South Louisiana Community College’s Culture Transformation Began With Senior Leadership

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”
— Gruneter and Whitaker

In Brief

3-Minute Read

Leaders of any organization, department or division, rely on the quality work of their team to succeed. Great teams thrive in a positive culture, and leaders ultimately create the culture of the work environment. A trusted leader has the power to transform culture, by being a role model of the values and behaviors that exist in a positive work environment.


  • South Louisiana Community college turned around failing finances and enrollment by first fixing the cultural issues at the foundation of their problems.

  • Leadership often struggles to find the root cause of low morale until they seek systematic feedback from their employees.

  • Positive change must be modeled by senior leadership, relentlessly and consistently, to drive change at the system level.

In 2012, South Louisiana Community College (SLCC) hired Dr. Natalie Harder as the new Chancellor. Within four months of this transition, SLCC merged with Acadiana Technical College (ATC). Both institutions faced declining enrollment and financial fragility. Dr. Harder was determined to turn the college around. She knew that to transform the institution into a prosperous and lively college, she would first have to address the obvious low employee morale. Dr. Harder pulled the leadership teams of both colleges together to form a solid strategy. But, after months of going through the exercise, Dr. Harder realized that the desire and sense of urgency to change didn’t really exist among her leadership team.

Using Employee Feedback to Identify the Root Problem

Dr. Harder felt as if she was on this transformation journey alone. At first she thought she wasn’t being clear enough with her team. She adjusted her communication approach, but the organization didn’t seem to be responding. The same issues kept arising year after year:

  • She couldn’t identify who what a change leader and who was a barrier.
  • The staff reinforced silos.
  • Leaders always had excuses for not following processes.

How could an organization whose leaders weren’t engaged in improvement expect employees to be ready to own the challenge in front of them?

To bring the employee voice in on identifying the problem, SLCC worked with Huron to administer their first employee engagement survey. The survey sought feedback in nine different areas about how employees felt about their work and the work environment.

The survey revealed the lowest overall score ever received in relation to the higher education sector benchmark for the Huron Employee Engagement Survey. “There it was in black and white. For all of my hard work, what had I done?” Dr. Harder asked the audience at a Destination High Performance conference. “I didn’t help the institution at all”. In reviewing the results, she noticed that the lowest score came from her senior leadership team.

I was not focusing on building an awesome team…I stood up in front of the entire college and said ‘I hear you and I promise you that we’re going to be different. And I promise that I’m going to focus on senior leadership and that team is going to focus on their teams.

The SLCC Transformation Journey

For the next year, Dr. Harder focused on her team and her team focused on the institution. In the second-year survey, they saw significant improvement. In one year, the senior leadership score set a new benchmark for the most significant positive movement. “[The results] told me that even if we didn’t get everything done or what we did do wasn’t perfect, working on the team aspect of SLCC is what made the difference.”

By the fourth-year survey, the overall scores across all teams had notably increased.

It doesn’t take 20 years to make change…We knew that internally we were changing our culture and that our transformation was going on. Those three years were three years of waking up, building [an amazing] team and repeating... If you wake up and focus on your team every single day, I promise you that the transformation, the culture within your program, department or division, it can change… I promise you that you can really be successful on behalf of your students.


To create a culture where great teams do great work with great impact, leaders must:
  • Think differently.
    Recognize that positive culture is the bedrock of positive results.
  • Plan differently.
    Create a schedule that intentionally includes seeking structured feedback from employees.
  • Act differently.
    Use the data from employee feedback to identify the need for change and create a plan to action around that need.

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