The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”—John F. Kennedy
The tradition rich University of North Carolina Tar Heel’s athletic program has long been a shining example of excellence in providing a first class academic and athletic experience for student-athletes. A brilliantly innovative, disciplined and efficient organization, the Tar Heel’s used decades of momentum to build one of college athletics’ most prodigious dynasties. Yet like many great organizations that produce remarkable results over a prolonged period of time, this very success can also breed a complacency which leads to their own self-inflicted downfall.
In 2012, the Tar Heel’s were blindsided by the accusations of systemic academic fraud throughout the university and its athletics program. A university that was long seen as a case study in academic and athletic collaboration was shaken to its core by allegations of sham classes, grade inflation and rampant cheating. The corruption was so severe that it would eventually lead to the grand jury indictment of a beloved professor for “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously” accepting payment “with the intent to cheat and defraud” the university in connection with his role in teaching suspect courses.
The University of North Carolina had spent half a century building a flawless reputation, and in the span of only a few short weeks now stood at the precipice of its own self-destruction.
The crisis they faced could not simply be solved by a shrewd public relations strategy, nor the traditional corporate tactic of proclaiming mismanagement by senior leadership and firing with impunity until the mob’s lust for blood was satisfied. In truth, those would only be short-lived solutions for a far more serious and grave ailment the Tar Heels were suffering from – hubris.
Decades of uninterrupted success had created an ethos of privilege and entitlement at North Carolina; university and community leaders operated as though they existed outside the rules of the system they helped create. Like a virus, the Tar Heel culture was infected with a deep and systemic belief that the “Carolina Way” was in fact, the only way.
According to North Carolina athletic Director Lawrence (Bubba) Cunningham, “Most organizations tend to view failures as localized, independent problems. In reality, they must be cognizant that it is usually the small failures that occur on the fringes that lead to big ones. If an organization is to avoid having a series of minor errors cascade into a catastrophic situation, they must condition themselves to assume that any failure might in fact be evidence of a larger, far deeper problem.”
Cunningham has learned over a leadership career that has spanned four decades that recognizing the first signs of organizational crisis is not an easy task. If all you have ever known is success, it’s easy to become ignorant to the telltale marks of impending disaster. When crisis finally strikes, no one panics because they simply don’t understand what’s happening, and then later they panic precisely because they don’t understand what’s happening.
“When I first took over [as athletic director] in late 2011, it became immediately evident that the culture of the department had stagnated,” recalls Cunningham. “UNC had been incredibly successful for so many years, but the program was floundering. There was no mission, no roadmap on how to maintain that achievement, only the assumption that what worked in the past would somehow continue to work in the future. The Tar Heels were drifting down a directionless road of with no destination in sight,” he adds.
Cunningham was eminently cognizant that one could not just simply walk into an organization with almost a century of deeply rooted ideology and expect to change its culture overnight. Instead, he had to discover a pragmatic solution in which the core principles that defined the university were counterbalanced against the desperate need for change, renewal and organizational evolution.
“We had to devise a strategy to not only lift us out of crisis, but also eliminate the deep seeded complacency that had eaten away at the culture in the first place. We asked ourselves, ‘What is the real value of college athletics today?’ and began to determine how the athletics department could represent the university and its community in such a fashion that would reflect the true excellence of the Tar Heels,” Cunningham explains.
For the Tar Heels, the solution would come in the way of new operational framework, aptly named RISE (Responsibility, Innovation, Service, Excellence), which would become the foundation for every decision the athletics department would make from that moment on. The maxim’s origins could be found in the philosophical “Work Hard, Play Smart, Win Together” teachings of legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith.
Responsibility – North Carolina athletics strives to embody the maxim, “do unto others as you would have them do to you”. That means doing what’s right in every situation they face, with character and integrity. The Tar Heels embrace diversity and will become a role model for all organizations for their dedication to inclusiveness.
Innovation – The Tar Heels must constantly endeavor to “Find a Better Blue”. Its employees must be bold, creative, insightful, and brave. They must take things personally. More importantly, they will do everything in their power to destroy the status quo because they understand that complacency is the enemy of progress.
Service –North Carolina athletics understands and embraces its role, and use it to lift not only those they work with, but college athletics as a whole. The Tar Heels are driven by an unselfish desire to achieve greatness through improving everyone they interact with, even the competition. If that means taking time out of their day to teach others about the Carolina Way, then they will do so with swiftness and enthusiasm.
