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Purposeful Disruption: UNCF Career Pathways Initiative Keynote (video)

I recently had the honor of delivering a keynote address at the third annual UNCF Career Pathways Initiative Convening & Data Institute. In my remarks, I discussed the value of purposeful disruption as a tool to help leaders address the many challenges that HBCUs — and all of higher education — face today.

A transcript of my remarks is available on my speeches page.

Afterwards, I sat down for a fireside chat with UNCF President & CEO Dr. Michael L. Lomax, during which we discussed the challenges leaders face when managing change.


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Overcoming Obstacles: Believe Bigger

Last month, I gave a commencement speech at Southland College Prep Charter High School, outside of my hometown of Chicago. While I was focused on the graduating class before me, one of the points I made—about overcoming obstacles—is applicable to all of us, at all stages of our personal and professional lives.

For all of us, overcoming obstacles demands resilience, fortitude, and fearlessness. But I like to say that in the mess lies the message. Amid chaos and change, we can find our place of purpose, the sweet spot where we can have our greatest impact.

How? First, fight each day like your life depends on it. Refuse to take “no” for an answer. And when you find yourself down, take a deep breath and believe bigger.

Second, challenge the limiting beliefs that hold you back. Get in control of what you believe. Make sure your worst enemy is not living between your two ears. You have to stop yourself from stopping yourself and choose actions that are in your own best interest.

Third, choose your circle carefully. It is not about how many people you know, but what company you keep. Your inner circle should be filled with people with their own testimony; they should be able to share with you how they have come out on the other side of trials and tribulations. Be very weary of people who claim to have not faced any challenges because either they have and they’re in denial, which does no one any good, or they’re about to and you want to avoid being caught in the middle.

Fourth, feel fear and do it anyway. If it scares you, it usually means you are on to something. Leap into your life with excitement and enthusiasm. Step out on faith, even if it means making a mistake. God, the universe, spirit – whatever you call your guiding light – offers enough grace to put you right where you need to be. What is worse? Not taking the risk, not leaping, and living with regret? One of my favorite motivational videos is Steve Harvey’s “Jump” because it lets you know that everything you want is on the other side of fear.

Fifth, invest in yourself. It is here you will see the greatest returns. Realize that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. everything you need to be successful is already inside you. All you have to do is honor your intuition and say, “no” to whomever or whatever does not feel right to you.

And for the sixth and final way you can believe bigger: fail early and often. I am inspired by Michael Jordan’s iconic words shared in an ESPN interview: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Michael Jordan missed 9,000 shots in regulation play. Imagine how many more shots he missed during practice! Perhaps tens of thousands of shots that no one saw.

The difference between average people and high achievers is their perception of, and response to, failure. Failing is inevitable, but using failure as a stepping stone takes guts, persistence and an unshakeable self-confidence.

We all possess these skills. As motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says, it’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.

Believe bigger.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

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HPEG: Leading Transformative Change in Higher Education

I contributed a post to Voices in Education, the blog of Harvard Education Publishing, which earlier this month released my book. Building on themes in Reinvention: The Promise and Challenge of Transforming a Community College System, I make the case for why all of us in higher education must move our institutions more quickly to adapt to the disruptive changes around us:

Though it’s encouraging to see institutions implement initiatives that are more responsive to the needs of students, employers, and communities, their leaders must reconsider outmoded ways of thinking and acting, as utilizing old frameworks will only deliver limited impact. We must recognize that our current students continue to struggle with confusing systems and structures that make it difficult for them to navigate our institutions. Their lives depend on our ability to help them navigate the system and gain the relevant skills they need to improve their own futures.

Among the principles that drive a systemic and systematic approach to change which I discuss in my book and the blog post are insistence on full relevance, strategic use of data, personalized information and planning, best practice operations and training, and cultural shifts.

Read more at Voices in Education, the Harvard Education Publishing blog, here.

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Why Leadership Must Move at the Pace of Disruption

(This post was originally published on LinkedIn). 

In virtually everything in life, information matters, but insight matters more. That’s in no small part due to the increasingly rapid pace of change in the word around us, which challenges us as leaders to assess different scenarios, identify the data that matters most, and provide others with the right infrastructure, support, and tools to act at the pace of the disruption around us.

I recently published a book, Reinvention: The Promises and Challenges of Transforming a Community College System, about my experience as chancellor of a large community college system. During my tenure, I didn’t think about writing a book about the experience. But my experiences as a student, corporate executive and later as the leader of an academic institution taught me some important lessons, including the one that permeates every chapter of my book– that we must move faster to transform our higher education system. The question we need to answer is do our traditional delivery models leave our students with too much debt and credentials that may have limited value in the workplace. While the experiences in my book are viewed through the lens of transforming a community college system, the principles can be applied more broadly.

We live in a rapidly changing society. Nothing is staying the same, including jobs and industries. As a result, the gap continues to widen between the demand for skilled workers and the availability of people to fill them, which in turn exacerbates our nation’s growing inequality. According to a recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, there will be 165 million jobs in the economy by 2020, and 65 percent of those positions will require some form of postsecondary education.

