David Leebron | Crain's San Antonio

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Leebron

Background:  

David Leebron has overseen a period of dramatic growth at Rice University since becoming president in 2004. As part of a 2005 strategic plan, the university boosted the size and diversity of its student population, improved its educational and research missions and funding, and increased the capacity of its campus with $900 million in new construction, all with the help of a record-breaking $1.1 billion capital campaign.

A Philadelphia native and Harvard University and Harvard Law graduate, Leebron has spent most of his career working in legal circles. He clerked for a U.S. appeals court judge in San Francisco, practiced at international law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York and taught at the UCLA School of Law, NYU School of Law and Columbia Law School, where he served as dean for eight years before coming to Rice. He is a member of Rice’s political science faculty and an authority on international trade and investment.

The Mistake:

Not having the right people in the room when making an important decision.

In academia, we face decisions all the time, from who to hire to what buildings to build, to how to design those buildings. It’s a little less hierarchical than the corporate environment, as our constituencies don’t always have to tow the line. But you still try to make good decisions quickly and don’t always focus on who is helping you with those decisions. You sometimes trade speed of execution with process.

At Rice, we were undertaking a very controversial decision in which a lot of people would have a negative reaction. There was a lot of confidentiality surrounding the decision and we probably didn’t have the person in the room who was talking to us most vocally about it — not a member of that constituency but someone who knew most about how it would react. The fallout was that people were upset about the process even though they didn’t object to the decision.

You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make everyone heard.

The Lesson:

I learned that decisions about process are just as important as decisions about substance, and they need the same careful, consultative process. It may seem odd to say that we need a process about process, but that’s certainly the case in academia and in many settings where people need to feel consulted and expect some measure of transparency.

I subscribe to jelly-bean decision-making. I take it from the old notion of the country store where’s there a jar of jelly beans on the counter and you can win a prize if you can guess the right number of jelly beans in the jar. Studies have shown that the more people you have guessing, the more accurate the winning guess is. It’s not the sheer number of people, but the multiple people giving different perspectives.

Now what I try to do is think of every decision as a little bit different that requires different input. I have to ensure confidentiality but be willing to invite people in to give different perspectives. The CEO or college president has to make the decision, but the best decisions have a much more collective aspect to them. You have to share the decision-making. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make everyone heard.

Follow David Leebron on Twitter at @davidleebron.

Photo courtesy of David Leebron

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