TCU’s Humility Improves Odds of Success

TCU Frog Fountain

TCU is on a roll! The university of 8,900 undergraduate students in Fort Worth, Texas is all over the national sports pages these days. 

The TCU Horned Frog football team keeps winning games and remains near the top of the college football rankings. Josh Doctson and Aaron Green are frequently mentioned as likely NFL draft picks, along with quarterback Trevone Boykin whose remarkable performances have the press buzzing that he is a frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy. A photo of Boykin kneeling down to talk with 7-year old Abby Faber, Iowa State’s “Kid Captain” of the day who suffers from spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, recently went viral.

In the NFL, former TCU quarterback Andy Dalton is leading the Cincinnati Bengals football team to what looks like another playoff-bound year as the Bengals remain one of a handful of undefeated teams.

Jake Arrieta, the Chicago Cubs ace pitcher and contender for the Cy Young Award, helped his team defeat his former Horned Frog teammate and star second baseman Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals to advance to Major League Baseball’s National League Championship Series.  TCU baseball has become a national powerhouse, making its second straight appearance earlier this year in the College World Series.

With TCU’s athletic success, one might expect hubris to surface. In my four years of involvement at TCU, even as national athletics successes mounted, I have been intrigued to observe quite the opposite.  The small school with big spirit — and unusual mascot — is anything but resting on its laurels.

Recently I participated in a meeting of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council (CAC) to provide feedback on how TCU might further strengthen its athletic program to prepare student-athletes to be successful in the classroom, in competition and in life beyond college. The CAC consists of approximately 60 individuals with diverse backgrounds from across the U.S. who come together on campus twice each year. Members tapped for a three-year term are either alumni, current or past parents, or community friends. (I have one daughter who graduated from TCU and another who is a senior). Each season the CAC focuses on a specific program or aspect of university life and provides candid feedback. Past topics have included discussions on the role of graduate education, the best ways for students to live lives that matter, the importance of freshman retention, and the advantages of a connection culture.

The CAC is one forum in which TCU has effectively operationalized humility in a way that contributes to the university’s success. TCU’s process can be summarized in three steps that every leader can implement with members of his or her organization.

  1. Put your cards on the table

High quality feedback requires knowledge. Operationalizing humility begins by informing others in a way that reflects transparency and openness. At TCU’s CAC meetings, two half-day sessions are designed to equip CAC members with relevant facts, data and knowledge so they can ask pertinent questions and provide informed opinions. This includes interaction with students and relevant staff and faculty members.

Leaders can follow TCU’s example by being intentional about keeping people in the loop. Share financial and operational data with the people you lead. Share the issues you’re considering and your thoughts about each so people know where you stand.  Some might argue that you should begin by asking others to share their thoughts.  I’ve found that people hold back until they know where the leader stands. If the leader shares openly, and genuinely believes that honest feedback is valuable (even if it’s not what he or she wants to hear), people will be more forthcoming and say what they believe. Even though it will take time for people to be candid because it requires building trust first, I’ve found this to be the most effective approach.

  1. Ask participants to stress test your thinking

Tell the people you lead that you have been wrong before, that you know from experience you don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and the best ideas will surface when everyone is contributing their knowledge to the conversation. Ask them to share “what’s right?, what’s wrong?, and what’s missing?” from your thinking. Don’t be critical of the feedback you receive. Listen to what they say and thank each contributor for sharing.  Have a note taker write it all down. This approach effectively stress tests your thinking.

Near the end of the CAC meetings, Ann Louden, Chancellor’s Associate for Strategic Partnerships who organizes and leads the CAC, presents the key question that the Chancellor would like the group to weigh in on and provide recommendations on how TCU can improve. Participants are assigned to groups of approximately 10 individuals each and the teams get to work on brainstorming and evaluating options. Each group reports its recommendations back to the entire CAC with TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini in attendance to hear the feedback firsthand.

  1. Consider then implement the best

Finally, leaders at TCU consider the CAC’s feedback and implement the best ideas.  This is especially important to maintain credibility. Leaders who don’t follow-up on feedback and implement the good ideas lose credibility. They’ll find that future requests for feedback will not be taken seriously.

Seeking the ideas and opinions of others reflects humility. It says that you don’t believe you have a monopoly on good ideas and you need to hear the perspectives of others in order to make the best decisions. The 3-step process is wisdom in action because it captures the thinking of individuals who have diverse experiences, thinking styles and ideas. Armed with this valuable feedback, leaders are more likely to make optimal decisions that contribute to and sustain their organization’s success.

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