Making the Core Values Part of UMB Culture

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Ashley Finley, PhD, the senior advisor for strategic planning and partnerships at the Association of American Colleges & Universities, speaks about balancing culture and strategy.

jfrick@umaryland.edu (Jena Frick) | Fri Feb 14, 2020

Making the Core Values Part of UMB Culture

February 14, 2020   |  

“Change is hard, but change is possible.” That’s what Ashley Finley, PhD, wanted the students, faculty, and staff at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) to take away from her talk at the Southern Management Corporation Campus Center on Feb. 12.

Her remarks were part of the President’s Symposium and White Paper Project speaker series, which is a joint initiative of the President’s Office and the Office of Interprofessional Student Learning & Service Initiatives (ISLSI). For the 2019-2020 academic year, the focus of the speaker series is institutionalizing UMB’s Core Values — accountability, civility, collaboration, diversity, excellence, knowledge, and leadership.

Ashley Finley, PhD, the senior advisor to the president and vice president of strategic planning and partnerships at the Association of American Colleges & Universities, speaks about balancing culture and strategy when it comes to UMB's Core Values.

Ashley Finley, PhD, the senior advisor to the president and vice president of strategic planning and partnerships at the Association of American Colleges & Universities, speaks about balancing culture and strategy when it comes to UMB's Core Values.

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“This is a topic that I think about all the time,” said Finley, who is the senior advisor to the president and vice president of strategic planning and partnerships at the Association of American Colleges & Universities. “The change process is really hard and institutionalizing anything is difficult because it all comes down to culture and strategy, which are total conundrums.”

To demonstrate this point, Finley began her discussion with a quote from famous management consultant and author Pete Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” She explained that to evoke change and align institutional practices with core values, you need to strike a balance between culture and strategy. When an institution can find that balance, it transforms the idea of “living by our values” from just words to reality through policies, practices, accountability, and leadership.

“I talk a lot about strategy, but I want you to know that culture is the bomb in the background. It makes up the component parts of strategy,” Finely told the audience. “When you look at culture from a sociological standpoint, institutionalizing your core values within a culture boils down to four pieces: language, symbols, objects, and customs.”

As an example, Finley described the culture around money. For language, there are many terms to say money, such as cash, currency, dollars, etc. For symbols, the most prominent example would be the dollar sign. For objects, there are dollars, credit cards, and checks. And for customs, Finley pointed out using the Venmo app to split a bill.

In relation to UMB’s Core Values, Finley presented data from the latest faculty/staff Gallup Climate Survey. She explained that the only way to assess culture and measure change is to look at the hard data. One of the questions on the survey was, “Do you feel your organization understands its core values?” This question had the highest index of satisfaction on the Gallup Survey; however, the other questions had a much lower index of satisfaction, which Finley says is an indicator that UMB’s work to improve its culture isn’t done.

“If 98 percent of people say that we’re getting it right but 2 percent say that we’re not, then we’re not getting it right,” Finley said.

This point really struck a chord with the students in the room.

“I think looking at data like this, especially from the student survey, would really help us to fully analyze how we can take those core values and make changes,” said Chantiel Awkard, a first-year student at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

Finley said that if UMB wants to build an institutional culture around its core values it needs to develop a strategy that will keep them on full display all the time. She suggested putting the core values on the walls, elevators, stairs, sidewalks, and even course syllabi.

“I think an issue that people always raise about culture is that it doesn't change, but I would beg to differ,” she said. “I think you can change culture. It just takes a long time.”

UMB leadership is taking steps to change the culture surrounding the core values. In addition to this speaker series, the interdisciplinary group of President’s Fellows is exploring strategies and steps UMB should adopt to institutionalize its core values so they remain durable, even as the University continues to evolve. They will present their findings to University leadership in April which also will be UMB’s first Core Values Month. A series of events, activities, speakers, and giveaways throughout the month will reinforce the many ways that students, faculty, and staff live the seven core values every day.

“I love the idea that these students are thinking about this and are finding pathways for this content to be translated into actual action items,” Finley said.

UMB will continue this speaker series March 3 with Angel Nix, president and CEO of the National Institute of Leadership and Organizational Development.

(View an archive of previous White Paper Projects from the President’s Fellows.)