Jun 24

Are You at the Center of Your University’s “Career Pathway” Problem?

What makes a university successful? Is it increased enrollment and graduation rates of its students, is it the number of students who secure jobs, or is it the development dollars that come through from grants and donations?

While some universities already have answers to these questions to build a better model for education, it would be a helpful exercise to take a step back and think of the “why” behind what universities do. Some may say that the “why” is obvious, but the data behind all of the aforementioned metrics seem to indicate that “buyers of education,” students, parents, and taxpayers are disconnected from the “why.” There is an opportunity for university leaders to embrace, reframe and own the conversation around their unique “why” to spark innovation and create better career pathways for their students.

In 2009, leadership author and consultant, Simon Sinek described this philosophy during his TED Talk. Although Sinek mostly refers to and draws upon examples of successful companies such as Apple, the same principles can be applied to universities, such as Stanford, Arizona State and University of Maryland-Baltimore County, all named among the most innovative universities. In a recent address to the planning grant recipients at UNCF’s CPI convening in Atlanta, President Hrabowski from UMBC highlighted the importance of innovation for HBCUs to thrive, rather than merely survive. Establishing career pathways is key, but again, this is the “what”.

Sinek’s “Start with Why” describes how any organization can efficiently spark innovation. The quote from his talk, “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe,” sums it up best. While the term, “doing business” may be anathema to university leaders, students do effectively buy an education to access a better life. If prospects, students, grads, employers, vendors, faculty, and administrators believe in the “why” behind the university – they will certainly want to do more business with the institution!

Better Weekdays was started from the belief that anyone willing to put in the work should have access to career pathways that leads to a better life. I am a living testament. Born to a teenage mom on Chicago’s South Side, I had access to people and opportunities that afforded me a great education, work experience at Goldman Sachs, operating experience at 1888 Mills (a great company you’ve never heard of), and now leading Better Weekdays.

My team believes that there is unnecessary friction in creating career pathways for students and young professionals that technology can help alleviate. We believe that meaningful conversations with people in the know efficiently produces more positive results than not. This is why we made the commitment to #UNCFCPI to contribute to and help facilitate the conversation around career pathways.

So, what is your why? Do your stakeholders know it? We believe it is essential in establishing “Career Pathways” and writing a sound implementation plan.

Starting with Why: Engage Your Students by Inspiring Them

According to Sinek, when an organization begins with their “why,” they are making the decision to take action and innovate. This is the start of the process. Starting with why will lead “what” you will end up doing and “how” you’re going to do it. These components, or arcs, make up what Sinek calls “The Golden Circle.” It can applied in this way:

  • Why: The core belief of your school. Why does your school exist?
  • How: This is the process as to how your school is going to satisfy that belief.
  • What: What does your school do to fulfill its core belief


The upside of applying this framework is that all stakeholders can rally around the institution’s “why” and spark innovation through conversations.

What makes your stakeholders evangelists of your institution? Can they describe their role and connect it to the core beliefs of the school through stories?

We believe that this last question is most important as stories are one of the best methods of communication. They allow your “why” to become more tangible and, therefore, more shareable. They also create awareness about what you are doing and how you’re doing it.

One caveat is that language is everything. This not only makes establishing career pathways a challenging process, but also makes communicating your “why” in a way that resonate difficult. If I happened to wake up one day next to a Mayan campfire in 1000 B.C., knowing my “why” and having a great story to tell won’t matter, because I don’t speak the language.

For example, consider the following statement in an enrollment context:
“We are a diverse university. Students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds attend here, which makes a comfortable and educational environment for them. Do you want to attend our university?”
While that might be an accurate statement about your institution, it doesn’t create a sense of belief or trust. What if we modified to:
“We believe that diversity in organizations will drive growth and innovation in all industries for years to come. We believe that a challenging, safe and comfortable environment is necessary to mold the pipeline of individuals that these institutions want to employ. We give individuals who are purposeful and who want to make a difference are given access to the tools and people that will help them thrive in an ever changing world. We believe that our methodology provides access to a better life. Do you want to attend our university?” [Feel free to switch out ‘attend’ for ‘work at,’ ‘donate to’ or ‘support.] Stanford’s diligence in starting with why throughout all of their content has increased applicants at a rate high enough to make it the hardest school to be admitted to in the country. They have students communicate their stories, and in their own words. All of the students highlighted bought into Stanford’s “why” and used language that resonates with prospective students, parents, educators and employers.

2 Key Takeaways for University Leaders

1. Connect your Institution’s “Why” to the people you’re trying to influence

It’s important to restate: People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.

With that in mind, think about the people within your institution and those that have invested in it. What are the things that drive them to act? Who are they influenced by, and who do they influence? Why do they make the decision to engage with you? What makes them not engage with you?

Who you decide to speak with to find these answers is the ultimate strategic decision. Having an understanding of the various ‘personas’ involved as you seek to complete your implementation plans will target your effort. Personas are archetypes built to identify real user profiles, needs, wants and expectations. Clearly connecting why each persona identifies with your “why” wil improve the probability of success.

2. Language is Everything. Use Stories and Headlines that Stick.

As Sinek notes, everything we say and do reflects what we believe. The subtleties of which words we use to connect with our audiences should be considered from the perspective of the listener. Sinek reminds us that leaders hold a position of power and authority, but those who lead inspire. They do this through the power of language. Motivating others effectively begins and ends with storytelling and headlines that make the stories stick. With the thousands of distractions students face, it’s even more important to communicate stories that have memorable plots and appeal to their emotions, values and beliefs such as:

  1. Challenge plot – David vs Goliath; The underdog who faces insurmountable odds like Chris Gardner’s story of overcoming the struggle being homeless.
  2. Connection plot – Bridging the gap; bringing people with different backgrounds together like University of Phoenix did in the More than Brains ad.
  3. Creative plot – The Eureka moment; getting people to understand why the problem you are solving is interesting like GE has started to do in their commercials which has led to an 800 percent increase their job applications.

Specifically, you can share stories about your students in internships and graduates in jobs. You want your current students to know that the work you are doing has given others access to a better life. Then, get people from between various departments to help perpetuate the messages in the stories using the same language.

Get Started. See What Happens.

Now that you have a great understanding of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” philosophy, use it in your implementation plan. Inject your unique “why” into your planning and objectives to standout amongst other institutions. Codify it for your team. Remember the core of your plan should reflect the importance of trust, authenticity, and value creation that only your institution can provide to the thousands of students you will touch with the UNCF grant. It has been noted that this is a big culture change, and it is not easy. However, if there is a freedom to experiment and a tolerance of small failures, innovation will spark and a positive culture will be established.

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