Collaboration: An Interview with Dean Diane McFarlin
Diane McFarlin, Dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at UF, answers questions from Jodi Gentry, Vice President for Human Resources at UF, for the Advanced Leadership for Academics and Professionals cohort in spring 2018. This interview focuses on the important role of collaboration and communication in higher education.
Gentry: So, we’re here to talk about collaboration. Why don’t we begin by talking a little bit about what collaboration means to you? What is it? When you hear the word, what comes to mind? How do you define it loosely in your own words, in your own experience?
McFarlin: Well, I think it’s playing nice and living by the golden rule. We are all prone to be collaborative. When we were small children, we wanted to share and play with others. Something happens as we grow up and that starts to get harder and harder, particularly in the private sector where business competition kind of gets in the way of that. One of the things I love about the academic environment is collaboration comes more naturally. Researchers collaborate and even though academics tend to be judged on individual achievement, collaboration is celebrated, so it’s become the currency of culture. We’re hiring a number of new faculty right now, and so I’m doing a lot of job interviews. By the time candidates get to me, they’ve been fully vetted for their professional qualifications. I know that the faculty have already determined that they’re viable candidates. So what I interview for is fit, and one of the questions I love to ask is, “Describe the work environment that enables you to be happiest at work and do your best work, to feel rewarded at work?” I think 99.9% of them have answered it has to be collaborative and collegial. We all want that.
Gentry: That’s true… and I was going to ask you about whether you saw a difference from when you were in the private sector versus in public higher ED and the difference in how we approach collaboration. It sounds like you have. You do see a difference there.
McFarlin: I see a difference, but I also see a very core similarity. I like to say that newsrooms and faculties are so much alike. They have a lot of the same qualities, and one is that they’re judged on individual achievement. So whether you’re a reporter, or copyeditor, or whatever you do in a newsroom, you’re judged by your individual achievement. Faculty are as well, but both institutions have come to see the necessity of collaboration. It’s really the only way to achieve true creativity. An individual can be creative, and certainly in the art school, you have people who have their own individual talents. Outside of that example, I think, the only way to get at true creative ventures is through collaboration.
Gentry: Talk to me a little about what you mean by “currency of culture” because I love that phrase, and I think there is something really powerful in that concept.
McFarlin: I’ll use a personal example. About 15 years ago, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which is an organization I was deeply involved with, did a program around newsroom cultures and brought in some very expensive consultants. It was a multi-million dollar project and they discovered that newsrooms have cultures like the military and hospitals, very tradition laden and very resistant to change. Because they have a righteous mission, “We’re here to save lives,” or “We’re here to save the country,” or “We’re here to save democracy,” you justify what you do on that basis. “Well, we’re on a righteous mission. This is the right thing to do. This is for the greater good.” That gets in the way of collaboration and creativity. So they studied a hundred newsrooms around the country, and they identified three different kinds of cultures and one was the collaborative culture. They found that companies that have collaborative cultures were more profitable than companies that didn’t, and newsrooms that had more collaborative cultures had greater circulation growth and tended to have higher ROI’s than newspaper organizations that didn’t. And out of the one hundred newsrooms, only twelve had collaborative cultures and one slightly so. Our newsroom was decidedly so, and I am just so proud of that because over the years we’d been able to create that. It’s hard fought. It’s not easy to do particularly in that sort of culture, but it’s fascinating to me that this consulting company used real data to demonstrate that it works. It makes you more successful. It makes your organization more successful, and it’s something we should all strive to do.
Gentry: I think the opportunity to collaborate is, of course, one of the big attractions of the University of Florida, and I heard a provost years ago say, “All the interesting problems that remain to be solved require collaboration.” So, it’s this opportunity for us, and I do think it is a cultural expectation, but some people do still struggle with it, this idea of true collaboration as opposed to bringing together a group of people to coerce into doing what they want. Do you think there are characteristics or qualities associated with individuals that contribute to their ability to collaborate more naturally?
McFarlin: I do. I think that if your fear of loss is greater, you’re less likely to collaborate, and if you are a person with more insecurities about your own position and performance, you might be less likely to collaborate. It’s risky to collaborate. You’re handing over power and influence to somebody else by collaborating, and yet you’re right. Not that I’m a great expert on university campuses and cultures, but I was so struck when I came here and observed the collaborative, collegial environment and the fact that our administrators celebrate that and reward it. There are enticements to do that because there’s an understanding that that really is the key to success.
Gentry: I think you’re right about this idea that you have to be confident to be able to fully collaborate. We were talking yesterday about this idea of a control mindset that can get in your way if you approach a problem or situation thinking to yourself, “I have the information. What I know is right. If you disagree, it’s because you’re wrong,” as opposed to more of a learning mindset which is, “I know some things, but you know some things too.” You would assume that curiosity about what other people think would be a common thread throughout the University of Florida. We’re here to learn, we’re a culture of learning, we contribute to it, but occasionally you do see people who really get stuck.
McFarlin: Curiosity is a great word, and that really is key to it. You have to be curious about the other person but also what could be created together. What are we not seeing or discovering because we’re not working together?
Gentry: And we do have some systems that I think make that harder than we probably intend for it to be.
McFarlin: I think so, too. I think the thing that gets in the way of our collaboration at the college more than anything is funding. There’s just a limited pot of money out there, whether it’s an external funder or an internal funding source, and just that sense of, “Ooh, you know, if we work with them, that means we’re going to get less money.” I think the practical way to try to rise above that is to realize that together, you’re better than you are individually, and together you can enlarge that pot of money.
Gentry: That’s right. I’ve always found that resources tend to follow success. There are some people who wait to get the right amount of resources, and there is some practicality of that, of course, but in general at the university, resources tend to follow success. So if you are able to begin to engage and to demonstrate value or to make progress, resources come.
