This story was published in the Spring 2012 issue of “Inside Columbia’s CEO” magazine. Read more from that issue at ColumbiaCEO.com
The telephone call came from out of the blue. When Tim Wolfe picked up in his Walpole, Mass., home one summer morning last year, he had no idea who was on the other end of the line. In fact, it was University of Missouri Curator Warren Erdman, but as Wolfe soon found out, the “why” was as significant as the “who”: Opportunity was calling.
Erdman, then-chairman of the Board of the Curators, had spent the first half of the year searching for a new president of the University of Missouri system. He and the other curators, along with search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates, were compiling a list of potential candidates to replace Gary Forsee, who stepped down Jan. 7, 2011, to care for his wife, Sherry, in her battle against cancer. Wolfe’s name was on his list.
Caught off-guard, Wolfe peppered Erdman with a series of incredulous questions. Today, he laughs at the memory
For Erdman, there was no question of fit. “I think he was a bit surprised to get a call from me,” he says. “I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. I just knew [business school] Dean Joan Gabel was very high on Tim and that was good enough for me to at least call and start a dialogue with him.”
The dialogue may have started that day, but Erdman had his work cut out for him.
“I would describe it in phases,” he says. “Phase I was introducing him to the concept and then selling him on the idea of just being a candidate; Phase II was meeting him in person and getting him comfortable about the unique opportunity to make his native Missouri better if he were to became president of the university system; Phase III was the more formal candidate interview process with the search committee, which included three interviews and extensive background examination and skills assessment.”
Wolfe had his own homework plans. He’d recently left Novell Corp. when his position as president of the Americas was eliminated in a buyout by Attachmate. His “funemployment,” as he calls it, made the timing optimal for this new opportunity. As his interest grew, he set out to do his own research, and credits a conversation with Gary Forsee as the turning point in his thinking.
“His view was very compelling,” Wolfe says.
The curators found Wolfe’s candidacy compelling as well, and on Dec. 13 named him the 23rd president of the university. He would have two months for a crash course in all things UM before he officially took office in mid-February, just in time to deal with the system’s twin financial woes of shrinking state resources and a pressing need for belt-tightening as administrators try to bridge a widening funding gap.
The new job has meant a homecoming for 53-year-old Wolfe. Born in Iowa City, Iowa, he moved to Columbia in the fourth grade when his father, Joe, joined the MU faculty, an appointment that stretched into a 30-year career of teaching broadcast and film classes in the Communication Department until his retirement in 1997. His mother, Judith, earned four degrees from MU and taught in Columbia Public Schools; she is currently an assistant professor of law and director of information resources at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover.
Wolfe defines growing up in Columbia as “great childhood, great friends, healthy environment, great schools, lots to do.” The second of the Wolfes’ four children, he was a Boy Scout, a paperboy and an athlete; as quarterback, he led the Rock Bridge High School Bruins to the 1975 Class 3A state championship in his senior year.
Football offered its own lessons in leadership, says Wolfe’s teammate and current MU Head Baseball Coach Tim Jamieson.
“Tim’s greatest strength was his leadership,” says Jamieson, who as a junior played backup to Wolfe. “Our coach had the quarterbacks call their own plays, which was unusual even back then. We had a great deal of talent on offense so Tim had to manage the game and the personalities on the team. He was well-liked and well-respected, which is not common among all leaders.”
Wolfe spent his college days at Mizzou, where he joined Beta Theta Pi fraternity, worked at The Pasta Factory, and liked to hang out at Harpo’s and Bullwinkle’s. He earned a bachelor’s degree in personnel management in 1980.
After graduation, Wolfe went to work for IBM as a sales representative in Jefferson City, and then moved up as a manager in Kansas City. While in Kansas City, he met and married his wife, Molly, a University of Kansas graduate with a degree in business who also worked at IBM. The couple has two children, 17-year-old twins Tyler and Madison.
Wolfe spent 20 years at IBM, eventually becoming vice president and worldwide leader of the Enterprise Resource Planning Unit, and later serving as partnership executive for the University of Missouri and Cerner. In 1995, he completed the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program.
He was called a “change agent” at IBM. “I took over problems and fixed them,” he says.
