Is Culture the Secret Sauce for Higher Ed Performance?:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 129 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Chris Kuberski

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Is Culture the Secret Sauce for Higher Ed Performance?: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 129 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Chris Kuberski

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 129 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Chris Kuberski: Is Culture the Secret Sauce for Higher Ed Performance?


In this episode of Changing Higher Ed podcast, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, a leading expert on transformational change management in higher education, and Chris Kuberski, president of Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, discuss how a president can effectively launch and oversee the years-long process of reworking an institution’s culture from the bottom up.

They describe the strategic administrative steps along the way, as well as ways to bring faculty, staff, and administrator stakeholders on board for the long term.


Culture as the Secret Sauce for Higher Ed Performance

The famous quote by Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” isn’t reserved for corporations. 

In the life of every institution, even when the institution is “wonderful,” the time often comes when a university president realizes that the institutional culture has shifted, and they no longer feel as if they fit in. The result is inevitable: your institutional productivity declines, and you no longer thrive.

Many higher education leaders come to that point. And they have a choice. Do I retire? Do I go and let someone else fix it? Or do I stay and do the heavy lifting necessary to change?


“A lot of my viewpoint comes from my own experience in watching cultures shift.”


Culture and transformational change is the most difficult challenge an institution and its president can face. Whether to leave an institution or fix its culture issues, which may or may not be readily apparent, requires strong convictions and a shared vision for the future.

Many presidents, especially those who have been president for many years, will realize that something is afoot, but they can’t quite put their fingers on it. But students do.

Just as children sense the tension within a family even if it is kept hidden, students pick up on the friction that permeates an institution when employees are siloed and territorial, and the ripple effect ultimately hinders students’ ability to move smoothly through the system to graduation.

The solution is simple—but far from easy. To offer an exceptional student experience, an institution has to provide an exceptional employee experience.

The best presidents can sense the underlying culture of an institution. One of the worst cultures is that of bullying and intimidation that can result in people fearing to speak out, or being unwilling to give things their best efforts. Sometimes people, especially faculty, operate in silos, causing them to be out of alignment with their campus peers and thwarting opportunities for collaboration. In all these cases, students suffer—hardly ideal in an era of declining enrollment across the country.


“When I moved into this role, I thought to myself, ‘You know, one thing I would really like to see during my time in that president seat is to improve the culture in a way that creates a lasting imprint’.”


When Kuberski became president in July 2020, she made it her mission to identify and uproot the negative aspects of the institution’s culture and to reframe the positive aspects in ways that give faculty and staff a voice and a reason to shine.

But how can a CEO build teamwork across an organization as broad and complex as a college—especially when s/he is acutely aware of the internal “squawking” that erupted when promoted to the position as an internal candidate?

By seeing it as an opportunity and diving in right away.


Creating a Strategy for a Culture Transformation in Higher Ed

There are many critical steps that presidents can take to get a culture change initiative started. One of the first things that a president can do is involve their HR staff, and—realizing they can’t achieve lasting change without outside help—bring in an outside consulting firm.

The smart president realizes that sometimes, they need outside help to provide the “ammunition” to make changes.


“It’s very easy to get engulfed by the culture so that after a while, you just say, ‘Oh, that’s the way it is around here,’ and learn to tolerate it.”


Even issues that seem trivial on their own, such as terse, biting email exchanges, will build, and the president must choose either to do nothing and thus permit them or shake up the culture profoundly.

In the Navy, the Commanding Officer’s primary duty is the effective operations of his/her ship, and they know (and are accountable for) the culture, for, without an effective culture, they are not an effective ship.

A good university president knows this as well. As presidents, they are in the unique position to assess an institution’s culture from a wider lens and lead the radical change needed.

For example, in the case of Kuberski, her goal was to shift the institutional culture (and the bullying attitude in particular) by improving the overall employee experience so that the student experience likewise would improve.