Excellence – The Tar Heels will diligently move forward in the pursuit of improving themselves in every facet of their being. They simply don’t have any choice – they have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game, and to play it better than anyone has any right to believe is possible.
In implementing RISE, the Tar Heels were struck with the realization that one of the primary reasons their culture had begun to falter was because the department had begun to view each sport as independent of each other. It was as if each team was operating as its own separate nation, defending itself and its resources from each other instead of finding ways to become stronger together. This lack of cohesion not only exacerbated the impact of the department’s failures, but often allowed them to slip through the cracks unnoticed.
“We had to take a hard look in the mirror and remember that it isn’t Roy Williams’ basketball team, or Larry Fedora’s football team, it’s our team. If we don’t get a recruit, it’s not our coach’s fault, it’s our fault. If we don’t win a game, it’s our fault. We are a single entity working in cooperation to achieve a single goal,” Cunningham expounds. “When you have 28 sports, and 300 people working in the department, everyone’s contribution is critical. The facilities, maintenance and ticketing staff bring as much value to our overall success as our coaches do. Of course, the challenge is getting everyone to believe in the importance of their role.”
Part of fostering that belief is creating a work environment in which everyone’s opinion is sought out and valued equally. The key to promoting organizational dialogue that encourages collaboration instead of self-serving arguments is the concept of assertive inquiry. This approach entails clearly articulating ones ideas and reasoning behind a particular viewpoint, while sincerely inquiring about the opinions of others.
“You have to over-manage your process, not micro-manage,” exclaims Cunningham. “You have to know exactly how you’re going to solve your problems before they arise. The only way you do that is by getting to a place where people are not offended by other’s suggestions, where they can hold be accountable and challenge each other. Otherwise, you end up having a workplace in which people don’t understand what is happening, but assume everyone else does,” he elaborates.
The Tar Heels have also leaned on one of the world’s most engaging organizations to teach them how to create just such a culture. By partnering with The Disney Institute, North Carolina was able to learn about the creation of an authentic, collaborative environment where employees were encouraged to contribute information freely and trust ruled.
“[Disney] showed us that while most organizations believe its senior leadership whose opinion matters most, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s the employees that interact with your customers on a daily basis (i.e. parking attendants, concessionaires, ticket collectors, etc.) who can provide the most valuable input. They have a totally different perspective then the people isolated at the very top of the organizational chart,” explains Cunningham.
Along with collaboration, the Tar Heels have focused their efforts on developing a culture of accountability by obsessively measuring themselves against the competition. They have become one of the only athletics programs in the country to partner with Denison Consulting to determine the department’s administrative engagement score. Denison helps many of the world’s most successful companies improve performance by focusing on culture and leadership development, particularly in areas such as: communication, adaptability, customer focus, employee empowerment, and team orientation. North Carolina has challenged itself to score the top 25% percentile of all major organizations in the country, not just college athletics.
The department has also set a goal of finishing in the top three of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) standings in every one of its sponsored sports, as well as top ten in the country overall. Moreover, to remain mindful of their achievements off the field, North Carolina has begun to systematically measure their own Graduation Success Rate (GSR), the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rating (APR), and the federal graduation rate against their fellow conference peers and other universities nationally.
More important than just measuring themselves against others, the Tar Heels have also committed themselves to not only restoring the integrity of its academic program, but to make it the envy of all of college athletics.
“As of this moment, the university’s provost and I are on a rigorous academic working group. We’ve identified twenty two separate processes that touch student athletes from the minute the get contacted by one of our coaches as a recruit until after they graduate and find a job. We are addressing each and every one of those processes individually and making sure that they are of the highest standard and have impeccable integrity,” Cunningham proclaims.
It is unquestionable that the last few years at the University of North Carolina have been tumultuous indeed. Yet one cannot help but admire the Tar Heels for their willingness to point the finger of blame inward, recognize their own shortcomings, and take immediate action to restore the integrity of their brand. They have left us with a valuable lesson – that in business, as in life, it’s not about how hard you’re hit, but how hard you get hit and keep moving forward.
While the road to redemption will be a long one for North Carolina, there is little doubt that the Tar Heels will rise once again.