He left IBM in 2000 as vice president and general manager of the global distribution sector to join Covansys, a global consulting and technology services company headquartered in Michigan. As executive vice president, Wolfe led a large, international team in consulting engagements, taking advantage of an offshore development model. The company rebranded from CBSI to Covansys and changed its strategy during his three-year tenure.
Wolfe joined Novell, an infrastructure software provider, in 2003. As Novell’s president of the Americas, he oversaw the company’s strategy, product development, mergers and acquisitions, marketing investments and community service initiatives, and implemented a shared services model for key operational units. He negotiated the sale of Novell to Attachmate last spring; shareholder value jumped 40 percent after the sale, but in the subsequent restructuring, Wolfe’s position was eliminated.
“The process of selling the company was very challenging, tedious and frustrating,” he says. “Running a company that has publicly declared it is looking for a buyer puts a lot of stress on client relationships and keeping your people. But overall, the experience at Novell was very positive.”
Trulaske College of Business Dean Joan Gabel also sees pluses in Wolfe’s Novell experience. “He did what any great leader does,” Gabel says. “He implemented a positive exit strategy for his company.”
Gabel first met Wolfe shortly after she arrived at MU in 2010. “Tim was the first ‘executive-in-residence’ I hosted as dean,” she says. “It’s a program where business leaders come in for a day and give presentations. I was new here — just a couple of weeks in. When I met him, I mentioned that I planned to ask for feedback from all the presenters in the program. That night, I received a multipage, detailed email on opportunities for improvement at the college. It was such a constructive critique — this is stuff I still look to, two years later. He has a unique perspective and he communicates it in a clear, helpful and strategic style.”
Gabel tapped Wolfe to be a member of the business school’s Strategic Development Board, a list of names she referred to when Erdman asked her for suggestions of potential presidential candidates.
“Most of the CEOs we work with are excellent leaders and they love MU,” Gabel says. “Tim stood out because he could take what he has learned in his leadership journey and apply it. He can bridge academia and his experience in large business organizations. He gets it.”
The past few months since Wolfe was named president have put the new CEO on the fast track to learning everything he can about the four-campus system, a period he calls his “journey of enlightenment.”
He was a quick study, says MU Chancellor Brady Deaton. “Tim is open, inquisitive and eager to learn, focused and strategic,” Deaton says, “and he has firm ideas for getting our message out to the public.”
Former Interim President Steve Owens is a fan. “He immediately impressed me and others with his passion for higher education and the University of Missouri, his remarkable work ethic — he worked every day for six weeks before he was on the payroll — and his intellect, especially in quickly grasping some of the unique aspects of academia.”
Erdman calls him “the best listener that I’ve ever met. He genuinely wants to learn from every conversation. He respects the opinions and experiences of others and really applies what he learns to his own informed decision-making.”
“Listen. Listen to your clients or the market, listen to your people, listen to experts,” he says. “In most cases, all of these people will inform you as to what is required for success.”
He terms his leadership style as “inclusive, engaged and collaborative.”
“Implicit in leadership is trust,” he says. “You facilitate where you want to be, and allow the people you lead to find the best route. If you can bring people to the table and get them to focus on arriving at a consensus … that’s the power of conversation. You have to include everyone in how they define goals and achievements, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hold them accountable.”
Wolfe has no plans for immediate changes in the university system’s organizational structure. “Organizational changes do not improve performance or results,” he says. “Out of the conversations come priorities and resources. Then, down the road, you can look at meaningful change.”
His role, he says, is to be the leader of the University of Missouri system, and help the four campuses, plus the health care system and Extension Service, achieve the goals defined in their mission statements. “They are all unique and serve different constituencies,” he says.
Economic development is part of each campus’ mission, as integral as teaching, research and service, Wolfe adds. “Missouri is in a race for jobs, and that race is a global one. We have to provide a business-friendly climate in the state to attract business and convince those already here to expand. The $64,000 question is, ‘How?’ With an educated workforce, we have a value proposition for companies: if you locate here, rest assured you’ll have graduates prepared for success, in a business environment complemented by research and innovation.”