Gentry: And it’s interesting how many people really say, “We can’t do that because we don’t have the resources,” and they fail to innovate or seize opportunities to collaborate or problem solve. They actually get in their own way. They almost attract to themselves the thing they fear the most in some respects: being under resourced.
McFarlin: Right. I’m going to talk about Tom Kelleher. Before we brought him in as chair of the Advertising Department, enrollment was about 425, which was a historic low. Students were complaining to me about the curriculum. There were other courses they wanted to take, and they couldn’t do that, and on, and on. So we brought Tom in, and he is a highly, instinctively collaborative individual. Today the enrollment is 600. The faculty are happy and the students are coming to me to say how happy they are that they’re able to take these classes or participate in activities across the college. That’s a great example of what a collaborative spirit can achieve.
Gentry: And I think you’ve identified something. There’s the idea of actively collaborating in terms of how you approach projects and problems and opportunities. But there also is a collaborative spirit that can actually permeate throughout all of your interactions with people.
McFarlin: That’s so true.
Gentry: And so, it really is an opportunity, that curious, inclusive personality, or not personality…but behavior of engagement. And then there’s the approach of actively working with people, you know what I mean, there are two different ways.
McFarlin: And it goes back to your point of curiosity. That type of individual is going to be interested in what the other person has to say, and is going to ask a lot of questions.
Gentry: And be genuinely interested.
McFarlin: Yes, and genuinely interested. Another person who models this is Janice Krieger, who runs our STEM Translational Communications Research Center. She went through this program last year. I’m typically introducing her to someone because she’s newer to campus. I will introduce her to someone, she’ll ask questions, and within five seconds, she’s talking about a possible partnership. It’s just mind-blowing, and I think to myself, “Janice, you have the fullest plate of just about anybody I know. How can you possibly talk about brokering new partnerships?” But that is the key to her success, and people remember her. They remember the program, in fact, and partnerships have emerged. She’s brought in more grant money than anybody else, not only in our college today, but in the history of our college. And that is the key.
Gentry: That’s really interesting. Yeah, Janice is great. We’ve enjoyed having her here. I mean it was interesting to watch her try to figure out the university, and she was intent on it. Opportunities to collaborate exist, but it’s not always easy to figure that out. So you really have to be, I think, persistent and curious, in order to be able to navigate the institution and really tap into those opportunities.
McFarlin: And willing to share.
Gentry: Right, because if you’re greedy or protective or defensive or all those things, it just doesn’t work. You could create maybe your research lab and collaborate with your grad students but that’s not the promise of the university for sure.
McFarlin: Yeah. You just can’t look at it as a zero sum game.
Gentry: So are there times when collaboration isn’t a good choice? When it’s not the right approach? Because I think we typically think of it as such a positive thing. But are there times when that’s either not the right decision or you find out that it’s not the right decision? What does that look like?
McFarlin: Yes, two things come to mind. One is when one of the parties’ motivation is not aboveboard. So if you’re about to be used for some purpose, you just have to have the radar for that. I think another real challenge, we were talking about an example of this earlier, is when your cultures are so different that it is a very steep uphill battle to find ways to work together collaboratively. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that and move on even though you had a sincere desire to make that work. If there are just too many impediments, you are spinning your wheels, and wasting time. And it’s hard to be creative in that environment too because you’re so busy reconciling those differences. That’s such hard work, and I’ve seen it happen where that’s overcome. It can happen, but it takes a real big investment and an understanding, a clear understanding, of what the opportunity is at the end of the line.
Gentry: I was going to say you have to be really clear what that pay-off is, and I think that’s true in organizations where you’re trying to create more of a collaborative spirit. Some people come to the University of Florida and see themselves as independent contractors. We’ve talked about that mindset of “I’m here to advance my particular research portfolio or my own professional identity, and I appreciate all that the university has to offer me.” So, if you’re a leader trying to begin to corral that towards a more aligned sense of purpose–because that’s where this wonderful pay-off begins to emerge for the institution–you have to be clear about that pay-off to persist because it can be exhausting to begin to try to influence your own culture and try to create that.
McFarlin: Absolutely. And we definitely have faculty at the college who have chosen not to participate in anything of a collaborative nature. But, one of the things that I did, we’ve talked about this before, Jodi, I devoted what I called my “First 100 Days” to individual conversations with everybody at the college and talked with them about their own goals–their individual goals and their goals for the college. So as collaborative opportunities have come up, it’s really important to go back to those individuals and talk about how it fits in with their goals and their desires for the college. So, anytime you have to do something that is in the context of change which is difficult for people, or risk taking, it has to be based in shared values. You have to identify those shared values, bring everything back to those shared values, and of course a common one for all of us is about the students. What’s best for the students? What creates a better opportunity for them? What helps them learn better? What leads to better careers, and if things can be brought back to that, it’s really difficult for somebody to marginalize themselves. And if they do, it’s because that isn’t their value, probably never will be, and you just move on.
Gentry: One department chair said he began to understand that he needed to have 80% of the faculty with him, and that with the other 20%, he would just try to figure out how to be respectful of them, but minimize the impact they were having on the department’s ability to successfully collaborate. So to take it to the next level, I think you do at times need to acknowledge when that’s just not going to happen.
McFarlin: You do. But there will be opportunities when one of those individuals might in fact be the best leader for something and that can be a breakthrough. If you go to them and say, “You know, you are really good at this, we really need you. Here’s what we’re trying to achieve. Would you be willing to do this?” And, if they are willing, it’s a breakthrough. Then all of sudden you have someone who goes, “Ooh I like this collaboration stuff!”