Innovation Junkies Podcast

Matt Waller on Organizational Values

Matt Waller, of the University of Arkansas, joins the Jeffs to talk about relationship, strategy, & culture within organizations. They dive into the importance of core values for organizational health, developing strategy & its effect on culture, & the enrollment cliff & how to keep students interested & involved in higher-ed.

Matt Waller:
So, when I became Dean in 2015, I thought, “I’ve been a professor for a long time. I’ve been a Department Chair. I’ve been an Associate Dean. I ran our EMBA program in China for a couple years, and I don’t know how to be a Dean.”

Jeff Standridge (Intro):
If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies Podcast.

Growth DX Plug:
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Jeff Standridge:
Hey guys, welcome to another episode of the Innovation Junkies Podcast. My name’s Jeff Standridge.

Jeff Amerine:
Hey, and this is Jeff Amerine. Glad to be back for another episode.

Jeff Standridge:
How you doing man?

Jeff Amerine:
Pretty good. No complaints.

Jeff Standridge:
Kind of iffy weather out there today. So, as it was yesterday.

Jeff Amerine:
Typical stormy day in Spring in Arkansas, right?

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, we had some flooding in downtown Conway night before last, a couple of tornadoes, but I slept pretty well through it.

Jeff Amerine:
Enough water to kayak down the streets or no?

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, absolutely, could have actually done that. Jeff, got a great guest with us today. Matthew Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, where he not only serves as Dean, he also serves as the Leadership Chair and Professor of Supply Chain Management. In addition to all the work he’s done in academia, Matt serves on the board of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, co-founder of Bentonville Associates Ventures and Mercari Technologies. He’s co-author of a number of books, including Purple on the Inside: How J.B. Hunt Transport Set Itself Apart in a Field Full of Brown Cows, and his most recent book, the The Dean’s List: Leading a Modern Business School. Matt, great to have you with us today.

Matt Waller:
Nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jeff Amerine:
You know…

Jeff Standridge:
Absolutely. Absolutely. How’s the weather in your neck of the woods right now?

Matt Waller:
It is cloudy and sprinkling and warm, but it’s supposed to get colder all day long. I think it’s going to get down in the forties, but it’s also windy. So, I’m looking forward to going for a nice stroll outside.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, really.

Jeff Amerine:
Yeah, one of the things we like to do is talk about kind of a random musing as part of the podcast. And so a good way to kick it off is Dean Waller, what was your most memorable stormy day?

Matt Waller:
My most memorable stormy day was back in about — I think it was probably 1998 or 1997. I don’t remember exactly, but we’d lived in Northwest Arkansas for a few years. We moved here in 1994. The weather looked kind of bad, it was a Saturday, and we had — I guess it must have been 1998 because we had three kids at home, one was a baby, and I noticed these big black clouds that looked really unusual on the horizon, but I had a lot of yard work to do that day and I was out working in the yard. I realized I need to go to Lowe’s and get some things. So, I went to Walmart and then I went to Lowe’s, and when I was getting in my car, the wind picked up really strong. I opened my car door and I thought it was about to rip the door off.
I come from Kansas City, Missouri. And back then — it was in Platte County, kind of a rural area— I say Kansas City, but was actually not in the city limits, but we used to have lots of tornadoes. They don’t have as many as we used to have up in Platte county. But I remember every summer we’d be in the basement couple times a summer because of tornado warnings. Back then, they didn’t send you to the basement until they’d spotted a tornado on the ground, because they didn’t have the capabilities, the Doppler radar and all.
So, at any rate, that picture went in my mind. I’ve seen lots of destruction from tornadoes, and I didn’t have a cell phone, right? But I wanted to tell Suzanne. We didn’t have a basement. We didn’t have basements here. But I hurried home, and by the time I got home, it wasn’t too bad. There was damage, there were limbs down in our yard and things like that, but it scared me because I just pictured our kids up in their beds, taking naps, and a tornado hitting. So, that’s my most memorable one.

Jeff Standridge:
Wow.

