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Summa College: ‘Our teams have become more mature.’

Organizations and employees in the education sector need to be granted more trust and autonomy. That is the viewpoint of Petra van Lange, a member of the Board of Directors at Summa College. She is working towards a more open organization where initiatives come from the bottom-up and employees learn from each other. ‘You learn the most when you are given trust.’

Summa College, the largest Regional Training Center (ROC) in Brabant, strives for small-scale education. It aims to be a place where students feel known and find their ‘destination’. This can only be achieved if all employees collaborate smoothly and have opportunities for personal development. Petra van Lange is responsible for creating a fertile environment within the organization. Four years ago, she joined the College of Board with a focus on finance and human resource matters. At that time, the vocational education institution was undergoing a transition towards a less compartmentalized and less hierarchical structure. Van Lange and her colleague Antoine Wintels took on the mission to create a new culture of trust, including through team development. They aim to establish an organization characterized by intensive collaboration and a sense of individual responsibility. 

Cooperation, professionalization and small quality. The latter is: having your affairs in order.

Rose-Marie Manders – iPM Partners

Robert: What has changed in your four years at Summa College?
“When I started, we were organized into nine clusters with directors each running their own part. They did not collaborate much, if at all. However, since we restructured our programs into sixteen ‘propositions’, that is now changing. More and more connections are being formed. You can sense the curiosity about what is happening in other areas. What you also see changing is the curiosity about how students are doing after college. That’s not happening structurally yet but it’s growing.”

Robert: What strategic themes have you been working on for the past four years?
“Collaboration, professionalization, and small-scale quality. The latter refers to having your business in order. Think of the quality in the classroom, the quality of scheduling, but also the timely implementation of changes in your educational program. We have consistently entrusted the improvement task to the teams. They have become much more mature. You rarely hear anymore: ‘This is not part of my job.’ We are working towards ensuring that our people feel the autonomy where they need to. As a board member, you must have the confidence to let go. Meanwhile, employees should feel that they are capable themselves. It is now more balanced, also because we have a better foundation, work more professionally, and collaborate more frequently.”

Robert: The art is to provide frameworks as a board member or manager that offer sufficient room for maneuver…
“Indeed. Like the agreement I have with my daughters that they can decide for themselves what time they cycle back at night. As long as they do it together. I trust that they will do it, but I cannot control it.”

Rose-Marie: Did you have to work hard on building trust at Summa College?
“Giving trust was not the problem, receiving trust was. As a board, you need to be given the opportunity to participate in discussions. Not everyone grants you that space, for example, because they believe that board members should not interfere with education. It was important for them to see that we did not dictate the educational vision, which was created by the teachers, but rather embraced it.”

Rose-Marie: Why is it beneficial for an educational organization to have more input coming from the bottom up?
“Because people want to develop themselves, but they do not want to be developed. They take the initiative themselves, they learn from the mistakes they are allowed to make, and they remain curious about how things can be improved. They also feel a sense of ownership over the changes much sooner.”

Robert: Did it help that you took layers out of the organization?
“Yes. In a flatter organization, it’s easier to establish boundaries. Because a boundary is an agreement you make while looking each other in the eyes. Building trust takes time. In the beginning, I often heard the word ‘holding accountable,’ even though it never happened here.”

Rose-Marie: How do the team reviews, where you as executives regularly meet with your teams, typically unfold?
“”Initially, those conversations were often unnecessarily about operational matters. For example, we were given a shopping list: we want a dishwasher or refrigerator in our pantry. Also, the conversations sometimes had the character of complaining to the boss. Teachers, for example, were negative about the support services or vice versa. That is different now. The reviews are usually about topics such as team development and the future of our education.”

Robert: Isn’t working based on trust and less control challenging given all the rules and regulations that education must adhere to?
“You have to occasionally push back against the system. An example is our Quality Agenda. We didn’t strictly adhere to the national format prescribed for it. We don’t neatly account for each ambition that needs to be checked off. Instead, we worked with a few of our own indicators. So, we focus on the main points, just as we do in our new strategy. Symbolically, it’s contained in a ring binder, allowing more room for differences within the organization. The way we work with the Quality Agenda has been well received in the external world. Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven of Education has selected Summa College as an educational institution for a gathering, where she will receive an assessment of the Quality Agendas.”

Rose-Marie: What could still be improved at Summa College, in your opinion?
“The pace of change could be faster. Especially shifting the focus from diplomas to delivering students to the right destination: a suitable place in society. For that, we need more visibility on our alumni. It should become more normal to ask them, ‘How are you doing? Have you found work? What should we change in our programs to better align with the job market?’ Building contacts can be easily organized, and both students and teachers enjoy it. However, it still doesn’t always succeed. Involving alumni and students is not yet sufficiently ingrained in our system.”

Rose-Marie: what direction do you want to steer towards in the future?
“We are now focusing heavily on students in our new strategy, considering the changing environment. This will gain momentum through our vision on learning and more mature teams. It will become normal to question alumni or organize an alumni week. Additionally, Summa College needs to become an even more attractive employer. We have to roll up our sleeves and work on talent identification, deploying employees in tasks they excel at, improving our onboarding program, enhancing our recruitment and selection processes, professional development, and digitalization. We also need to become much better at ‘lifelong learning,’ not only as a provider but starting with ourselves, our own organization.”

Robert: “Learning from peers is not a given in education. Do you have an explanation for that?”
“Celebrating successes is something we find challenging in education. Shining a spotlight on an exceptional student is still possible, but we are not as quick to do the same for an exceptional teacher or team. Yet, we can learn a great deal from such exemplary examples. We still have a long way to go when it comes to being proud of each other’s achievements. This reluctance to acknowledge those who are doing well is related to our ‘just be normal’ mentality. It runs deep in the Calvinistic Dutch culture, particularly in the field of education. We don’t give a perfect score. When I, as a young tennis player, achieved a flawless ball-handling test, they refused to give me a hundred percent score.”

Robert: At the team level, you are indeed making progress. I see more openness. You are starting to truly distinguish yourselves in this aspect…
“We are truly opting for a different culture. We are consistently focused on decentralizing responsibilities or autonomy. Unlike other organizations, we also do not engage in centralized management development or leadership programs.”

Rose-Marie: What would you do if you were the Minister of Education?
“I would make everything much simpler. For example, I would abolish the Quality Agenda and pay for everything lump sum. To eventually give trust to the institutions. You learn the most when you are trusted. The same goes for educational organizations. A minister should not want to regulate everything and keep the House of Representatives at bay. Education and learning involves mistakes and failure. Students learn from that, but so do organizations. Then we can grow in quality.”

How did you experience working with iPM Partners?
“As valuable. You have taken the organization to the next level, adding something each time to a higher level of development in our teams. What I like about working with you guys is that you want to keep learning. You immerse yourselves in your clients and really want to know how it went. The power is not so much in the method, but mainly in the people. You are all curious. That is very valuable. The fact that you want to know exactly how things are also ensures that you are taken seriously.”

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