Section Image: TCU Campus sign

Assistant Gives a Voice to Least Powerful Faction on Campus

When a new chancellor asked for ideas to improve the University, a member of the lowest paid and least powerful employee faction on campus stepped up.

February 13, 2019

Many of us have seen people step up to lead when leading was not part of their formal role. The nightly news highlights the powerful impact some people have when they step forward to meet tough challenges their family, neighbors or broader community encounter. We applaud such leadership but wonder why we don’t see more of it.

It’s often because we self-limit what is possible, defaulting to formal leaders as the only leaders in our businesses, hospitals, universities and government. Yet these leaders are often limited in resources, distracted by other priorities, or not even aware of many challenges faced by others in the organization.

Sometimes it takes an inspired person to step up and lead where they weren’t expected to.

Here’s an example of just such an inspired leader.
Jane* worked at TCU for over two decades as an administrative assistant in various departments across the campus. When the late Mick Ferrari was appointed as new chancellor at TCU, he proclaimed that all ideas for improving the University were welcomed and said that his door was open. Jane had an idea for improving the conditions for non-exempt staff, the lowest paid and least powerful employee faction on campus.

At the time, non-exempt staff were paid below market rates, in large part because of the University’s policy to waive tuition for the children of faculty and staff. The belief was that non-exempt staff were working mothers who not only accepted this tradeoff but saw it as good deal. Jane challenged this line of thinking – she did not have children in school, nor did over 50 percent of the administrative staff. This policy not only negatively impacted their monthly salaries, but it impacted their retirement funds as well, given the University’s fixed percentage contribution to 401(k) retirement plans for all employees.

TCU Campus

Jane knew this needed to change.
She believed that all University employees deserved a market wage and those who were loyal to the University for decades should not be penalized again in retirement for having been paid below-market salaries. She told Larry Peters that she wanted to meet with the new chancellor to change this policy, but needed advice on how to convince him to do the right thing.

Larry taught her some basics of salary administration, told her that she needed to make an argument that reflected current real market salaries, coached her in how to make an argument that was based on market data and consistent with the University’s salary administration philosophy, and coached her on how to present her ideas. At his recommendation, Jane also pulled together a small group of respected administrative staff and set an appointment to meet the new chancellor.

Together, they communicated their impassioned vision of a university that honored all employees equally.

Chancellor Ferrari was moved.
He formed a task force, comprising non-exempt staff, HR leaders and senior University leaders. That started the ball rolling – and it rolled all the way to a new policy that included salary adjustments, increased retirement savings, and the formation of a staff assembly to take up other issues that non-exempt staff previously had no voice in.

Jane was not a formal leader. She had no special status, role or resources. No formal leader assigned her this task. But she stepped up: She learned what she needed about salary administration and University policy; she collected data on market salaries for several job classifications on her own; she found a mentor as well as the support of some of the most visible and highly trusted administrative staff members on campus; with this group, she convinced the chancellor to explore their concerns and change the salary policy for non-exempt staff; and finally, though it hadn’t been part of her initial vision, she laid the foundation for the formation of a staff assembly that gave a voice to the least powerful faction on campus.

She led.

TCU is better because of Jane’s leadership. Thank you, Jane.

Your Turn

As you go through next several work weeks, keep an eye out for examples of, or stories about, Unexpected Leadership. Some may be impactful only to the few people they directly affect. Others may have a larger scope or produce a ripple that has broad and long-lasting impact.

Keep a journal, and add regularly to your understanding of how anyone, not just those with organizational rank, power, privilege or resources, can make a difference. Look at their impact.

Think about these three questions:

  1. What good things could happen in my organizations if more people stood up and stepped forward to lead?
  2. What would I want to see improved?
  3. How do I see myself in this scenario? As an initiator, a helper, a cheerleader or just an observer?

We’re exploring more Unexpected Leadership Acts like this, to help more people realize that they also might step up to the challenges and opportunities that are all around them, or, like Larry, support those who are attempting to make a difference. We would also like formal leaders in organizations of all sizes to understand that it’s in their own best interests to empower such acts. You can help by sharing your thoughts and your own stories with us.

Puzzle Pieces

A lot in this case corresponds to social science. We see someone highly motivated to act on principle, be an agent rather than a pawn, and muster up the courage to do something beyond her organizational role. The literature on intrinsically motivating work or experienced meaningfulness (Hackman & Oldham, 1976) and deep change (Quinn, 1996) speak to these issues – where someone is motivated to act due to a personal paradigm shift that makes taking action meaningful and something that cannot be ignored. Such personal paradigm shifts often generate the courage, motivation and perseverance needed to follow through, especially if faced with challenges beyond prior experience.

In this case, Jane had to do something in response to the new chancellor’s invitation, even though it meant new territory for her, which would require real courage. Another puzzle piece was how proud Jane was to have led this effort – it was, for her, the most important act of meaningful work she had engaged in during her decades of work at the university (Peters, Richardson & Stephens, 2016).

Recommended Reading

  • Hackman, J. R. & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 250-279.
  • Quinn, R. (1996). Deep change: Discovering the leader within. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Peters, L., Richardson, H., & Stephens, G. (December, 2016). Small Acts of Leadership – Big Acts of Meaningful Work. Paper presented at the Meaningful Work Symposium: Prospects for the 21st Century, Auckland, New Zealand.
* Name changed to protect individual’s privacy