Jeff Amerine:
Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Standridge:
My most memorable storm, I have several, but they’re generally most memorable days after the storm. I’ve spent a number of years as a paramedic, and so there were a couple times we had to go out in the storm and someone who had been injured in the storm, most of them were day after. It was actually 2014, and I had years away from being in the medical field. I was at Acxiom at the time, and I got up and saw the damage in Vilonia on TV. And so I just drove out there and they had the roads blocked and told the guy, “Look, former medic, former…” They were calling for anybody to come and help that had any experience at all. And so he just waved me through, and I went on in and joined a team. We went house to house, just looking for folks that we could help. It was most memorable because of just the sheer devastation. I mean, they’re just unbelievable how giant, virgin oak trees were twisted off mid-shaft, and just amazing the fury of a storm like that. So, that was probably 2014.
How about you, Jeff Amerine?

Jeff Amerine:
Yeah, as I was listening to you guys, think there are two incidents that I can think of, but one is maybe a little more recent. About maybe more than 15 years ago, maybe longer, may have been around 2004, I used to ride long distance bike rides quite a bit. And the very first one I’d did, that was cross state, was from the Colorado border to the Missouri border, in Kansas. And on the second day, it was a Southern route, on the second day of being out on our road bikes, we saw this spectacular supercell out in front of us on the road, probably about five miles ahead, and turns out it was an EF4 tornado that went right across the road.
And we got to witness all that about four miles ahead of us. You could see the cloud on the ground. We could see it was wrapped. So, that pretty spectacular. Talk about being exposed, four knuckleheads out on bikes, on a road with no cover anywhere in Southwestern Kansas and a tornado across the road. Now, thankfully we were fine. It tore up some wheat fields and whatnot out there, but didn’t hurt anybody. But when we rode through that spot later that day we could see where the tornado had kind of plowed through. And it was about a quarter mile wide, across the road, with trees and telephone poles and things down. So, that was probably the most memorable near miss with a large tornado.

Jeff Standridge:
Well, hopefully, we won’t have any of those today, even though the drastic weather changes and what have you. I got up the other morning, Saturday morning, my daughter and I went to breakfast. She was here visiting, and it was 34 with a heavy frost, and by the end of the day it was 72.

Jeff Amerine:
Typical spring weather in the Ozarks.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, top into the podcast. So Matt, at Innovation Junkies, what we do, on the consulting side of the house, is we focused on, of course, innovation, but we like to talk a lot about, and we find ourselves working with clients a lot in the areas of leadership, organizational effectiveness, culture, and strategy, certainly as how they relate to innovation and how they relate to the effectiveness of an organization in executing against their plan. So, let’s talk a little bit about the organization you lead, the Walton College of Business, and maybe talk a little bit about the culture of that organization and your perspective on relationship, culture, and strategy.

Matt Waller:
Sure. Well, thank you. Thank you for having me, again. It’s a pleasure to be with you two. I would say, when you talk about strategy and culture, there’s the famous quote by Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day,” something along those lines. And I tend to believe that. So, one of the things that we, back in the late nineties, we came up with our values as a college, and values are a key part of culture if they really are the values. So, the values we came up with, and again, values have to do not so much with what you want to be, but what you long for, what you think would be good for your organization to believe or to have. So, we came up with excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality as our four values. Again, this was back in the late nineties.
The values, the acronym is EPIC (excellence, professionalism, innovation, collegiality). Back then the term epic meant a long heroic story or poem. And today, of course, epic has other meanings, including great. And so that just happened over time. But back when I became Dean, back in 2015, we made a big effort to verify that those really are our values and not figuring out are we good at these things, but do we want to want achieve these things (excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality)? So, one of my Associate Deans, Anne Kelly, did an empirical study of the college, which included interviews and a survey. And we confirmed that, yes, those still are our values.
And so then, Jeff and Jeff, you’ve been in our buildings here, all three of our buildings, you see EPIC everywhere. It’s on our elevator. It’s on our hats. It’s on all kinds of things. And we talk about it. In fact, when department chairs or unit heads come to me for resources, I always bring up our values and say, “How does this fit with our values?” I also say, “How does it fit with our mission and vision?” as well. It’s funny, it felt awkward to me. I think it does for anyone when you first start really trying to embed values to talk about them so much in so many different contexts. For example, the vision of the Walton College is that through teaching, research, and service to be thought leaders and catalysts for transforming lives. So, I would bring that up a lot, “How does what we’re talking about doing affect our vision, our mission, and our values?” And that really, I think, starts to embed the idea of the culture from the values.

