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Key Takeaways From the JAM 2024 Executive Summit: Leading Through Disruption

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It should come as no surprise to anyone that, after a year of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, the theme of the 2024 JAM Executive Summit was “leading through disruption.” The summit brought together education leaders from dozens of institutions to discover new ways to lead their institutions in a time of adversity. Below, we highlight some of the key takeaways from the 2024 JAM Executive Summit.

Streamline Operations to Respond to a Shifting Higher Ed Landscape

The summit was kicked off by Inside Higher Ed Editor and Co-Founder Doug Lederman, who outlined the critical challenges currently impacting higher education. These challenges include declining enrollment, financial strain, societal doubts about higher education’s ROI, political turmoil, and competition from alternative learning providers. 

Lederman highlighted the shifting higher education landscape and emphasized the need to streamline operations and focus essential resources on an institution’s core strengths. He also stressed the importance of innovation and suggested institutions look at technology as a way to dismantle departmental silos and foster cultures of creativity.

Institutions Need Strong Leadership

Leadership, Lederman stressed, is essential for navigating the shifting landscape. Despite demographic declines, higher education has a huge role to play in the future. The current job market rewards lifelong learners, so non-traditional education programs may play a large role in long-term institutional success.

At the same time, institutions should leverage innovative technologies like artificial intelligence to improve operational efficiency and build engaging strategic partnerships. Lederman highlighted several recent partnerships between institutions that have widened student access to essential programs and helped colleges lead through adversity (see Antioch and Otterbein or St. Ambrose and Mount Mercy).

Leaders Need to Focus on Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility

This year's Executive Summit also featured Major General Keith Thurgood, Ph.D. from Thayer Leadership at West Point. General Thurgood gave an energetic and dynamic presentation on “Leading Through VUCA” – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments that have an adverse effect on teams and organizations.

Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous are certainly apt descriptors for today’s higher education landscape. Part of the issue many institutions are having with responding to this environment: Leaders in higher education can be resistant to change. In response to this, General Thurgood reminded the audience that when Facebook purchased its Silicon Valley campus from Sun Microsystems, it left the Sun Microsystems sign in place as a reminder of what can happen when a company gets complacent.

To lead change in a VUCA environment, said Thurgood, leaders need to focus on key techniques: vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. Change is inevitable, and it is a leader’s job to help their company (or institution) and their teams navigate that change. To do this, leaders need to provide a framework that presents teams with clear purpose, direction, and motivation.

Good Leaders Are Those Who "Power Down" and Create Learning Environments

General Thurgood went on to explain that, to navigate a VUCA environment, good leaders emphasize powering down (as opposed to managing up). Good leaders empower subordinate decision-making and appropriately decentralize execution, and they do this by building professionally competent teams, creating mutual trust, establishing a shared understanding, and providing a clear leader’s intent.

Thurgood also emphasized the importance of fostering a culture of learning. The Army, he said, uses three main tools to create an environment that fosters competence, trust, and learning. They begin projects with confirmation briefs (which ensure alignment), drive projects with backbriefs (which ensure decentralized execution), and follow up projects with after-action reviews (which support improvement and a culture of learning and growth).

Those in higher education will recognize that these techniques are not too different from tactics deployed in the classroom. Syllabi or assignments confirm expectations, pre-assignment meetings and reviews ensure project plans are sound, and post-assignment reflections help drive home lessons learned.

Overall Executive Summit Takeaways

Lederman and General Thurgood agreed on several points, the foremost of which is that disruption is the new normal. But if the 2024 JAM Executive Summit taught attendees anything, it’s that a powerful combination of strategic foresight and practical leadership techniques can help leaders in higher education navigate change, foster innovation, and stay true to their institution’s mission.

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