How does a sleepy backwater college that few have heard of quadruple enrollment in 15 years? Furthermore, what enables a school to expand the size of the campus from 91 acres to 520 acres, while attaining a 98% placement rate?
The short answer is intentional leadership. The longer version is that an intentional leader revolutionized the academic institution of High Point University with powerful and practical business principles, which often received sharp criticism but ultimately proved to be wildly successful. It turns out that academia, like most professions and industries, values the status quo.
Originally founded as High Point College in 1924, this private liberal arts university has grown from 22 to 120+ buildings. There are now 1,800 positions, and they hire 12 to 20 more people each month. These employees act to support the students drawn in from nearly 50 countries and all 50 states. In fall 2021, HPU’s freshman class was larger than the entire student body was in 2005 and will have access to 62 majors and 64 minors.
Even more astonishing? This growth occurred without borrowing any money, a distinct anomaly in higher education.
And here is the brand promise that drives it all: At High Point University, every student receives an extraordinary education in an inspiring environment with caring people.
Nido R. Qubein, an alumnus of High Point University, became the seventh president of this 94-year-old institution in 2005. After a successful career in publishing, consulting, speaking, and business, he was approached by the board to help resurrect the institution. Always open to new challenges, he seized the opportunity to lead a university with facilities that were a bit long in the tooth and that lacked any signs of innovating in the future.
Similar to what we learn from physics, a system at rest stays at rest, and Qubein had to challenge the existing mindset and behavior of faculty and staff who were mired in outdated education methods. He made it a goal to provide life preparation for students to take their place in society after graduation. As Roger Clodfelter, Senior V.P. of Communications, puts it: “Our job is to prepare students for the world that will be, not as it is or as it was.”
So how did he meet the challenge of changing the staid academic culture to one that is today unique and innovative? Again, the short answer is hard work. But the longer answer is hard work informed by visionary strategy.
When Qubein took the leadership role, the university’s culture wasn’t defined. It just existed, the culmination of former leadership—the good, the bad and everything in between.
The first item of business was to change the existing mindset. With all of the importance placed on higher institutions, people sometimes forget that while colleges and universities do not function quite like most businesses, they still have clients. Students, either by loans or scholarship, exchange money for a service—and they can certainly choose to get this service from a different establishment.
This was part of the problem at the college. Because the various departments were not focusing on the customer, the institution was not optimized for their use. Everything operated as its own unit. Groups didn’t connect. There was no sense of a larger purpose or united goal. Nido started having meetings with everyone together at one time, which may not seem so extraordinary today, but was certainly a change for the school.
Dr. Qubein began discussing the importance of branding with the staff—a conversation that never really stopped. During meetings to this day, he still brings up the brand promise they established, reiterating vital points to keep the ideas fresh. He incessantly educates those around him on the responsibility of being a leader in order to build a brain trust to advise with principles and perspectives, but which can eventually function on its own.
“He passes along what he knows,” Clodfelter adds further. “So HPU will thrive even when Dr. Qubein isn’t running the place.”
If there is a consistent theme about leaders, it’s that they are incessant in talking about the important things. This leader does not leave the future to chance; he has made decisions clearly leading toward the ideal future.
At HPU, literally everyone is empowered to make suggestions on how to improve ANY area of the organization, not just their own area. True to this, Qubein likes to be involved in all aspects of the university, no matter how small. As he describes it:
My first month in office, I would give out my email address freely to any student who wanted it. And they would use it! Students began emailing me—about a plumbing problem, a question about career options, or just to say how much they enjoyed a particular professor.
The staff and faculty thought I was crazy to do this. “How will you ever get anything done if you have students constantly emailing you?” they said. My response was: “How can I get anything meaningful done if I don’t have students emailing me?”
The customer had become the priority: students, prospective students and their parents are priority number one although many other constituents like alumni and donors are greatly valued and cared for. Clodfelter, who was already at HPU when the transformation began and has borne witness to all of the positive changes, credits the president’s habit of hands-on involvement.
“The principle of inspecting what you expect is powerful,” he explains. “So, Dr. Qubein spends a lot of time walking around campus. He’s in front of students all the time, highly visible, and very much loved.” Out of sight is out of mind, so it only follows that the opposite would hold true.