Jeff Standridge:
So, how do you go about—assuming that your culture evolves, but hopefully it stays relatively stable, right? That’s kind of what our hope is, that our culture is who we are. How do you see the inner workings of developing strategy on a annual basis, two year basis, every five years, or whatever, how does that relate to culture from your perspective in your institution or organization?

Matt Waller:
Before I tie it to strategy, let me tie it to the vision and mission. So, as I mentioned, the vision of the Walton College is to be a thought leader and a catalyst for transforming lives. I like to say we are catalyst for transforming lives through thought leadership. But the question that is open is, catalysts for transforming lives into what? Right? And so the answer to that is into business people who hold the values of excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality.
So, I challenged the marketing and communications team back in, I think it was 2015 or 2016. I gave him a tough challenge. I said, “We need a tagline for the Walton College that ties together our vision and our values.” Again, trying to make values the definition of our culture, because culture is about shared beliefs and values. And so, I showed them a video from the mid-nineties of Steve Jobs unveiling the “Think different” campaign. And by the way, for those listening, if you’ve no never seen it, if you Google “Steve Jobs ‘Think different’ campaign” on YouTube or Google, there’s a video of him unveiling it. Jeff, I don’t know, have you all seen this video?

Jeff Amerine:
Absolutely. Yeah.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, I have. It’s been a while, but yeah.

Matt Waller:
It’s really wonderful, but I showed it to them, and I said, “Could you all come up with something like this?” And they really impressed me with what they came up with. And they came up with Be EPIC, right? So, our values are represented by the acronym EPIC, and they came up with the “Be EPIC” campaign. I don’t know if you can see that, but it’s part of our values and our vision. So, it ties the two together. And we…

Jeff Standridge:
So, one of the key points of a tagline is “Does it stick?” Right? And so when you mentioned that you gave them the charge of coming up with a line, I wrote down on my notepad here, “Be EPIC.” Oh, it stuck with me, certainly.

Matt Waller:
Yeah, it really did. So, we created all kinds of visual images that represent EPIC in Arkansas. So, for example, we have a big picture of the Buffalo River, and it says, “Be EPIC.” But let me back up one second. When Steve Jobs rolled out “Think different,” his marketing team actually wasn’t completely on board with it. They wanted to talk about features and functions, and he wanted to talk about what’s different. And so the campaign, one of the first elements of the campaign was a painting on the side of a building in Manhattan. Muhammad Ali, standing there with gloves on and “Think different, Apple.” Another one was a picture of Einstein on, I think it was in New Jersey, a billboard and it showed Einstein. It said, “Think different, Apple.” So, they were trying to convey values and culture of “Think different.” Of course, it’s had a huge impact on their product development, more than specific features or functions.
So, we did something similar, we have pictures of EPIC people that have graduated from Walton College, like Doug McMiller, for example, and even Arkansans that aren’t alumni, like Maya Angelou and many, many others. That is just a small part of the campaign. But we also make sure that the students are aware of this through many, many different mechanisms, including classes that they take in their freshman year.

Jeff Amerine:
One kind of follow on question to all of that is you’ve got these shared values. You’re obviously thinking a lot about the tagline and how all that informs what you do every day. But sometimes corporate leaders, large institutional leaders, wonder how often should they revisit strategy. So, how often do you go back to it and think, “We need to think about strategic planning again.” And then once you do that, how do you reinforce any changes in strategy, so that people get it and it’s consistent with what you’ve set as values. So, talk a little bit about that process that you go through.

