This post first appeared on LinkedIn.

A decade is a long time to hone your craft. That’s 20,800 hours on the job. In that span of time, you gain a lot of insight; you more deeply understand the landscape of your industry, your peers, competitors, and most importantly, those you serve.

In the ten years since founding rpk GROUP, I’ve had plenty of ‘Eureka’ moments—many while working side-by-side with higher education leaders. There have been some significant lessons learned in quieter settings as well; the kind that can take years to ripen. But once you gain that wisdom, you’re able to apply it to your work for the rest of your career.

This series is built on one of those epiphanies. It’s about focusing on company culture. My first article discussed the ways in which our team is creating intentionally meaningful work. We partner with institutions of higher education, major foundations, and research organizations to create new business models, effective growth strategies and sustainable innovation. It’s a particularly exciting time to be in this business, and that’s not an overstatement.

Here are a few reasons why I believe that:

  •  We see brightspots of transformation across our industry that can lead to an evidence-based best practice approach to change.
  •  Increasingly, institutions are shifting to an outcomes-focused approach to learning and student success that better responds to the needs of both students and society.
  •  Higher education is waking up to the realization that sustainable innovation can only be achieved through careful attention to the business model.

But before we can make an even stronger external impact in our second decade, the rpk team needs to look inward. Our work toward building a more robust internal culture has led to a deeper discussion and discovery of our seven core values, which we call the rpk Way. (Included below from the first article for easy reference.)

 ●     Knowledge is our currency, and we share it openly.

●     We possess deep domain experience in the academic sphere.

●     Our efforts are grounded in the business model.

●     We use data to tell stories that drive progress.

●     We have a bias toward action.

●     We help our partners to embrace change.

●     If our work isn’t sustainable, we haven’t done our job.

Sounds pretty good, right? It has been helpful to articulate these and use them as guideposts that inform our day-to-day work. But do we “walk the walk” when it comes to the rpk Way? At our most recent team retreat, we devoted time for each team member to share an example of the rpk Way in our work. Here are some of the highlights from that session.

Go Fish – rpk was hired by a university that had spent years investing money and time in software without seeing an impact on decision making. rpk’s focus on knowledge transfer moved them toward the data-informed culture they needed. This team member’s favorite moment? The CFO saying “Ahhhhh…. you’re teaching us to fish.”

Partners, Not Clients – At rpk, we tell our new team members that they’re not here to sell. The most important question for them to ask is “How can I help?” This comes from our focus on servant leadership; we are experts learning from everyone in the room. And that attention to partnership has enabled us to conduct multiple engagements with the same institution, moving with them as their capacity builds and they achieve success.

This is What I Do – One of our newest hires shared being home with her extended family. “How’s the new job?”, they asked. “What are you working on?” She paused for a moment to consider her work with rpk and what she really did. “I told them that by helping higher ed leaders create sustainable business models, institutions become better stewards of all their resources—tuition paid by students, gifts, funding from states—all of it”.

 Moving to the Back of the Room – It takes time to get everyone on board. To move from data to analysis to storytelling to action. But the magic always happens. This story started with a tough faculty audience. But eventually, rpk moved to the “back of the room,” as leadership emerged and all stakeholders took ownership of their data and how it could be used. Those are great moments: when our partners are ready to launch on their own.

Creating the Power to Act – A good college had ideas for improving academic efficiency, but they lacked a sense of urgency. Its faculty program directors had created nearly infinite choices for their students; as a result, concentrations had proliferated. This led to an unsustainable model, and dilution of faculty and staff. What to do? When the group had difficulty thinking big, our team lead applied her business model and change management best practice, crowdsourcing the virtual room and moving them to action. The best quote of the session? “You were the mom at our sleepover…and we really needed that.” Synthesizing great ideas into action is indeed our sweet spot.

So, that’s a look at some of the walk we’ve been walking these past ten years. It’s been a memorable and impactful experience—and I can’t wait to see where the road ahead leads.

Higher ed folks: does your work overlap in any of the above areas? How do you approach it, and what might you recommend if we were your partner?

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Richard Staisloff

Richard Staisloff

Rick Staisloff is the founder and senior partner of rpk GROUP. Follow him on Twitter: @rstaisloff