When you don’t know
How you know
But you know you know
And you know you knew
And that’s all you need to know.
How can we possibly run our universities, and their countless academic, student service, and administrative departments on the paradox of Intuition? Though futile to measure, I argue that we are already doing it. Savvy leaders may not reference their utilization of Intuitive Intelligence at their yearly review or in their annual report, but they are making daily decisions that “they know they know,” even if they can’t articulate just “how they know.” Full stop.
How Two Leaders Leverage Their Intuitive Intelligence
To highlight a few examples of the Intuition muscle fully flexed, I lean on Andy Rabitoy, and Ignacio Gallardo, two university leaders I admire and whose stars I have watched rise over the last two decades. Andy is the executive director of Undergraduate Career Services at the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business. Ignacio Gallardo is the executive director of Career Services for the University of California Santa Barbara. Both of these men manage complex teams that interface daily with students, employers, alumni, and school administration.
Andy jokes that his boss often says that he manages by shoe leather. In his pre-Covid suite of offices in UW’s contemporary and airy Dempsey Hall, Andy was known for making the rounds each day, stopping by everyone’s office to connect with them, “on a human level,” as he notes. Andy would channel his pom poms from his high school cheerleading days to ensure needed recognition for his team and for his students who landed dream jobs. When Covid hit, Andy felt the absence of his two core workplace values: recognition and connection.
With no playbook from which to operate, Andy relied on his Intuition to resurface his values. He conducted drive-bys to the homes of his staff, dropping off tokens of appreciation and a sampling of mints from their office’s reception desk, a popular gathering spot for a staff with the “freshest collective breath on campus.” He also had food delivered to their homes for important virtual staff meetings.
A few states to the South, Ignacio faced a similar challenge on his seaside UC Santa Barbara campus. His team, like Andy’s, was experiencing the isolation of work-from-home. In pre-pandemic times, Ignacio’s centrally located Career Center enjoyed a flurry of daily activity—with students meeting in counselors’ offices, employers conducting information sessions, and staff leading career development workshops. All that of course changed abruptly in March, and there are no plans to return until 2021, the exact date uncertain.
Ignacio is a planner, a proud “J” on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator scale. He confesses that he needed to check-in regularly with that value and become more adaptable, taking things “one day at a time,” as he describes it. For Ignacio, his Intuition resulted in extra-frequent interaction with his team, regular Zoom staff meetings with inspired ice-breakers, and greater comfort with crucial conversations that fully call out the uncertainty of our present state. And his Intuition is at work envisioning a bold future for his organization, where work schedules may evolve to better meet the needs of staff and where technology may fully complement live place-bound service with timely high-impact student programs.
Neither Ignacio nor Andy would claim their Intuition to be a fool-proof science. But neither is decision-making based on all the concrete evidence they can muster. This academic year is fraught with so many challenges, not the least of which is the anxiety employees feel about their roles and their futures. The anxiety is there, palpable behind a Zoom window or via an e-mail. For Ignacio, Andy, and countless college and university administrators, it is their Intuition that offers up a deeply personal compass they can utilize in order to take action in service of others.
Because when we have that hunch and that hunch yields an optimal result, we have strengthened our muscle of Intuitive Intelligence.