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Why You Need to Make Yourself Irrelevant

How the president of Northeastern University instilled an entrepreneurial mindset all across the campus
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Among the responsibilities of every leader, says Joseph Aoun, is to become increasingly irrelevant. That sounds like an odd tip, but it's one I'm inclined to take seriously given Aoun's track record as president of Northeastern University.

Before I give Aoun a chance to explain what he means, let me share just a few of the things he's accomplished since taking the helm of my alma mater in 2006:

  • The school has risen in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation's best colleges from 96 to 49 (U.S. News says that's an unprecedented gain in so short a period of time).
  • NU has transformed an old, dull institutional campus into a cutting-edge, eco award-winning model of urban beauty.
  • The university has recruited more than 400 tenured and tenure-track faculty over the past seven years.
  • NU has become one of the most competitive universities in the nation. It received nearly 50,000 applications for just 2,800 seats in this fall's freshman class. The quality metrics associated with these students are the highest in the university's history.

I wanted to know how this change agent has instilled an entrepreneurial mindset throughout the 116-year-old institution, and achieved such remarkable success in so short a period of time. I also wanted specific tips that you, the Inc. reader, could apply to your organization.

Inc.: What were the most important things you did to make NU the hot school it's become?

Joseph Aoun: I did three things: First, I doubled down on our point of uniqueness. Beginning in 1898, Northeastern pioneered what's known as co-operative education. Students spend six months in the classroom followed by six months on the job, and vice versa. I doubled the number of corporate partnerships with whom we have co-op relationships and doubled the number of countries in which our students can gain co-op experience. So tell your readers to stay laser-focused on what they do best, and invest heavily in maintaining their leadership position.

I also focused our multiple areas of research into three main domains: health, security, and sustainability. We call these use-inspired fields because everything focuses solely on future societal needs. So I'd advise Inc. readers to stop doing research solely for the sake of research. Focus on how your organization can truly help future society, and you'll find employees will rally 'round the flag.

Third, expand when everyone else is constricting. After the 2008 market crash, we invested heavily. In fact, we recruited more than 400 new faculty members. It may seem contrarian to an entrepreneur, but a weak economy is the single best time to invest even more in your business, precisely because you can leapfrog those who are hunkering down.

How did you turn a staid 116-year-old institution into a fleet, entrepreneurial-minded one?

JA: One person cannot change an entire organization. I needed to find early adopters who embraced my mindset and could lead by example. We broke down the old centralized operational model, and made each dean the CEO of his or her school. We also created a senior team whose members have two responsibilities: their own, and the university as a whole. We tackle macro problems, and ask members to expand their worldview and think university-wide.

That team, by the way, has made me increasingly irrelevant. So, instead of tackling the massive, institution-wide issues like I did eight years ago, I have a fully empowered team to do so. That frees me up to continue to think and act in new and disruptive ways. Entrepreneurs need to delegate key P&L decisions, create a team with both vertical and horizontal responsibilities, and then let the group run as fast as it likes. Meanwhile you should be scanning the horizon for what's next.

Tell me one major mistake you made, and what you've learned?

JA: That's easy. I made the mistake of assuming that because the leadership team I inherited fully embraced my change plans, the overall organization would also have the mindset to change. I soon realized there are three types of employees in any organization undergoing massive change: A small group of early adopters who are excited about change and possess the mindset to enact it; an equally small group of Luddites who will resist any change whatsoever; and a silent majority who will sit back and see what happens.

I quickly learned to keep myself out of the spotlight and shine it instead on the early adopters. We championed their successes, made them stars within the university, and let them carry the rest of the institution along with them.

Since many Inc. readers aspire to be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, convince them the ROI of a college degree is still relevant.

JA: It's more relevant than ever at some institutions in which students are literally surrounded by entrepreneurial breakthroughs each and every day. Our campus, for example, has become a living, breathing incubator of entrepreneurial-minded faculty and students. Our students have created 12 companies that attracted $500,000 in venture funding. We stopped one entrepreneurial-minded academic who was about to mortgage his house to pay for his research and instead found him funding from private sources.

Inc. readers should see enlightened colleges and universities as partners for their research and development. We have countless small companies working with our students to bring their startups to the next level.

Last but not least, a college degree prepares you for life itself. The children of Inc. readers will one day soon be faced with multiple career and life choices. We don't know what the future will bring, but a college degree from the right school will have your son or daughter better prepared to leverage it.

I'm an alumnus, so I'm naturally rooting for the continued success of Aoun's leadership ideas and of Northeastern. That's why--although some of my employees might say it has already happened--I'm really looking forward to making myself irrelevant. And I'm starting today.

The Future of Entrepreneurship and Education

As more people become self-employed, the fundamental education path will change: instead of trying to find employment, people will invent jobs based on their skills.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Apr 14, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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