Getting started, you as president must identify the key faculty, staff, and administrator stakeholders that broadly represented the entire campus. This group can be drivers and facilitators of what can be called “culture workshops,” gatherings in which stakeholders discuss the current institutional culture—the good as well as the bad—and what a future, ideal culture should (and desires to) like.


“Getting people to a shared vision, especially around culture, is not an overnight thing.”


In the case of Kuberski and her institution, the group defined five cultural beliefs that build on each other “like a ladder:” This isn’t done overnight – it can take months – but it is critical that it is stakeholder driven. “People support what they help create” can become the mantra of good stakeholder-driven visions.

Here was the culture-shared vision for Kuberski and her institution:

  1. Rise up. I actively participate in a constructive and representative decision-making process and support the outcome.
  2. Open up. I listen with an open mind and seek to understand and share honestly and communicate respectfully.
  3. Contribute. I proudly contribute to the achievement of our goals.
  4. Be bold. I embrace transformation, big or small.
  5. One Highland. I trust and collaborate because we are better together.


Kuberski is proud of the outcome, noting that the shortlist informs virtually every aspect of what community colleges like Highland strive to accomplish. “Seek[ing] to understand,” for example, is fundamental to diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and “embrac[ing] transformation” is how higher ed can continue to be current and relevant, especially in the uncharted waters of the post-pandemic sea change.


Instilling and Sustaining a Desire for Cultural Change 

After the initial workshop, two dynamic staff members and two dynamic faculty members were identified and paired. Instead of the broad train-the-trainer approach, these four were trained to lead the effort across the rest of campus in workshops that were offered at convenient times. Participation was entirely voluntary at all levels—forced change leads to resentment—but the majority of supervisors took part.

The new cultural beliefs must be reinforced, which requires providing leaders throughout the institution with the tools for creating cultural change, e.g., including culture as a topic of conversation in biweekly meetings with supervisors, further helping the shift permeate the entire campus.


“I sensed that we were making significant progress because there was a lot of pushback from those who didn’t want to let go of the old culture.”


This also needs to be embedded in the strategic plan so as to sustain positive momentum – the ladder approach – and the four that the key stakeholder’s group identified were:


  • trust and culture,
  • enrollment,
  • academic quality (particularly as related to accreditation), and
  • financial health.


Culture change normally takes 3-5 years (if you are lucky), but by taking concrete steps like this, a president will see incremental but positive changes in the data provided by various climate assessments and other surveys, as well as in anecdotal evidence in the way people interact with each other. Evidence such as email correspondence being more civil and helpful.


“I believe everybody now understands that they have a role in enrollment because if we do that well, everything else will follow suit.”


Highland, like many institutions, knows that enrollment is the institution’s highest priority. But in the past, this wasn’t necessarily believed or acted on. All that is different now.

There is a shared vision about where the institution is, where it is going, and what it needs to do to get there. They have built consensus around these shared visions (which is what makes them shared), and their achievement is reinforced through the evaluation system.

Faculty and staff are asked to identify a touchpoint about their cultural beliefs and how they continually demonstrate them in their work and in the accomplishments of the prior year. On the social side of campus life, Kuberski formed a committee to provide activities to reinforce that faculty and staff are valued as employees and as people. Examples include informal social gatherings and a trophy that rotates to a new place every month to celebrate noteworthy employees.


Involve All Stakeholders in Cultural Change? Think Again!

While giving students the best possible experience is the primary goal for this organizational shift, the direct focus at Highland is on employees only.


“You don’t want students to think that you thought your culture was broken.”


When faculty and staff are aligned with the institution’s values and collaborate to fulfill them, students will notice. Navigating the journey to graduation is more efficient, and the people involved are more supportive and positive.


Three Takeaways for Higher Ed Leaders and Boards


  1. Culture impacts creativity, productivity, and your ability to serve students in an exceptional way.
  2. Culture work is a long-term commitment.
  3. Recognition and celebration are key components of a strong culture because they reinforce the institution’s cultural beliefs.



About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of  The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education.  

Links to Articles, Apps, or Websites Mentioned During the Interview

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