The Chair Academy’s most prestigious award is the Paul A. Elsner International Excellence in Leadership Award, granted only to the top leaders in the post-secondary education sector. Given that this year’s conference marks the 25th anniversary for the Chair Academy, the Academy could not have made a better choice than Olds College’s President, Dr. Tom (H.J.) Thompson.
In the world of sports, there are people who stand above their peers: Jordan in basketball, Woods in golf, Gretzky in hockey, and the Williams sisters in tennis. This parallels the career of Dr. Thompson, who stands as a giant amongst his peers in both Canada and the U.S. Considered Canada’s best mind in board governance, Colleges and Institutes Canada utilizes his governance presentation each year in orienting aspiring leaders. He was also recently acknowledged by the Rural Community College Alliance as the first Canadian to receive the Autry Leadership Award.
Aside from awards and accolades, what makes him so special? Coming from a background of marketing in professional sports, he certainly saw the world of higher education through a different lens. Early in Tom’s career, he was a university basketball coach and the infamous John Wooden became a key mentor in his life. He conducted basketball clinics with some of the top basketball minds in North America including the likes of Bobby Knight and Hubie Brown. This led to a career in sports marketing where he worked for professional football leagues in both Canada and the United States. Following a personal sense of adventure and some change in his life, he took an instructional job in the School of Business at Grand Prairie College in Northern Alberta. He spent 15 years in Grande Prairie where he moved from instructor to chair to vice president and then president. While in Grande Prairie he also chaired the Canada Winter Games, hailed as one of the best ever in this nation. He joined Olds College in June of 2001 and he has carved out a reputation as a creative and entrepreneurial leader who is instrumental in advancing the college and the higher education system.
As we celebrate his award and his contributions to higher education, I’d like to give you a glimpse into some of his guiding nuggets of wisdom that we call “Thompsonisms.”
1. Do it, try it, fix it
Tom gives his leaders permission to fail and encouragement to get on with it. Many in higher education wait to get things perfect before they start. Tom encourages people to experiment and adapt in an iterative manner. This isn’t an excuse to be sloppy, as his expectation for diligence is very high.
2. It’s your ship
Ownership leads to the greatest results and creative expression so Tom often says, “It’s your ship,” referring to the role of a captain on a ship. In other words, I’m here to support you but you have the freedom to lead your area of responsibility as if you owned it.
3. You can’t catch elephants with mousetraps
If you want to do something big, then your plans and execution must also be big. He encourages us to use the right instruments to achieve the intended success. One of Tom’s greatest legacies is a joint venture called the Community Learning Campus. It is an integrated community, high school, and college facility and it was a big elephant. He utilized the right tools of governance, politics, vision, and philanthropy to deliver amazing results.
4. Dream big, build simple, act now
Often in visioning and planning sessions, operationally minded leaders go to the details and start to talk about the minutia required to execute a plan. As leaders, Tom consistently encourages us to push our thinking to a higher level, build a very simple approach to achieve that vision, and then “get on with it.” This one aligns with item number one.
5. Become #1 or #2, or get out of it
It is easy to settle for “good enough.” Jim Collins speaks to the discipline required to move from “good to great.” Tom reinforces this concept by encouraging us to think about becoming the best in the province, the nation, the world, etc. If you can’t become the best, then sunset the activity. He often says, “In the stratosphere of excellence there is little to no competition, as very few people have the discipline and commitment to be the best.”
6. Be quick, but don’t hurry
Responsiveness has been one of the hallmarks of Dr. Thompson’s leadership. However, in an environment where responsiveness is embraced, it is easy to get caught rushing things. Tom encourages a business-like approach to being quick but he also tempers that with diligence and measured action...thus the advice to “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
7. Creativity before money
Under Tom’s leadership, the college has been successful in having over $200 million of external funds invested on our campus. He never once chased the money; he pursued vision and creativity. He will often say that it takes just as much energy to sell an average idea as it does to sell an amazing idea so spend time thinking big. The money will follow the creativity! You don’t hear our leaders say, “I can’t do that because I don’t have the money.” Rather, you hear, “The money will come if the idea is big enough.”
8. You get what you demand
This saying is sometimes also referenced alongside, “You encourage what you tolerate.” Both sayings speak to the role of leadership in demanding clear outcomes and expectations for the people they lead. “If you, as a leader, aren’t thinking about these things, then who is?” is something he’ll also integrate into such conversations.
