In January 2014, some six months into my new position as CAO at Duquesne University, I foresaw the need to bring together the leadership in Academic Affairs in the early summer for a strategic planning retreat. The ten deans and four associate provosts had not engaged in comprehensive long-range planning for a number of years; instead, they had focused on day-to-day management of their individual areas and had been encouraged to leave “big picture” thinking to the president’s cabinet. My own personal disposition is rather to stress shared responsibility for the academic direction of the institution at large. At Duquesne, this was going to require rethinking familiar habits and becoming comfortable working with a longer time horizon.

Success would also depend on my willingness to model the very behavior I was hoping my colleagues would adopt. If I were to “lead” the retreat in too prescriptive (and/or proscriptive) a way, I would merely perpetuate the approach I wished to replace. At a routine meeting in early spring, one of my associate provosts astutely pointed out the value in this context of an outside facilitator. Only by leaving to such an individual the task of moving the retreat down the tracks, he argued, would I free myself up to become a colleague and a contributor – or even to step back completely if that became appropriate and allow the group to arrive at its own conclusions. I saw the wisdom of this advice and immediately thought of Teibel, Inc., with whom I had worked on similar tasks at a previous institution.

By this time, only a few weeks remained in which to plan the retreat. Howard and I spoke twice on the phone for about an hour each time and we also conducted a conference call with two of the deans and two of the associate provosts to test out some of our ideas as they evolved. It undoubtedly helped that Howard and I had a history of working together, especially inasmuch as we both had a degree of comfort about settling on a broad outline while also anticipating that we might have to revise plans on the fly. But I would in any case say of Howard what I say of the handful of excellent consultants I have worked during my thirty-five-year career: when I talk with him, he helps me articulate good ideas that I did not even know I was thinking – until he asks the questions that prompt them. I recognized his skill in this respect from our first encounter half a dozen years ago and that perception was only reaffirmed during this most recent project.

The retreat itself was a resounding success. To their credit, the members of our team came into the two days with open minds and a willingness to contribute – both as talkers and as active listeners – that exceeded even my high expectations. They warmed to Howard very quickly. I had framed his role as facilitator by stressing my own confidence in his abilities and describing the successful outcomes I had witnessed when we had worked together before. But such testimonials only go so far; in the end, what carried the day was Howard’s experience, his evident commitment to the task at hand, and his astute ability to hear, digest and replay for the group their own best ideas about the topics we discussed. After two hard days of work, we came away having articulated a vision, a mission and at least a preliminary set of objectives for our division – a much richer “product” than I think either Howard and I had expected. At this point, he is working with me as something of a coach as I consider how to sustain the forward momentum and feed the results of our retreat into the incipient campus-wide strategic planning process. 

Timothy R. Austin, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Duquesne University