This also keeps the staff accountable. The reality of Qubein’s engaged enthusiasm is that he has a high standard for others as well as himself, and he’s present to see if they are following through. Clodfelter continues: “It is hard to be at rest when the CEO could walk by at any moment, shoot you an email, or ask you a question.”
Leadership by Being Engaged
When he became President, Qubein began using the power of observation to make important improvements. For example, he studied the flow of students between classes.
“Walking in single file,” he noticed. “Not good. The sidewalks were too narrow. I didn’t want our students walking single file, lost in their own thoughts. I wanted them walking side by side, talking to each other. These sidewalks needed to be ten feet wide.”
He made a mental note: Change the sidewalks.
What President Qubein does isn’t just basic MBWA (Management By Wandering Around, as coined by Tom Peters). He sees it as a primary way to inspire: “I just get in front of our team. I walk around and pat people on the back, shake hands, share a laugh. It’s not complicated.
The connection with students is one of the most important aspects of his day.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he elaborates. “I make time for moments of joy each day, and the time I spend in the Café talking to students and staff members makes me feel good. Students take selfies with me. If a student is on their phone talking to mom or dad, I grab it and talk to their parents. I’m present.”
As much as the president observes others, he expects to be observed in return. One might even say that he relies on it and models the behavior that he hopes the students and staff will emulate.
“Whether you teach or not, students are watching all of us, so they learn from us. It is important how we act, dress, and talk,” says Clodfelter. Done with intention, observed actions can become learned behaviors. Some of these behaviors are specifically geared towards the success of the students individually, but they also hope to improve their general quality of life.
For instance, environment is critical at High Point University. When inspiration is part of the brand promise, you’ve got to deliver. This is physically done through gushing fountains, dozens of sculptures of famous and historical leaders, on-site concerts, and a plethora of free perks for students. Beautiful and clean areas are a necessary part of the aesthetic.
With a campus that has become so large and holds so many people, you might expect a certain amount of trash. You’d be wrong, however; they haven’t even needed to post the obligatory DON’T LITTER signs. Why? Clodfelter explains that “Students know that just doesn’t happen there. They also hold the door for visitors and each other.” Thus, the culture is self-perpetuating; students see others improving the condition of life and campus, and then strive to contribute to it.
Inspiration by Example
High Point University has attracted expert faculty from places like Duke University, Harvard University, Stanford University, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and many other impressive institutions. Despite this progress, the school decided they could do even more. In order to provide the best service to their students, HPU has also attracted global leaders and industry giants to mentor students as part of a unique “In-Residence” program. Examples include:
Steve Wozniak : Apple Co-founder and HPU Innovator-in-Residence
Marc Randolph: Netflix Co-founder and HPU Entrepreneur-in-Residence
Joe Michaels: 20- year veteran director of NBC’s Today Show and HPU Broadcaster-In-Residence
Cynthia Marshall: Dallas Mavericks CEO and HPU Sports-Executive-In-Residence
Working closely with people who have already shown success in their fields provides students with mentors with real-world experience and advice. It’s one more thing pushing forward to the world that will be, both when those students graduate and when they start to change it themselves.
Don’t Let Critics Drive Your Bus
Though the success of Qubein’s changes are apparent now, they were not always so popular when he introduced them. Early on, HPU instituted valet parking to alleviate some parking challenges.
Valet parking at a university for students? Are you kidding me? The dissenters fumed about spoiling the rich kids that went there. But Qubein didn’t see it that way.
“There is a higher purpose for everything we do,” he explains. “If your son or daughter has to park off campus and walk through two blocks of a poorly lit neighborhood late at night, you’re going to worry. The valet parking was a solution to provide higher security and safety.” Students need the support of their parents amidst the stress of separation and the anxiety of new responsibilities. Securing the confidence of parents, as well as the safety of the student, serves a dual purpose.
And what about Alo and 1924 Prime restaurants, both fine-dining learning labs where students get to eat a three-course meal each week for free as part of the meal plan. By now, I’m sure you know there is a reason beyond simply providing the perk of fine dining. Outside the restaurant, a mural quotes a New York Times article about interviewing potential employees. Often job interviews are held in a nice restaurant, and fine dining is a frequent activity of movers and shakers.
