Decision-Making in the Age of Connectedness

Decision-Making in the Age of Connectedness

A president's perspective on the threat of modern communication tools

IN THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, most of us have read any number of time management articles that focus on how easy it is to become a slave to e-mail. Most of these discuss the discipline required by executives, including university administrators, to keep the handling of e-mail from distracting us from our primary function--that of providing leadership. It is my contention that time management issues are but the tip of the iceberg.

Please indulge me a little reminiscence. My career in higher education administration began in 1968. In 1976, I became an executive assistant to an institutional president. This was a title I held for 22 years, though the job and its duties changed dramatically over that period of time.

One of my strongest memories is of the first president to whom I was a direct report. On numerous occasions, I would explain to him something on which I had been working. His most common reply was: "Please yourself and I will be tickled to death."

For the longest time, I thought he was dismissing me or the importance of my work. In retrospect, I now know that this man, who was one of my great mentors, was building my capacity. He knew that if the burden was on me to produce an outcome that pleased me and that I thought would please him, I would work doubly hard to get it right the first time. Said another way, he expected that, when possible, subordinates would solve problems themselves instead of passing them up to the boss for resolution.

Today, more than 30 years later, I find myself president of that same institution where I served as executive assistant to the president. One of my goals at Eastern Kentucky University is to "pay it forward" as my old boss and friend did and build capacity in the university’s faculty and administrative staff. That brings me to the rest of the iceberg.

When I, along with many of you, was growing up within the academy, cell phones, voicemail, e-mail, text messaging, and Tweets did not exist. Those of you who do not remember those days will likely be shocked to learn that our institutions got along perfectly well without those tools we all find essential today.

In those days, when the boss (e.g., president, dean, chair, director) was absent from the campus, decisions still had to be made. Occasionally we might ask, "Can this wait until he/she is back?" Sometimes the answer was "yes," but when it was "no" we had to act. When confronted with something that had to be done, we did not have the ability to fire off an e-mail or a text to get guidance from our superior. What we had to guide us were the core values of the institution, our understanding of the vision, wishes, and direction of our leaders. And we knew our scope of authority and what must truly wait until the boss was available.

Subordinates should solve problems instead of passing them up to the boss for resolution.

Excuse the personal example, but today, by contrast, I am never out of communications reach. My direct reports--for that matter, anyone on the campus--can e-mail me at any time, and many of them who have my cell phone number can call and either speak to me directly or leave a voicemail.

If I had not long ago broken myself of my tendencies to be a micromanager, I would revel in the control this ready access offers. I must admit that it still takes willpower not to weigh in and decide something that should really be handled at a lower level.

So, from my perspective, the greatest worry with our modern communications tools is not the time management issues they present to leaders. It is, rather, the threat they pose to development of leadership and decision-making capacity in the middle ranks of our institutions. More than one member of my leadership team has received from me the following e-mail reply: "Please yourself and I will be tickled to death."

Doug Whitlock has been president of Eastern Kentucky University since 2007.


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