As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Clif Smart.
Clifton “Clif” M. Smart III has served as the 11th president of Missouri State University since June 2011. Prior to that, Smart, who is a lawyer by trade, served as Missouri State’s general counsel for four years. Under his leadership, the university has set new records in numbers of graduates, graduate employment rates and overall enrollment; enhanced diversity of faculty, staff and students; maintained affordability for students; significantly upgraded campus facilities; developed new bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs; and set records in state appropriations, private gifts and grant funding.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was general counsel at Missouri State University when our president and provost both left. I was appointed interim president and presumed I would go back to my previous job upon the hiring of a new president. When we had a great year under my watch, I was encouraged to apply for the permanent position and was selected. It had never been a goal of mine to be president of a major public university, but I’m in year 10 holding that position now.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Former Missouri State University President Mike Nietzel (now retired), hired me and continues to be my mentor. I still interact with him regularly even though I’m in my 10th year as university president. He’s a great sounding board with broad experience and sound judgement, and has become a close personal friend.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company/organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Missouri State University began as a teacher preparation college in 1905. In 1995, our mission became public affairs, which we define as developing educated persons who excel in ethical leadership, community engagement and cultural competence. More than 26,000 students currently attend.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Over the last six months, we set up structures to help us manage through the pandemic. We have a core leadership team of 25 or so people that meets weekly. We have a subgroup of six of us that meet several times a week. We set up a broad communication strategy, which is described below. We regularly meet with local and state education leadership to share best practices. We created a plan and stuck to it, deviating from it only when circumstances demanded it. We emphasized kindness and grace throughout.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No. I believe in the mission of the university and its importance to our city and state. I know if we had gone completely online, many first- generation students would never have attended college and many employees would have been let go. I further believe we can be better as a result of managing through the pandemic rather than giving in. I want to be part of that victory.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It would be setting out a plan for the challenging times and demonstrating belief in the plan. It’s critical to maintain a positive attitude as others struggle.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Continue to come to work as leading by example is powerful. Challenge people to plan for the future, not just manage the crisis. This breeds confidence in the future that we will get through this and be better on the other side. It’s crucial to share information with all employees constantly. Uncertainty breeds fear.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
As many ways as you can think of. We hosted monthly town hall webinars for two hours at a time, where most of the time was spent answering questions. We produced a weekly electronic newsletter. We set up a COVID-19 website that included a dashboard. We sent critical news by email to all employees. We conducted media interviews any time requests came in. We shared information on social media. I personally responded to all email questions.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Because a failure to do that will put your organization behind others. There will be winners and losers as a result of the pandemic, and those that don’t plan for the future are more likely to be in the loser category.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company/organization through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Act with grace toward others. Tensions run high. People are scared for their health and the future. We need to show kindness more than ever and cut folks some slack when they fail. Focus on encouragement rather than discipline.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses/organizations make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Acting too quickly is the number one mistake I have seen. For example, closing a campus with a handful of positive COVID-19 cases rather than figuring out how to manage through. The result has often been drastic loss of revenue, which leads to termination of employees and lost opportunities for students. We focused on not making decisions until data/circumstances required as forecasting in the pandemic had proven to be often wrong.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We focused on keeping our employee team intact and cutting all other expenses. We were not afraid to use reserves to get us over the hump to the federal money. We invested in recruiting and retaining students even as money dried up as an investment in the future. We used this as an opportunity to make policies more customer friendly and remove obstacles. As a result, our enrollment has remained stable.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Over communicate. Do it in as many ways as you can think of (see prior answer). After one town hall, it was reported to me that a professor commented on the competence of our leadership team and plan. That kind of observation gives your employees the confidence to continue to come to work. Morale stays good.
- Lead for the greater good, not your own personal gain. Our leadership team took voluntary pay cuts while people were temporarily furloughed to share the pain (see quote below). We took the harder path of remaining open with seated classes, events and residence halls open rather than going online, which would have made my job and life easier.
- Act with kindness and grace (see prior answer).
- Only make decisions based on data and circumstances. Making decisions based on forecasts has proven disastrous during the pandemic.
- Rely on your team. Trying to do everything yourself doesn’t work. To be successful during a crisis, everyone has to row together in the boat. Then, give lots of credit to others when they do good work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, rather, in humility value others above yourself” (St. Paul). I quoted this when I assumed this job almost 10 years ago. By focusing on the good of others, people are more likely to follow you and more gets accomplished. I also like myself better and remain motivated to do this job well.
How can our readers further follow your work?
@clifsmart on Twitter.