In addition, these restaurants provide rotating international cuisine to broaden students’ global knowledge and understanding.
Graduates need to know how to order off a menu at a high-end restaurant—to be comfortable with the table setting and the wait staff. The campus also has many board room settings for similar reasons: to adjust students to working in that environment. This is just another facet of preparing students for the real world.
Innovative educational initiatives like the President’s Seminar on Life Skills, a required course for all entering freshmen, ensure students grow not only in specific academic areas of expertise, but also develop competencies in communication, networking, coachability, fiscal literacy, and service. These are among the traits HPU refers to as “life skills,” which employers rank as the most critical skills necessary to succeed in the modern workplace.
Some critics may question some of the steps the President has taken, but he sees this as a burden of innovation. HPU students graduate with real-world skills that complement all they’ve learned, a definite contributor to the 98% placement rate.
Perhaps HPU’s culture can be summed up in a quote from Roy Disney that’s inscribed on the International Campus Promenade: “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” High Point University has created its brand—realized what is important for the students and the school—and works to maintain it.
President Qubein has been crucial in accomplishing this. He sees two things as primary for a leader like himself to impact culture positively:
First, they must model the behavior that is expected. I pick up trash, so everyone can pick up trash if they see it. Second, they must be a cheerleader for the culture. At HPU, we have monthly meetings with all staff where I spend time celebrating the best examples of our culture, reinforcing, rewarding, and, honestly, preaching! Our important language is present throughout our campus.
The recurring theme here is to lead by example. After all, if the President of the university is outworking everyone, how can anyone justify doing less?
Experiences That Evoke Positive Emotions
Every university delivers an experience that differs in quality from institution to institution. The difference with High Point University is that the experience delivered is several levels higher than other schools. HPU may have had some catching up to do at first, but it didn’t take long for Qubein to meet and then surpass the standards.
Upon taking the position of president, Qubein immediately led a $2 billion investment in academic programs (adding seven new academic schools including a School of Health Sciences, School of Pharmacy and School of Dentistry) and student life facilities, including two student centers, 10 new residential communities, a new lacrosse and soccer stadium, a Division I athletics complex, and—currently under construction—a 4,500-seat basketball arena, conference center, and hotel. But again, they didn’t want to just catch up; High Point University needed to become something altogether special, and that is what it did.
“HPU is an experience,” Qubein shares, “that is distinctive with relevance. Our campus grounds are impressive. But that alone is not enough. We’ve invested $2 billion in our campus since 2005.” Besides things like the valet parking and the steakhouse, HPU also features an ice cream
truck that offers free treats around campus and a free movie theater with complimentary snacks. That’s not to mention a putting green, a sports bar, and a coinless arcade. You can’t argue about the fact that the current campus is gorgeous, and perks of attendance are substantial.
“Yet, I’ve never talked to a student or parent who said they enrolled because of a building,” he points out. “Our people, and I mean all our people—professors, security officers, campus enhancement team members, hospitality team members, all our people are recognized by our customers for how we made them feel.” Like all good services, HPU sets out to nurture emotions for customers and the employees who interact with them; the interactions should be rewarding for both.
“We share testimonials that we receive from families,” the president continues. “We’ve flown down parents to stand on stage in front of staff to tell them how important they were to their family.” This way, employees get to see direct results of their efforts; it makes it easy to how what you do really matters in the lives of others.
Qubein explains: “Humans are emotional people. There’s really no other way to connect with people other than emotional, not if you want a sustainable connection. For employees, we seek to create meetings that are experiences. Bands, visual elements, surprise gifts, and the like. If I can create the right atmospherics to inspire the team, they will inspire our customers.” And when you reinforce those emotions, you perpetuate them; the students and their families benefit from properly inspired staff.
“People who visit don’t want to leave,” he says. “I’ve had parents tell me time and time again that it was a mistake making HPU their first college visit, because every other visit was a letdown compared to HPU.” But it isn’t just the experience. It is how students and parents feel about the experience; those strong emotions make up the foundation of a current and future connection with the High Point University.
