Leading change: Toward the future for Thunderbird

By Caren Siehl

Change has reshaped Thunderbird School of Global Management more than once since I joined the faculty in 1992. The school has evolved and  changed its degrees, added distance learning to the mix,  and experimented successfully with a range of strategic partners. Even the school’s name has changed. All of these changes have moved the school forward.

As someone who teaches courses on leading organizational change and transformation, I understand the perils of standing still in a constantly accelerating world. Organizations that change too little too late ultimately die. Thunderbird is no exception: The school must continue to change and move forward toward the future.

Thunderbird’s latest move, the planned launch of a jointly owned service provider with Laureate Education, Inc., has stirred resistance from some stakeholders worried about the school’s new direction. While the alliance carries risk, I support the move as a leap forward for Thunderbird at the right time in the right direction.

The right time

Timing is often the hardest part to nail when leading change. The best time to take bold action is during periods of prosperity, when organizations have the most resources to leverage and the most options available. Changes made when times are good tend to be proactive more than reactive. Unfortunately, building consensus for transformation can be tricky during periods of high performance because few stakeholders see the urgency for far-reaching change.

Making the case for change becomes easier the farther an organization slides into crisis, but waiting until pressures mount means fewer resources to leverage and fewer viable options to consider. Change tends to become increasingly reactive the longer an organization waits.

In actual practice, most change occurs somewhere between the proactive and reactive stages. This is normal. Fretting about what should have been done in the past — or waiting for full clarity about the future — is rarely productive. The right time to jump is as soon as an organization recognizes shifts in the external environment.

Some might argue that Thunderbird should have moved earlier, as soon as enrollment and revenue started declining across the industry. Hindsight often improves vision, but in reality Thunderbird still has key assets upon which to build, starting with its No. 1 ranking in international business. The school also has a growing executive education unit that added 22 custom clients in the past fiscal year, including some of the world’s top oil and gas companies. Finally, Thunderbird boasts a strong alumni network that brings together business, government and social sector leaders in 148 countries.

Several potential partners recognized these assets and consequently submitted proposals to form long-term relationships with Thunderbird. Resistance from some stakeholders following the school’s decision to move forward with Laureate Education also speaks to the school’s strength in terms of being able to attract viable alternatives.

Meaningful change is rarely unanimous, and overcoming resistance is part of the process. Some pushback is based on logic, requiring organizations to respond with rational explanations for their decisions. Emotional resistance also comes into play when stakeholders have deep personal connections with the current status or past realities. In such cases, organizations cannot persuade with logic. Stakeholders must deal with emotional loss in their own ways as they come to grips with the fact that the old world, as they knew it, has disappeared.

Thunderbird has experienced both types of resistance, which is normal. But the pace of change in higher education is accelerating, and the school must move forward to thrive in the new environment.

The right move

Jumping at the right time is not the only challenge, of course. Organizations also must jump the right distance in the right direction. A three-step process assures the highest likelihood of success. The first step is to assess external factors and internal capabilities. Then leaders must consider viable alternatives — without getting sidetracked by pipe dreams or wish lists. Finally, leaders must make a choice and execute.

Those closest to the Thunderbird process describe a progression through each of these steps. Thunderbird Board of Trustees Chairman Ann Iverson said her colleagues looked at market trends, assessed risks, and identified five specific goals for Thunderbird. “There was much debate and enthusiastic discussion about how change would be accomplished,” she said during an alumni webcast on July 8, 2013. “There was a thorough analysis of how we could achieve our goals.”

The trustees first considered the option of remaining a standalone institution and determined that a partnership was needed. Then the trustees engaged in extensive discussions with multiple potential partners, inviting proposals from the most viable candidates before entering a phase of exclusive negotiation with Laureate Education.  The board met 14 times during this period, culminating in 3-to-1 support for the alliance. During this process, the school also hired an independent valuation firm to assess the fairness of the proposed transaction. “This opinion supported the formation of the alliance,” Iverson said.

Thunderbird Professor Michael Moffett, one of my colleagues who has stayed close to the discussions, echoes my support for the outcome. “The future of Thunderbird is, in my opinion, more assured, more defined, and greater in scope, than at any point in the 20 years I have been associated with the school,” he said. “Thunderbird remains independent — we control our own degrees, our own curriculum, our own perspective on the leadership and management skills needed by global business leaders — but for the first time in the school’s history we have the organizational reach and capital to deliver that perspective globally.”

A thoughtful, well-reasoned choice has been made. Now is the time to execute and to make this change successful. We must work together to push down barriers to success, to achieve short-term wins, and to focus on delivering the mission of the school, which remains meaningful and relevant. Change is always challenging, but it is also the lifeblood of all successful organizations. Thunderbird is no exception. The time is now to lead this change and to move forward.

Caren Siehl, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of management at Thunderbird School of Global Management, where she teaches courses on leading change and transformation. She teaches extensively in Thunderbird Executive Education and consults with Fortune 100 companies throughout the world on leadership development and change. Dr. Siehl earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University.