12/100: On Setbacks and Teams

After a long time, my life returned to normalcy yesterday. An after-office pub trawl lasted till 11pm, not because of the quality of the wine - I was merely on Guinness for a belated St Patrick's Day celebration - but because of the quality of the conversation.

Indeed, it was mostly office stuff, to start with. It was about the urgency to construct a vision, something concrete and achievable, yet something that breaks the cycle of trivialities that seem to engulf our work. That way, we are at an interesting point. We are affiliated to a couple of universities, and we run their courses. The recent audits and examination boards went well, and everyone is jubilant that we seemed to have met our objectives. However, to me, this is just the starting point and not the end. To my colleagues who had a more public sector background, satisfying the very high standards of the regulators and the accrediting bodies is the goal, an end. To me and the colleagues coming from private sector training etc, that's just the start. The road test of the real market - delighted students, ringing cash register, leadership in our industry - is what we tend to focus on.

I have also started noticing another significant strain of thinking in the higher education industry. It is very resource based. The tie-in with resources is obsessive, and when resources are in short supply, the educators often run out of ideas. This is what is happening in the British University sector at this time, I gather from the conversations. But Private Sector executives, particularly for those who have lived in the SME Cash-is-king environment, resources are never to be taken for granted and innovation is the key. Moreover, I come from India and my middle class Indian childhood meant that I couldn't even have more than two allocated cream biscuits at home on a given day. Intuitively, I adjust to lack of resources, always trying to find ways.

So, moaning about resources is not part of my make-up. Hence, achieving the goal that we are trying to set for ourselves - becoming a degree awarding institution in next three years time - seem perfectly plausible to me. I am sure the universities and university colleges around us have more resources, buildings etc, but as long as we have the ideas and the people, we shall surely get there.

This makes a very good pub conversation, particularly in one we found in Queens Street, just around the corner from Cannon Street rail station. It is not too noisy, not at least at the basement. I thought it is perfect for such a conversation, where, aided by Guinness, I could at last be imaginative and passionate, my normal self. I was telling my colleagues that if I have my way, I would try to turn the way we do business on its head and make it student led in the literal sense. This will mean some experiments, indeed, like getting some student representatives in the governing council of the college etc. I am certain that these proposals will never be accepted, because experimentation isn't a common thing in the education industry. But, I am certain that my quest of difference, the urge to mesh the best of private business spirit - innovation, dynamism, resourcefulness (which implies working with constraints) - with academic freedom and intellectual pursuit, will be appreciated, with time, by all concerned.

This freedom to experiment may indeed the best part of my job. I came to the Higher Education, convinced that this is the killer app for future, one business that will change the world in the age of rising middle classes. It is still early for me, I haven't yet finished my studies in Adult Learning at the UCL (though I am getting there now and should finish my dissertation by early next year) and only spent about a year in the college environment. However, this being my sole obsession and passion for this whole period, the learning has been enormous. I now feel ready to commit myself to this industry long term, and focus all my activities, work, reading, writing etc, on this industry. I also understand one can't do things alone and it is important to connect with other people, learn from them and forge friendships that last. Such conversations, which mesh work with friendships, are at the core of this new, emergent identity for me.

I have also realized my mistakes at the same time. I lost the humility, of being a student and a learner, and was played on by my ego. I wrote about this in an earlier post, and today, a quiet Saturday, allowed me to reflect upon this. Hopefully, this means I shall be able to regain my balance yet again and start new when I get back to office on Monday: Not give in to the temptations of power but do my job - learning to create a great modern educational institution - with sincerity, focus and commitment.

My ideas are somewhat simple, I want to build a modern higher education institution on the basis of three 'bases' - students, enterprise and technology. I see the college we build should be primarily student-led, focused on development of enterprise (owned businesses or inside the companies our students work for) and in step with technologies of production, communication and consumption. My first step in building this institution is to bring together a team which is united on certain core values. It is, of course, a more difficult job that I initially assumed. I made some bad choices, and putting the team together in an effective manner meant I had to take on some of the existing power brokers that invariably exist in any setting. I am only half done on this journey - still waddling through the terrain of interpersonal relationships - but I am increasingly anxious that this should not make me lose sight of the end goal, building of a great, sustainable institution.

There is a very real chance that I might fail. It almost felt like I did, last week. I was told that my strategies are disruptive - as they were meant to be - but that was not the problem. The problem was that some of the people I was recruiting to be in my team thought I already lost the battle and gave in for the sake of job security. It was an interesting spectacle: I was upset for a passing moment as I took this for lack of loyalty. However, a couple of days of pause and reflection allowed me to see it to be what it is - a simple human survival instinct - and the fact that the problem is actually in me, my ego and cravings of power, which I must solve at my end. However, once this is clear, I am also painfully aware of the fragility of any vision (indeed, I have been here before) and the fact that my irreversibly optimistic nature is actually a bit of handicap in me identifying the right people. I am aware that to build something significant, one needs faith, above all. And, faith, of all things, isn't easy: It isn't for the fainthearted, I must say. I anyway only get attracted to people who are confident and engaged with the world, but now I have added 'persistence' to my list.

Before I move onto another subject, however, I must also mention that the last week was not as bad as I make it sound. The difficult times are always the best time to know people who really love you and will stand by you. At the same time as my 'Et Tu, Brute?' moment, I saw other people who care for how I feel, though I was plain childish at the time. I could see the support and understanding from them, an appreciation of my work, and the commitment to the shared goals. I now know how generous and sincere those people were. While disappointments are bound to come in the course of what I am trying to achieve, it is important for me to know that there are people who I can count on. This isn't about loyalties but shared values, and common goals (which goes beyond 'keeping the job') because the same set of people are unsparing in criticism when I get it wrong.

So, that sums up the state of my life at the beginning of the third week of the 100 days that is to change my life. It is happening, indeed: I am better off than I was three weeks back. Most importantly, I have learned important lessons on the need to build teams with common purpose and shared values at the core of any enterprise, and going forward, my energies will be devoted in distilling and developing such teams. Further, all the fun and excitement of being in the industry that will change the world is back in my mind yet again, and as I sign off now, I feel immensely happy and look forward to get to work on Monday.


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