9.Good paper makes good friends
So many big ideas happen because of trust and relationships. Tom has been able to foster such external relationships and it is evidenced throughout his career. He has never undermined a high trust rapport with sloppy paperwork. The documentation required for an effective partnership must withstand the length of the relationship. It’s often tempting to chase down a bunch of bunny trails with partners but the discipline of clear paperwork and documentation allows for clear focus and aligned actions.
10. Be there
This saying comes with a powerful story of when Tom coached college basketball and he took a raw talent in year one to national player of the year and the national championship in year four. This young man was successful because he implemented his coach’s advice to “Be there.” “There” was a spot on the court where he could rebound and score. The player was disciplined in his commitment to implement his coach’s instructions and the success followed!
11. Well-orchestrated spontaneity
When I first heard Tom use this phrase, I quite honestly couldn’t process it. However, over time I’ve been able to appreciate the diligence in pre-planning for a desired outcome. Even when things appear to be spontaneous, it often requires uber-diligence and well-orchestrated planning behind the scenes. This is often used by celebrities when a story goes viral. It appears to be random or spontaneous but there are sophisticated efforts behind the scenes.
12. Words count, deeds count more
This phrase needs little explanation. It really speaks to the value of moving to action. Higher education often falls into the trap of “planning to do” rather than “getting on with the action.”
13. This is nothing more than elegant hot air
I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been to where people use words like, “we could,” “potential,” “collaboration,” or “partnership” and nothing ever materializes. Tom often calls this unproductive behavior “elegant hot air” until it shows some documentation (good paper makes good friends) or it moves to action (words count, deeds count more).
14. Get a bigger dog
While there is a natural tendency to avoid conflict in higher education, good business requires good negotiation skills. Often, higher education professionals “turtle up” in such situations but Tom encourages us to be strong and bold when entering negotiations. We are never to enter negotiations with a small dog; we need a bigger dog than the person we’re negotiating with so that we achieve an outcome that is fair and good for the institution.
15. Don't make it your life's work
If you haven’t sensed a theme yet, there is one beginning to emerge: make your work count for something and be productive with your time. This phrase allows leaders to let things go. If you aren’t getting traction on an idea or the idea is too complex (think big, build simple, act now), then move it along. Our time is too precious and our work too important to spend countless meetings and years of our life pursuing something that may have the “potential” to pay off.
16. Run it like you own it
Very similar to number two (it’s your ship), run it like you own it speaks to personal ownership and accountability. If this was your business and your money, how would you operate? If you could set it up from scratch, what would it look like? It is an empowering phrase meant to encourage ownership and measured risk.
17. Measure six times, cut once
Taken from the common expression, “Measure twice, cut once,” Tom emphasizes diligence. While he encourages creative expression, ownership, and risk taking, he equally emphasizes pre-planning anticipated consequences (real, perceived, intended, and unintended). It speaks to the diligence required at all stages of a plan.
18. Know who you're riding the range with
This one comes with a story of riding the rangeland, where two cowboys are mending fences after a long winter. They are often out days at a time and each cowboy needs to keep the other one in sight to ensure safety. One can’t get too far ahead or behind. Your success and life depends upon that relationship! It’s true for leadership teams as well. You need to know the people you have on your team because there are times when you need to look out for each other and keep each other safe.
19. It's 9:00 am tomorrow and your life depends on it - what do you do?
Tom uses this one to really focus thought. When faced with a decision, people often decide to make the decision later...next week, next month, etc. Or they want to “let it percolate” and “check in with someone.” Tom often asks this one mid-stream in a conversation to bring laser focus to the discussion. It often leads to the best decision or at least a deeper focus on what would be needed for a successful decision.
20. Sometimes you must swallow tough
So many leaders want to be “right” or “win.” However, in the world of leadership, sometimes you just have to take things and swallow hard. Sometimes you take a loss because there is something bigger at play. Sometimes you receive criticism and don’t explain it because your explanation will have no value. Sometimes, you just have to swallow tough and move on.
As you can see, Dr. Thompson and his “Thompsonisms” have been very valuable to us at Olds College. He shares his wisdom with us at times when it is needed the most. Some themes emerge throughout: accountability, the need to act in a responsive way, creativity, ownership, and diligence. I trust this list also provides you with a list which will help you in your leadership journey.
As Tom always says, “At the end of the day, it was always about teaching, and what I've loved about leadership was the opportunity it provides to teach and coach.”
If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Thompson’s work on governance, please visit this site: https://sites.google.com/a/oldscollege.ca/thompson-on-governance/