How I Lead: Michael Graham, Vice President of Operations and Technology at NLU

Michael Graham knows managing change in higher education is an iterative process. The Vice President of Operations and Technology at National Louis University is immersed in the culture of learning.

“All of higher ed is ultimately dealing with the fact that the institution is based on a model that has been basically unchanged since the 1500s,” he said in a recent interview. “Within that constraint, we are building a culture of innovation. Innovation is an unavoidable change and a welcome change.  Institutions that will survive it, will become good at it.”

Innovation is the only sustainable way for colleges like NLU to operate in era of dropping enrollments and college closures. Graham believes NLU has persevered through the current enrollment crisis by being prepared.

“We didn’t look at the demographics and turn away. We leaned into the numbers. I am a proponent of leaning into the storm. Put your head into the storm and steer through,” he said, “Don’t ignore the storm, then it will never go away. That’s one of the things NLU has done for the past 12 years. We lean forward to be proactive, to look forward and to move forward.”

In Graham’s view, moving forward in a time of rapid change is about listening to what stakeholders think. It’s also about creating a space for them to share those thoughts.

“There is so much overlap. There is overlap between governance and faculty concerns about quality of teaching,” he explained. “There is also overlap between teaching and instructional design. In the support of innovation and moving forward as an institution, my job is to bring a structured meeting to gather input where there is that overlap. From there, I’m responsible for leading the conversation toward establishing trust in the relationships, and in the process. You really can ease opposing stakeholder groups into extending each other the benefit of the doubt.”

Graham acknowledges that input sharing has to be structured, and that it needs to come to an end.

“Time-bound decision making means being deadline-driven,” he said. “It’s not always a formal deadline, but everyone has to be very cognizant of capacity, and to agree to apply it to the need for continuous improvement. We can’t talk about making improvements without actually making improvements.”

Graham and his team use an agile method to approach projects and change management.  It’s a nimble approach that allows them to mitigate risk, without eliminating it.

“Data informs our decision-making so there isn’t a lot of guess work,” Graham said. “We have people whose activities are related to the data, but it’s the people who are the most important part of the project and the process. Once we know we are at least 80% right, we go ahead with the plan and we iterate. We don’t worry about the mistakes.”

Mistakes during a time of rapid change are inevitable. Letting mistakes slow innovation, is not on Graham’s agenda.

“We iterate, we learn, we move forward,” he emphasized. “When we need to, we correct course and move forward in a way that is better for the institution, for our partners and for our people.”


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Kate Baggott is Head of Content and Communications for the Edusity family of companies that includes The Babb Group and Professor Services. A digital content veteran, Kate's portfolio can be viewed at
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