The Art of the Possible
Not just any emotions will work for these connections, though. When asked about the emotions HPU strives to deliver, President Qubein answers: “I want everyone to feel The Art of the Possible.”
And just what is “The Art of the Possible?” Clodfelter explains:
When we talk about the art of possible, we use examples like building a $120,000,000 Health Sciences building with cash. In addition to modeling what is possible and raising aspirations, we like to use the university as an example of what a student can do in his or her own life. It becomes something that you can touch and see, a tangible example of what they can do if they work hard and apply what they’ve learned. You know that Farmers Insurance commercial? The ones with the tagline, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two?” At HPU we can say we know a thing or two because we’ve done a thing or two.
The school itself acts as a form of inspiration to the students. Not only has High Point University starred in its own transformation story into a very prestigious school, but they took the struggles leading up to that point and made them part of the school’s legend.
As you consider the HPU story, you can conclude that when you are in the transformation business, the proof isn’t just in the students, but the campus, staff, operations, and even the nuances. Qubein puts it this way:
The worst feeling an employee or customer can have is the feeling that they aren’t important. If every person on your team believes they can have an impact, they can. And if they believe that, they will impact others in meaningful ways. At HPU, we talk a lot about living a life of success and significance. Successful careers are important, but more so is leaving a legacy of significance. And that only comes from how you make other people feel.
If they had mostly good feelings, the experience will be positive. This is what every good business hopes and strives to create.
Beyond academic excellence, HPU also focuses on values. President Qubein often explains that High Point University is a God, family, and country school. While all backgrounds are welcome and celebrated on this inclusive campus, HPU appreciates and promotes the values of hard work, service, patriotism, private enterprise, joy, and generosity. To this effect, the school often hosts events to honor the people who exemplify these qualities.
Each year, HPU hosts 1,000 local military veterans to express gratitude for their service to our nation. In December, HPU welcomes more than 20,000 visitors to campus for a two-night Community Christmas Drive-Through event complete with a life-size Nativity, thousands of lights, and the state’s largest Christmas tree. The entire event is complimentary.
Intentional leadership is not just being clear on what you stand for, but courageous in how you implement your commitments. I toured the campus of High Point University extensively, and one of the beliefs they instill in staff is that “It might not be our fault, but it is our problem.” Average service providers think if they didn’t cause a problem, then they aren’t responsible for fixing it. The people care about claiming responsibility for the solution—fixing the problem— rather than assigning blame.
High Point University is a values-based university that believes each member of faculty and staff has the power to enhance the lives of the students entrusted to their care. Their call to action is simple and profound: Choose to be extraordinary! And they live by it every day.
Thoughts from an Intentional Leader
In the President’s Seminar that Qubein teaches every spring, he has this discussion with the graduating seniors:
When you go to interview for a position in your new career, you will not be judged on your strengths. Can you write a good letter? Express yourself with clarity and articulation? Dress presentably and carry yourself professionally in different situations? Good—but so can everyone else. These core competencies are crucial, but they will not propel you forward; they simply get you in the door. From that point on, what matters will be how you differentiate yourself.
Qubein knows that it is your decisions that bring you either success or failure, and he teaches his students this, too. In the end, perhaps one of the most significant aspects of his service is knowing its boundaries. He cannot go out into the world for his students and solve their problems for them; all he can do is give them all the tools he possibly can—life skills, education, and the confidence to use them—and let them shine.
I asked Dr. Qubein what inspired him to lead. He said, “There are so many reasons:
To whom much is given, much is required. I’ve been blessed by the help of others. And I understand that mentorship matters. It matters to me and our entire team here at HPU. It’s a blessing to help others.” This man clearly has a passion to serve his students, and it reflects in every facet of the university.
If you get a chance to visit HPU someday, you’ll be struck by the beauty of the campus, the friendliness of students and staff, the attention to detail, and the leading-edge learning opportunities. But you will see schools differently afterwards, and ultimately it will prove something that Dr. Nido Qubein practices and proves:
“To a business, ordinary is poison, extraordinary the antidote.”
Mark Sanborn is an award winning speaker and Leadership Expert in Residence at High Point University, the Premier Life Skills University. For more information about his work, visit www.marksanborn.com.