Setting The Table

Setting The Table

Managing the working culture on campus

As part of Stony Brook University’s “We Rise Together – A Seawolves Arts Showcase,” Carmen Gonzalez did what any Associate Vice President of Procurement would do. As one of the focal points of the department’s “Procurement Showcase 2021” video, she danced. And danced some more.

Leading her team, which can be seen tossing around a medicine ball, holding up signs and thoroughly embracing the 3:47 video, Gonzalez helped embody one of the tenets she believes that every organization—particularly the higher education space—must hold dear: Culture matters.

Gonzalez, Stony Brook’s aforementioned Associate Vice President of Procurement for the Division of Finance, was not alone. Scrolling through the university’s YouTube page, a number of the university staff from various departments participated in the videos—many of which were performed either with masks or via remote because of the pandemic.

“Culture can make or break you,” says Gonzalez, who has been at Stony Brook for nearly three years, taking on her current position early this year. “It can breed positive or negative employee engagement, which directly translates to the success of your organization. I want to be a part of and help to create a culture of inclusion—one that is open and welcoming to all types of people. Taking the time to communicate our strategy and most importantly to recognize people’s achievements… and try and have some fun.”

Hence the video.

“Culture can make or break you. It can breed positive or negative employee engagement, which directly translates to the success of your organization.”

— Carmen Gonzalez, Associate VP, Procurement, Stony Brook University

These are interesting times in the higher education space—one that is not only coming out of the pandemic a little short-handed on the staffing side, but also having to deal with vendors and suppliers facing the same issues. “Everyone is hurting, or is overloaded and behind, so day-to-day things take a little longer,” Gonzalez says.

And if that is not enough, the pandemic also shined the light on another cultural-related characteristic that took some getting used to—multi-generational differences. “We have all different types of generations working in our department, so what motivates one generation may not motivate another,” Gonzalez says. “The younger generations are more comfortable with technology and remote work and this causes anxiety and resentments at times among the team.”

What makes a university setting unlike any other company is the diverse makeup of its departments, which Gonzalez says is more diverse compared to most companies. For example, the pain points and strategic imperatives for the medical school are very different than they are for the college of arts and sciences or the Student Health Center or the University Police department.

The key to successfully dealing with all of these needs starts at the top. For example, the Stony Brook University leadership is being very transparent about its financials—the good, the bad and the ugly. At the same time, leadership has launched a series of initiatives over the past couple of years to help strategically review its people, processes and technology. 

“This has helped us determine a roadmap to make improvements on how we handle everything,” Gonzalez says. “This has already resulted in significant investments in technology in the HR, research administration and financial planning areas. It all comes down to patience, tenacity, creativity and data.”

Each of these virtues is critical in an environment where decisions are made by committee—a process that can be very time consuming. As a public entity, Stony Brook has very rigid compliance requirements, which means a lot of time-consuming bureaucratic approvals are required to make changes locally.

Last year, Gonzalez chaired the university’s Strategic Budget Initiative (SBI) along with Michelle Singletary, Interim Director, Residential Education. SBI is designed to be a collaborative, strategic undertaking to identify both short-term operational and longer-term strategic opportunities to improve the university’s financial position.

In an ultimate display of cultural synergy, SBI was powered by the work of five focused task forces, each responsible for idea generation, analysis, validation and recommendations in their respective subject areas. “One of the biggest learnings was really the power of these cross-functional teams—having representation from the campus, from the hospital [etc.],” Gonzalez says.

SBI was able to take a deep dive into just how many duplicative processes there are and the oftentimes lack of understanding of the upstream and downstream processes. “Bringing everyone into the same virtual room really was powerful at looking at great solutions for the university,” Gonzalez says. “Our leadership engaged stakeholders from around the enterprise and at all levels to find process and system improvements that will improve stakeholders and student experiences and/or drive cost savings.”

Building a culture of change

As founder and CEO of AMIRA & CO, an innovative boutique consulting practice that specializes in post-M&A integrations and enterprise optimization, Amira elAdawi works with a wide range of clients. On any given day, her client list includes Fortune-100 companies, private equity investors, and governments on large complex, high-value transactions across a range of industries, including hospitality, tourism, consumer products, education, agriculture and horticulture, and pharmaceutical retail.

When it comes to culture, her work gives elAdawi a unique point of view from the general public. If you ask most executives what culture means, they think of it as it was defined in the 90s. People getting along. Everyone is friendly. Trust falls and team-building activities.

But that’s not how she defines culture today. “I always tell my clients that culture can eat strategy for breakfast—it can literally devour it,” elAdawi says. “You can have the best strategy and best operating processes in the world, but if your culture is not optimal, there’s no way you can implement any strategies. There is no way to thrive. Some companies overcome bad culture by just throwing money at people. But that is not sustainable.”

“You can have the best strategy and best operating processes in the world, but if your culture is not optimal, there’s no way you can implement any strategies.”

— Amira elAdawi, Founder & CEO, AMIRA & CO

If you seek to change your culture, elAdawi recommends defining your culture as a part of behavioral science. One of the ways to implement change is to create nudges or nudging behavior. This theory creates subconscious behavioral incentives that alter behaviors without actually thinking about it. One of the biggest bottlenecks or hindrances is when people feel the effort to change is not authentic. Often with these changes, you have the leaders telling people to change, but they continue to do the same thing. “They think these change initiatives are for the masses and not for leadership,” elAdawi says. “So, if leadership doesn’t change, nobody buys in. As a leader, you must be the role model in the transition.”