Economic development, he says, “is about getting business, higher education, the city and the state to focus together on opportunities in the marketplace, as one industry in partnership.”
The clock is ticking on Wolfe’s first challenges as University of Missouri president. A $47 million budget gap must be resolved before the fiscal year begins in July. As he told the Board of Curators in a teleconference Feb. 20, “There’s one thing I want to make clear: We need more help. Without more resources, we face the loss of jobs and the loss of programs. There are programs, functions and roles that we can no longer afford.”
He has no specifics yet for the budget cuts that are coming, calling the process “a work in progress,” yet he concedes that three-fourths of the university’s budget is personnel, raising the specter of layoffs in Columbia where the largest employer is the system’s flagship campus.
The Board of Curators is looking to the new president’s corporate expertise to help in that arena. “President Wolfe’s business acumen will be essential in working with our campus chancellors to narrow our $47 million budget gap next year,” says chairman David Bradley. “We feel that Tim will collaborate with staff to make the least painful choices to bring our university expenses in line with revenue.”
The system’s strategic plan will influence where the cuts occur, Wolfe says. “Our top priorities are student academic success and raising salaries so we can pay our people market rates.”
But where to find that help, those extra resources, to stave off the next round of cuts as traditional sources of public higher education funding erode?
Owens notes that Wolfe is already committed to enhancing outside sources of revenue — such as creating more public/private partnerships — and allocating resources to those areas of that are vital in maintaining quality.
Wolfe is looking for a partnership with the people of the Show-Me State. “We have to make all 6 million Missourians aware of what we’re doing at the University of Missouri. We have to give them a reason to care. When people care, they get involved and they help find those resources.”
He began crafting an awareness campaign his first day on the job, and issued a call to action to faculty, staff and students to tell the university’s story.
“We’re going to convince every Missourian of the power and value of our four unique campus brands, our health care system and Extension Service,” he says. “By the way, that’s the easy part. We have much to brag about.
“The University of Missouri system is the biggest asset in the state. It’s my job to make sure everyone knows that — and they will.”
Looking For Mr. Right
The University of Missouri Board of Curators set out to find a new president for the four-campus system last year with this checklist of qualifications:
- Have passion for public higher education and university’s unique mission
- Lead with vision, and inspire creativity and innovation for a sustainable future
- Leverage the university’s resources to advance the state’s economy, education, health and culture
- Serve as a tireless champion for public higher education issues such as quality, access and affordability
- Create and sustain a culture of transparency, accountability and shared governance
- Be an effective and compelling communicator
- Cultivate strategic relationships with academic, political, business and other relevant constituencies
- Have the academic, business and political acumen necessary to lead a complex and diverse system, including the ability to effect change through strategic decision-making
- Champion a working and learning environment that reflects strong positive values, diversity and integrity
- Assemble, develop and empower an excellent team of leaders and be able to work with a diverse board of curators
- Understand and respect the differences among the four campuses
- Appreciate the state of Missouri and Midwest history, culture, socioeconomic environment and aspiration
“We were looking for the candidate who best met all of the candidate criteria that our stakeholders told us they wanted in their next president from our statewide stakeholder feedback meetings,” says Curator Warren Erdman who, as then-chairman of the board presided over last year’s presidential search. “Tim Wolfe best met all of those criteria.”
In his free time, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe enjoys running, golf, fly-fishing, reading and music.
He runs more for mental exercise than physical. “It is my ‘think’ time,” he says. Wolfe has clocked times in a variety of organized runs, from 5Ks to marathons, and set an 8:12 pace for himself in the 1993 New York City Marathon to finish in 3:35:11.
His golf handicap is in the low teens; favorite courses are Augusta National in Georgia and Pebble Beach in California.
A favorite fly-fishing spot is Montana, but his best haul came out of Alaska.
He likes the work of most mystery authors when reading for pleasure. As for nonfiction, “I recently read Reframing Academic Leadership by Joan Gallos and Lee Bolman,” he says. “Joan and Lee are faculty members on the UMKC campus and it was a great read.”
A guitar player, Wolfe’s musical tastes run to country when he’s tuning in to the radio, “but I listen to almost everything — jazz, rock, classical — it is all on my iPod.”