Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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One brick at a time

Q: In his first six days in the major leagues, the Nationals' Danny Espinosa blasted three home runs, including a grand slam. Do you find that your biggest successes come in big bursts, or as the result of slow and steady progress? Is success more about "base hits," or "home runs"?

Flash in the pan! I first heard my father use that phrase in reference to a baseball player we called Richie Allen in Philadelphia in 1964. Allen -- now known as Dick Allen -- proved to be one of the best baseball players never to make the Hall of Fame.

Allen was a real slugger, pounding the ball out of the park 37 times in his rookie year. But just like the spectacular late-pennant-race collapse of his first team, the '64 Phillies, Allen could not sustain success on power alone, and his various personal problems ultimately sabotaged his enormous ability.

True success requires disciplined attention to myriad details. While the "big hit" certainly boosts spirits and elevates hope, a home run does not always win the game. The landscape of fame is littered with Olympic gold medalists and lottery winners who fell on hard times because they thought that one big moment would sustain success throughout their lives.

When I first took office as Trinity's president, I yearned for the big hits, the spectacular moments that would turn our fortunes around overnight. I was naive. Building a sustainable and successful institution is all about the details, most of which are distinctly tedious but absolutely essential.

For example, while getting one really big gift from a donor is exciting and so gratifying, in fact, long-term fiscal health depends far more on controlling spending every single day. Evaluating purchase orders against budget goals appears to be so much bean-counting, but in fact, our institutional success relies on convincing our bank and lenders that we can operate in the black every year.

Rating agencies like Moody's, accreditors like Middle States, and donors of any size evaluate institutional success on a complicated range of factors, from the strength and persistence of the management team, to the soundness of the data produced around outcomes, to the ability to meet debt covenants over a long period of time. My experience with agencies and people who assess institutional credibility tells me that they are unimpressed generally with one-shot-wonders. Our evaluators want to see ongoing results that come from excellence every day.

Right now, we're working on Trinity's next big project: an academic center that will give this campus modern classrooms, science labs and library facilities. Every single brick in a building project is important, and the whole depends on the strength of each facet of the design, the talent of the construction crew, the architects' attention to the functionality of the details as well as the beauty of the idea.

Of course, I want a big win -- a donor who will help to make this concept a reality! Such a "home run" would bring hope and encouragement -- but our ultimate success will depend on the excellent work of each bricklayer.

By Patricia McGuire  |  September 13, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success: fast or slow? Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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