Pernsteiner’s Folly

For two and a half years, the University of Oregon had an unusually high performing president. Under his leadership. the previously sleepy and mediocre school came alive. Donations began to flow in faster. Decisions got made quickly. Things started to get done. More than anything, this president, Richard Lariviere, gave people hope that improvement was possible. As folks saw change happening — as they gave themselves permission to believe more change could happen — more and more of them came off the sidelines and started taking initiative.

Education improved. Top teachers who were flight risks to better schools were induced to stay. Academics and sports across the board showed an uptick in results. Student, staff, and alumni morale soared.

This virtuous cycle of innovation, initiative and improvement was derailed when Lariviere’s boss abruptly fired him last week.

Both I and leadership expert Jim Grew agree that the firing of Lariviere is a smoking-gun example of failed leadership by Chancellor George Pernsteiner.

The facts are simple — Lariviere achieved extraordinarily good results in his role. He was so good he made others uncomfortable. And his boss, Pernsteiner, reacted the opposite of how he should have. Rather than placating the slow-moving people, Pernsteiner could have challenged them to keep up. He could have pointed to the mission, and shown that Lariviere was doing more, better and faster. Instead, Pernsteiner chose to placate the slow-pokes.

As Peter Drucker put it in his groundbreaking book The Effective Executive, “The effective executive fills positions and promotes on the basis of what a man can do. He does not make staffing decisions to minimize weaknesses but to maximize strength.”

Pernsteiner failed to do that. A leader’s job is to build a balanced team that can, together, reach its goals, Grew points out. “Lariviere’s weakness was that he wasn’t good at playing inside the system — he upset people — so he was weak at the ‘how’ of the work. To restore balance, Pernsteiner should have hired a ‘how’ person to support Lariviere, and Pernsteiner should have insisted that the other University presidents catch up with Lariviere.”

There’s a lesson here for everyone in business.

Successful change is always disruptive and uncomfortable. Low-performing firms shy away from the discomfort and give up on change that could help. Top-performing firms embrace the change, and manage the discomfort.

What should happen next?

  1. Governor Kitzhaber should get Chancellor Pernsteiner training on how to build trust on his executive team, and on how to manage superstar performers. (The answer is not to notice low trust and fire someone — when you notice low trust, build more trust.)
  2. If Pernsteiner isn’t trainable, Kitzhaber should replace him.
  3. Meanwhile, Kitzhaber should lean on Pernsteiner and the board to ask Lariviere to come back.
  4. Board members who aren’t comfortable with Lariviere’s return should be given training on how to be better board members.
  5. Board members who cannot be trained, should be counseled to find other forms of service so their board seats can be filled by people who understand and can manage change.

“When you see a problem like this, it’s never not leadership,” said Grew.

Top leaders deliver results. Bad leaders deliver excuses. Pernsteiner needs to decide which he is.

(Tom Cox is the author of over 200 articles on business leadership. Jim Grew is a turnaround CEO and consultant.)

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