Matt Waller:
Sure. Well, we’ve changed the process over ther years, I’ve been here 28 years. So, seen a lot of strategic planning that’s been done here. Sometimes it feels like we’re always strategic planning, but we try to come up with a brand new strategic plan every five years. We didn’t this last time, because COVID, we were struggling to figure out how to survive and what to do with COVID. And so we delayed our strategic planning process a little bit, but about every five years. And the previous, the strategic plan that I inherited was good, but it didn’t really include a lot of strategy, in my opinion. Let me explain that. So, for example, one of our pillars of our strategic plan was to be outstanding teachers, right? And we had another one, be outstanding researchers. I’m not saying exactly the way it was worded, that’s the notion. To me, that’s not strategy. Those are hygiene elements, right? They say the way you can tell if you have a strategy versus a hygiene is look at the opposite. And if the opposite is ridiculous, you probably don’t have a strategy.
So, for example, we’re a college of business. Would it make sense for us to not be outstanding teachers or to not be outstanding researchers? Of course not. And that is an indication that what we’re actually talking about there is a hygiene, not a strategy. Now, I’m not saying our strategic plan didn’t have strategy in it. I think it did. Because if you look, we had specific initiatives to achieve greatness in seven of these pillars. I’m not going through all of them right now, but seven of them, in my opinion, were pretty much hygiene elements.
And so right now, we are in the midst of a strategic planning process. Maybe towards the end of it. We started, actually, some during the pandemic. And one of the things that we did early on in the strategic planning process was we did a lot of sense making. Sense making is when you look at the environment around you and say, “What does this mean? And what does this mean for us?” So, we we looked at things like trends in demographics for graduating high school students, trends in terms of what companies are looking for in alumni and students, and all kinds of trends. We looked at lots of trends. We said, as a leadership team, we said, “What do these trends mean for us? What decisions do we have to make as a result of these trends?” So, we did that. We also got a lot of other people involved in the process, but then it really slowed us down on that. We restarted, and we’ve used lots of interviews and discussions with groups within the college.
So, to answer your question, about every five years we want to come up with a new strategic plan. Two, we want to make sure that there is procedural justice involved in any strategic plan that we create. And procedural justice, I don’t mean that in the legal sense, but in the organization, that is, people feel like they had a voice in it. Did they have a voice in it? When you’re creating strategy, of course, you want to make sure that your strategies align with your values and your vision and mission really clearly, but you also want to make sure that everyone’s been heard. It doesn’t mean that every idea that comes out of every mouth is incorporated, but there needs to be an attempt to incorporate and/or rethink things, even if it takes a long time, a lot of effort, because that’s key for getting buy-in.

Jeff Amerine:
Yeah. Ultimately, you want people to internalize it as well. That process of making them part of the process means they’re going to internalize it, and it will inform what they do every day, rather than it being something that’s kind of thrust upon them from upon high. That makes perfect sense.

Matt Waller:
Yeah. And so, we’re still in the process of doing that. We’ve come out with five strategies that we’re not ready to go public with because we’re not sure, especially one of them is a question. But for this last group of strategies, we interviewed lots of faculty and staff and students. And one thing we asked is, “For this group of five, is there any you would throw out?” And there was one that a lot of people, you could tell they were hesitating with, but the bottom line was nobody felt any of the five should be thrown out. And that’s huge to get to that point. Actually, I’ve not seen that happen quite like that before. It makes me think that they probably are good strategies, at this point. But then once you get the strategies in place you’ve got to make sure that you’re allocating resources to achieve those.
One thing I should mention that you all may not know, one thing that is also affecting our strategy, and may require us to make a few changes to what we’re planning on doing, is our growth. So, just to give you an idea, two years ago, the incoming freshman class was 1,400 students, which was huge. This past incoming freshman cohort was 1,900.

Jeff Amerine:
Hmm. Wow.

Matt Waller:
That was a big increase.

