The Theory of Plenty: Form Strategic Partnerships

Unless they’re based on trust and reliance, partnerships risk being temporary and transient.

For those in leadership positions, it can be tempting to put on blinders and focus solely on the duties directly related to your job. But operating as a silo can be isolating and detrimental to your career. Investing your energy in forming strategic partnerships can enhance your leadership abilities, maximize resources and help you get ahead.

At the CUWFA conference in Santa Barbara in February, Connie Melendy, assistant vice provost at UC-Davis, and Steve Lustig, associate vice chancellor of health and social services at UC-Berkeley, discussed how strategic partnerships have benefited them and their schools.

Why are partnerships important?

At large research institutions like Berkeley, each segment of the university’s population has its own agenda. Faculty do teaching and research, staff support them and students learn and acquire knowledge.

At UC, said Melendy, administrators want to enhance the campus environment and support the school’s mission of teaching, research and service, so they develop programs aimed at improving the experiences of staff, students and faculty. They focus on issues like workplace and classroom safety, technology and computing, process streamlining, work/life values, best practice management and leadership, etc.

Each of those initiatives requires resources. “So we have a dynamic research institution that has competing demands for priority programs,” said Melendy. Each of the various populations on campus has its own specific interests and requirements in order to perform.

“We all have our own agendas, and we like to say that the academic appetite is insatiable,” said Melendy. People who work in the academic community tend to have big vision and large goals; prioritizing them is challenging. At a public institution, where there are never enough resources, people must jostle and compete for program visibility.

Two theories offer ways to approach this scenario. The Theory of Scarcity says that there is a shortage of resources to meet demands, and you must pick the highest-priority programs and wait on the rest. The Theory of Plenty, however, suggests that you can form partnerships to maximize your resources across the board.

Melendy learned about collaboration early in her career. As a new MSO (management services officer) with a steep learning curve and heavy workload, she had avoided campus service, thinking she should focus only on her job and on “being the best MSO” she could be.

During lunch, her mentor noticed that she didn’t participate. She told Melendy that she could never be the best if she didn’t collaborate—and that the administrative management group on campus could, collectively, teach her more in an hour than she would learn in five years by operating alone in her department.

So Melendy joined committees, became an officer, and one day found herself sitting with the chancellor, the faculty senate head, and other top administrators on campus. “I had much broader access and perspective to advance my agenda,” said Melendy.

It was a tremendous learning experience. She leaned to do mediations and made even more contacts on campus; it also gave her a way to funnel new problems that were arising. “If we can catch problems early, we can use less formal (and easier) paths to solve them,” she said.

Partnerships are one approach that gives you access to open the door to a broader perspective. They also help to foster creativity. “Sometimes the key to getting your agenda moved forward is what you know,” said Melendy. In her experience, brainstorming on a situation has always improved the outcome. She invites the faculty and students to comment on initiatives, which makes the campus more efficient—and improves morale.

This approach improved two recent projects at UC-Davis: the development of a new streamlined Web-based database warehouse, and an initiative to increase diversity among MSOs on campus. The brainstorming both inspired “outrageous” creativity and created connections across disciplines, and the outcome exceeded what each original committee could have ever produced, said Melendy.

Developing community, trust

To break down barriers between different campus cultures, you must put effort into developing community. “It’s an art,” said Melendy. Invariably, one person brings people together, who cheerleads, secures resources and sustains the community. This person creates a smooth-working team by bringing people together, sharing a vision, cheering them on when times are challenging, explains difficult issues and keeps things moving forward. This time and effort brings huge rewards.

Sustaining this cohesiveness can be as simple as an occasional phone call, or through social activities like exercising together, or meeting for coffee, lunch or an early breakfast. While it’s tempting to just focus on the job, developing and sustaining a network is crucial because it creates a group of people for whenever you need support or help.

But you must be sincere in your actions, what Melendy calls a “Real Partner.” To be effective, partnerships must be based on more than just strategic outcomes or professional advancement. Unless they’re based on trust and reliance, partnerships risk being temporary and transient.

Her experiences as a real partner have been the most rewarding and satisfying of her career, said Melendy. She’s learned to compromise, put others’ agendas first, acknowledge and thank partners, sustain friendships, and to listen to what’s important to others and truly value the exponential value of their thoughts.

Integrating work-life

As a community organizer in Chicago in the 1960s, Steve Lustig learned to empower others in the community. Later he worked in medical anthropology, where he learned to take a macro approach and look at the whole system. He also was the primary home caretaker for the first 10 years of his children’s life, making work-life issues personally relevant to him.

In his current job in health and human services, his goal is to create an integrated infrastructure at Berkeley. But he could find no model, he said, because the whole arena of work-life issues has gained recognition only in the past 20 years.

Lustig works by seeking out others with shared values, rather than people with power, and has learned to get in where opportunities exist.

He shared four tips for integrating work-life practices into the campus workplace:

1. Be clear on your priorities. “A lot of us fuss over it without looking at partnerships,” he said. “Look at who you pull together to set it up. Facilitate partnerships—don’t direct them.” Data is important, both quantitative and qualitative. About a decade ago, Lustig’s school decided to close its hospital, which served as a student health facility. A collaboration turned the operation into a much broader entity, which serves faculty, staff and students in one group. It’s more integrated, and is now a public health department on campus, which happened only because people joined together.

 2. Know the organization: the mission, culture, history and how it operates. Ask why what you do supports the school’s academic mission, which you must be able to articulate. Consider how decisions are made, and by whom. You need access to the decision-makers. Data can be cold; decisions are based on the life experiences of the decision-maker. One chancellor’s daughter needed infant care on campus so she could take a faculty job. It was created. Another leader had six kids, and got childcare started on campus right away. A death on a campus led to more bereavement services; it’s now a first-class program.

3. Look for opportunities to incubate inclusive initiatives. Constantly scan the horizon for chances to get people together. Embrace the improbable. Examine your environmental perspective. Berkeley is an old campus, and students joke that UC stands for “under construction.” The school has formed a faculty group called Health in Construction, which explores how the construction affects absenteeism and morale. This helps them to plan, and establish guidelines for construction, which has had a huge impact on campus.

4. Don’t see yourself as stuck in an organizational box. Establish informal networks, follow up after committee meetings, attend social events, and mentor people to change the shape of your box. This breaks down silos, and broadens your context and your influence. Use your staff to help you with these initiatives, Lustig recommends. Leverage your relationships into collaborations. “All of you touch the campus in different ways,” he said. “There are more opportunities than you think—and there are more vacuums than you think.”

Contacts: Connie Melendy at or 530.752.5726
 Steve Lustig at or 510.642.6621.

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