The TAFE industry nationally has been going through a massive transition for some time. Previously driven by a focus on education in a comparatively uncompetitive market, the industry is now customer-driven, hyper-competitive and full of funding complexity. Institutions whose focus might, for decades, have centered on learning outcomes, now need to shift entire employee populations to a commercially oriented way of thinking, and this without compromising the focus on student experience and learning outcomes.
Sunraysia Institute of TAFE (SuniTAFE) is one of the largest vocational education and training providers in North-West Victoria. Founded in 1980 to resolve the need for an institution to provide critical post-secondary education to support regional needs, SuniTAFE is now a community institution in Mildura, Swan Hill and Robinvale.
Recently appointed CEO Geoff Dea was brought into the institution to facilitate its transition to a commercially competitive and cutting-edge institution. Coming from a long-serving background in financial services as CEO of Crowe Horwath, Geoff brought a commercial sophistication coupled with a deep connection to the local communities. Though Geoff’s eye initially fell to internal restructure as a critical lever for creating the change necessary, it didn’t take long to recognise that the real opportunity was in cultural development.
Geoff worked closely with Fabian Dattner, founding partner of Dattner Group, to craft an executive process and then subsequently, as a result of the success of this, a broader leadership initiative.
The executive process focused on understanding each individual’s perspective on the team. Attributes like trust, collaboration, silos, accountability and interdependence were all explored. Further, the strategies the Executive were using with each other and staff were explored to better understand how they were causing others to behave. Quickly an opportunity for greater collaboration emerged.
The process later evolved to included significant work on self-awareness and leadership capability, and engaged all leaders to the values in the organisation – how these values could be role-modeled in behaviour to get the desired cultural change and, therefore, support strategy.
Dattner Group also designed and continue to run a ‘World Cafe’ process concurrent with the leadership and executive work. This ‘all-staff’ process has meant the voice of all staff has been heard and is a constant – both as a measure of progress and also as a means of capturing regular feedback on the value and direction of change being implemented. In other words, what started as an executive-focused team process has now come to include approximately 110 leaders, as well as an institution-wide program to create cultural transformation.
During the values process, the leadership teams involved (50+ participants) nominated business acumen as not only a capability well worth developing, but as one of the core values of the institution. By developing a deeply shared sense of what commercially focused thinking really looked like (customer-centric, lean, outcomes-oriented, process-efficient, etc.), the team, without being directionalised by Geoff or the Executive, landed on business acumen as on of their core values. There is still much work to do around business acumen, but the adoption of this value does represent a radical, yet organic, cultural shift.
Further, leaders (both executive and the broader leadership community) are collaborating across functional, educational and geographic boundaries, and are far more supportive of each other. There is a general sense of optimism, clarity and proactive engagement to strategy where previously there was some resistance. The business has improved student numbers significantly and is facing into a head-wind feeling excited rather than overwhelmed by what lies ahead.
NB: Throughout the process, Geoff Dea, CEO, has been equal parts ambassador of the TAFE’s transition into a commercial market and ambassador to the power of culture to drive education outcomes for students and the community. His vision of what the TAFE can be, his championing of the program and his leadership in the face of major cultural adversity, has been instrumental in the effectiveness of the program. Our hats are off to him.
Author, Fabian Dattner, Founding Partner Dattner Group, Co Founder Homeward Bound