Jeff Amerine:
That is.

Matt Waller:
Based on housing contracts and admits, it’s looking like 400 freshmen, which will represent about 1/3 of all freshmen coming into the University of Arkansas. So, we’re going to have about 1,000 more freshmen this year than we had last year at the University. And 800 of them, about, are in the Walton College, not exactly 800. And some is a little bit up in the air now, but I am pretty confident we’ll have 2,400 students in the fall, based on history and patterns that we see. This kind of growth is very difficult to deal with, and it exposed issues, and from an entrepreneurship perspective, it’s kind of like we’re in the scaling phase. We are scaling right now. There’s no question about it.
In 2015, when I became Dean, we had around 5,000 students. Right now, we’ve got about 7,100, and we were forecasting that it would take about 10 years to get to 10,000 from last year. And now we’re forecasting about four to five years to get to 10,000 students in the business school. And that kind of growth reveals problems in business processes. A lot of times people say, “Well, the growth isn’t good because it causes problems.” But the reality is, those problems existed before the growth did. And so, the growth is good because it uncovers where there are problems and then we can address those problems and improve the process, regardless of whether or not we continue to grow.

Jeff Standridge:
You bring up an interesting point, and one thing I’d like to get your perspective on is this enrollment cliff that I know a lot of universities, in general, are beginning to think about. 2026, they’re expecting an enrollment cliff of 18 year olds entering college to drop off considerably, yet you’re planning significant scaling growth through that period. So, can you talk a little bit about that and your perspective on that?

Matt Waller:
Yeah, well, the enrollment cliff’s already hit. If you look at enrollment at most universities in our region, you see a decrease. The numbers I’ve seen, you see it in the newspaper, but if you look at the United States, this year alone, we will have 1 million fewer students at universities. So, the enrollment cliff started, actually, a few years ago. If you look at enrollment, in college, in the state of Arkansas, for example, it clearly already started hitting. Texas is one of the few states that, I think maybe it’s Texas and Utah, that don’t have that enrollment cliff coming. And we, of course, get a lot of students from Texas.
One good thing for Arkansas about all the students we’re importing from Texas and other states—we’ve got a lot of students coming from Missouri, Illinois, all over the country really—is that a certain percentage of them stay. And Arkansas, one of the biggest impediments to economic growth in Arkansas is going to be managerial and leadership talent. So, we feel like we’re contributing in that way. So, why are we growing when higher-ed is not growing, in general, and why do we think it will continue? We do lots of things around—we’ve got the innovative programs, for one thing, and then we keep adding innovative programs.
We’re getting students more engaged in those programs, but we also answer questions. For example, when students are going to college, a real common question they have is “How do I apply for scholarships? How do I get an into housing?” We have created short blogs on the Walton College website, Walton Insights, it’s called. For example, one of them is titled, “How do you apply for scholarships in the Walton Colleges?” Laid out, it has very clear information on how to do it. And we also have things like, “How do you choose a major in business?” We’ve got a blog on that. “What do you learn if you major in Economics?” On and on and on, we kind of look for “What problems and questions do parents and students have when they’re trying to pick a school?” And then we answer it in the shortest, easiest, most accessible way possible. It sounds kind of silly, but you would look at the traffic on the Walton College website, and compare it to other business schools in the SEC area, in the US, really, we have had a sharp increase in traffic since August of 2017. Of course, we started at the bottom.
If you look at the key words we ranked for on Google search, in August of 2017, we were at about 1,500. Now, we’re at about 80,000. And our web traffic, even last month, our web traffic had a sharp increase. And again, it’s not that we—the key metric isn’t web traffic. The key metric is how well we’re addressing questions people have and how engaged do we get students and prepare them for a career. We’ve put thought into this over the past few years. In fact, some of you know Karen Boston, she’s Senior Assistant Dean. She has the new title, years ago we gave her a title called Chief Student Officer. So, she looks at everything from orientation to placement, and realized that our business processes weren’t working properly and that way we were very siloed, right?
The Career Center was very separate from Advising, which was very—all these things were in their own little silos. And Karen has put in a process that links them all. All students have to take something called Freshman Business Connections their first semester of their freshman year, where they think about, “Why am I here? Why am I getting a degree? What do I want my resume to look like in four years when I graduate?” And that can, of course, evolve. We’ve got online tools that help students keep track of everything they’re doing. They create an electronic log, if you will, because by the time you graduate, and say, your junior year, before the senior year, a lot of times students will start putting together their resumes, and they don’t remember all the interesting projects they’ve won and internships and guest speakers they’ve met and on and on. This is now in their log. They’ve got a record of this, now, from the very beginning. And it helps them, if you kind of know where you want to go and you start making progress towards it, you pivot a little bit as you go, but where you want to go can shift too while you’re here. When you’re 17 years old, it’s hard to know what you want to do, but as you start maturing, you get a better idea.

