What if you lost 25% of your organization on one day?

When we talk about corporate culture today we talk about change. What would you do if you lost 25% of your population in one day? In three months you can expect replacements for the 25% to arrive at your doorstep. The only complication is that the newbies lack the experience of the folks who left. One more thing. An increasing number in this group will never visit a physical location of the organization, communicating solely online.

Shall we have a conversation about ‘disruption’? What resources would you require to manage the scale of change?

This is the continuous management challenge for colleges and universities. And yet, those on the corporate side often discount the ‘unreality’ of the campus workplace, while those working in academia are suspicious of those in ‘the real world’.

Today is a good day to imagine this scenario as thousands of freshman arrive on campus or sign in to their first online course.

It’s time for business schools to take a look at what’s happening on their campuses and take the lead to cross-pollinate the lessons learned across the great academic – corporate divide.

When we talk about the 25% we are talking students. It doesn’t include the annual turnover in faculty and staff.

How do you manage the expectations of this diverse group that the organization (college) is hesitant to refer to as customer, many of whom have a team of consultants (parents) directing every move? How do you create a culture that is sustained through significant population shifts?

Start with the leaders?

The academic career path that leads to the university ‘C Suite’ rarely includes leadership training. The more enlightened college presidents invite the feedback of consultants, but the majority rely on the belief that they have always been the smartest person in the room and lead accordingly.

The realities of economic viability challenge the most effective leader to balance donor pressures with cultural continuity.

The job description has changed. It’s not just faculty and students anymore. The leadership portfolio may include a multi-million dollar entertainment complex (football), a multi-billion dollar health care campus, major real estate redevelopment and significant political lobbying.

College presidents once occupied a place of influence in the national conversation. They have been replaced by political voices who view universities as the sanctuary of the elite.

University presidents are running cities within cities. They are the guarantors of our civic future with their link to generational and social change.

I have worked in both corporate and academic environments. I am aware of the wall of bias that separate the two worlds. No one benefits from this insularity. Each could gain from the leadership lessons of the other.

“Envisioning the non-obvious makes things unexpected”

Have you ever made a career move that had family and friends questioning your motives? Federica Marchionni became the CEO of apparel company, Lands’ End in February, leaving an executive position as President of US Operations at luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana.

Her career started in the telecommunications industry and led to an executive assignment at Ferrari before her move to D&G in 2001. Now she leads an organization with significant challenges after the company was spun off by parent Sears in 2014.

The ‘CBS This Morning’ news program reported on her move in a pre-taped interview:

“Marchionni is leading the company while splitting her time between New York and Wisconsin. From small town to Times Square, Marchionni is able to navigate two very different worlds.

“And I like it. And what I said is that envisioning the non-obvious makes things unexpected. And, of course, this wasn’t an expected choice. But only when you do take chances, you can grow,” she said.”

Take a minute to think about successful folks you have met. Why are they good at what they do? They take regular excursions away from their comfort zone. They make the ‘unexpected’ choice. They risk failure and professional reputation to achieve their definition of success.

In the case of Ms. Marchionni, her company is based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin but her office is in New York. She made a career choice that family and friends questioned, but her decision was not made in a void. Prior to joining Land’s End, she was familiar with the product line and supportive of the company founder’s commitment to the environment.

At the recent ‘Women in the World Summit’ she shared her vision for Land’s End:

“As the new CEO of Lands’ End, I want to lead this amazing American iconic company to become a meaningful global lifestyle brand. Meaningful in the way we conduct our business, in the way we make decisions, the way we inspire people (in our) community and the world.”

How will she accomplish her goals?

Speaking with CBS News: “The founder always said that if you take care of your people, if you take care of your customer, the business will take care of itself. And I totally, totally agree with that.”

Not all of us are contemplating ‘C-Suite’ employment packages, but we can learn from leaders who transition from one company to another.

Understand the culture, the product, the financials and the customer. Research will give you all the information you need before you accept a position.

Own the decision, even if friends and family are skeptical. Trust your gut.

Embrace change. Really. Corporate life today takes place in the world of the unexpected. That’s not a choice.