Jeff Standridge:
Well, let’s talk about your most recent book Dean’s List: Leading a Modern Business School. Tell us a little bit about what the readers will learn from your experiences, as represented in that book.

Matt Waller:
It’s funny. So, The Dean’s List is, by the way, all of the books I’ve published over the past few years, I don’t get any royalties from them. I give the royalties, the ones that are published through the University have gone to the University. The others have gone to other organizations, but The Dean’s List. So, when I became Dean in 2015, I thought, “I’ve been a professor for a long time. I’ve been a Department Chair. I’ve been an Associate Dean. I ran our EMBA program in China for a couple years, and I don’t know how to be a Dean. I really don’t know.” And so I started calling Deans around the country that were real successful business school Deans, and asking them what I should be doing to be a good Dean. And I started taking lots of notes. And then I started experimenting.
We’ve got about 150 full-time faculty. We’ve got lots of adjuncts and lectures and over 100 staff and then 7,000 students. And I thought I should take best practices that we teach in the Business School, whether it be in marketing, operations, strategy, et cetera, and experimenting with them, as I lead, even leadership theories and concepts. And so I started doing that, and I would monitor what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t. Eventually, I thought, “I should turn this into a book.” Well, before I thought I should turn into a book, I thought, “Well, I should turn this into a manual, so that the Dean that comes after me could have a game plan. They wouldn’t have to do exactly what I did, but it might help them get up to speed.” But then I realized this there’s a lot of people out there that would need this. There’s thousands of business schools around the world, and so there’s lots of Deans. So, I wrote the book.
But I’ll tell you, when you write about what you’re doing, it helps you be more strategic. And there’s other leaders who’ve done this. One is Charles Morgan. He’s done a lot of writing, internally and even of books. And he really believes that it helped him be more strategic and intentional in his leadership. When you’re writing a book, for example, as I was writing The Deans List, I would get to points where I was reading and think, “Well, I’d like to see this turn out this way, before I published this book.” So, it took me a long time to publish the book because I actually wanted to accomplish some things to be in the book. So, it made me more strategic, I think, in that way. This is not going to be a Best Seller by any means. The market’s very small for this book.

Jeff Standridge:
Well, Best Seller versus impactful, right? We’re looking for impactful, and I’m anxious to read it, myself. I hadn’t had a chance to do that yet, but not even being a business Dean, I’m very involved with higher education and look forward to learning from it. We’re talking with Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Dean Waller, great to have you with us today.

Matt Waller:
Thank you so much for having me. It was a blast.

Jeff Amerine:
Yeah, thanks for coming on. Appreciate all you do.

Jeff Standridge:
Absolutely. You’re an EPIC force in the business world, in the state of Arkansas, and we appreciate it.

Matt Waller:
Well, thank you. I appreciate what you two are doing to drive innovation entrepreneurship in Arkansas. So, thank you as well.

Jeff Amerine:
Absolutely.

Jeff Standridge:
Yes, sir. This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkies Podcast. Thank you for joining.

Jeff Amerine:
See you next time.

Jeff Amerine (Outro):
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