Each year, the Manpower Group, a human resources consultancy, conducts a global survey of employers, the “Talent Shortage Survey.”  Last year, they reported that 40 percent of employers globally had difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent with hard skills, workplace competencies and experience. Technology has fundamentally changed the way industries operate. As a result, companies are seeking what The New York Times best-selling author Seth Godin referred to as “linchpins;” individuals who have the potential to transform an organization because of their unique capabilities. But before these individuals can realize their potential as linchpins, they must first have access to relevant education—and by “relevant,” I mean an education which goes beyond the alphabet soup of degrees. Competency matters most. Degrees are only as good as the quality and relevance of the classes required to pass in order to earn them. Employers care about credentials and skills that have the ability to drive and transform their institutions.

For higher education to continue to play a significant role in closing the skills gap in the United States, we as a sector need to acknowledge that we have a problem—that for all our noteworthy efforts to focus our institutions around better supporting students and making their education more relevant, we are simply not moving as quickly as the disruptive forces around us. There are three significant trends that compel that we transform our education system in the U.S. and quickly:

1. Success is Equally as Important as Access: Community colleges and many four-year institutions were built on a paradigm of access, and with the growth of free college programs that provide free tuition to community college students in many states and cities across the country, we’re moving to a point where the first two years of college may someday be as universal as K-12 education has been for the last century. However, as community colleges continue to expand their ability to provide access, it’s also time to commit more fully to a paradigm of success. Many institutions have made impressive steps in this direction by providing a broader range of supports for students. To achieve success, institutions must commit to systemic and systematic change with measurable goals that leaders are held accountable to and are transparent about.

2.    Relevance is key. Even if more college students are supported and attain a degree or credential, those efforts will not be fruitful if our institutions don’t offer a curriculum that is either tied directly to employment with not loss in future momentum or the ability to transfer to a four-year institution without loss of credit. As chancellor, one of the key initiatives that we (along with many other community colleges) implemented was the creation of pathways which provided students with a clear path between the classes/credits they earned and their academic/professional aspirations. The pathways concept has since spread across the country as a best practice, but it’s vital to ensure those pathways are relevant to the industries and employers our students want to become parts of, and supported by effective advising so students fully understand their options and how they connect with their life and career goals.

3.    Disruption is on the horizon; it’s not “if” but “when”: The education market is estimated to be about $1.3 trillion, with $475 billion of that attributed to higher education. It’s important that the industry recognize that we are equally as ripe for disruption from non-traditional players as other industries. Consider what’s happened to the retail sector because of Amazon, the hotel/lodging industry because of Airbnb, and the taxi and limousine industry due to Uber and Lift. For the education sector, the increased validity and penetration of online courses, specialized technical training courses and free online education from resources such as altMBA are already a  challenge. Unlike the private sector, in many cases higher-ed leaders are constrained by regulations and policies that don’t always constrain these disruptors in the same ways, creating even greater challenges—and the need to drive change beyond our campuses, but in our governing bodies as well.

Disruption is inevitable; but for leaders in every sector it is undeniably better to drive and capitalize on disruption from within rather than have it forced upon you. And we’re seeing exciting examples of transformation throughout higher education— statewide career pathways in Tennessee, the creation of a new community college in New York City focused on systems change, and programs offering free tuition for recent high school graduates and, at times, adult learners, in cities and states across the country. Writing this book reignited my commitment to speak up about the importance of revolutionizing our approach to higher education. Put simply, people’s lives depend on our ability to transform our system—too many are slipping through the cracks, getting lost in the system or receiving credentials with limited value. And with the pace of disruption around us, if we focus instead on piecemeal change, our students won’t stick around and wait for us to put our houses in order.

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A Leadership Perspective on Taking Risks

Ever hear someone say, “you snooze, you lose?” To most it’s just a clever cliché, but companies like Amazon, Netflix, Uber and Airbnb have used it as a core business principle to disrupt entire industries. In today’s marketplace, disruption is the new norm. The common thread among the casualties of disruption has been a failure to recognize the need for innovation or moving too slowly to adapt to change.

Most of us know that the biggest risk we can take—professionally and for the organizations we lead—is taking no risk at all. While we encourage our employees to take risks, leaders are always keenly aware that it can be a double-edged sword. We are charged with protecting the institutions we lead, but doing so through risk avoidance can be a recipe for disaster. So, how should leaders think about risk-taking as a strategic imperative for their organizations?

As someone who has worked in both the public and private sectors, I’ve learned that cultivating risk-taking as a skill and creating a risk-friendly environment for your teams is paramount for survival and success. That is not to say there aren’t pitfalls; there have plenty of instances where the risk I took didn’t work out. At the time, I didn’t imagine that the failures would lead to the tremendous insights about innovation and resilience that guided my career.

My advice to leaders is to consider the following:

1)  Hire good people, give them a framework to operate and get out of their way. In a previous article, I shared my perspective on the importance of hiring people who bring different skillsets and aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo or your assumptions. Once they’re onboard, how can you tap their creativity and experience to help drive innovation and change? First, ensure the team is aligned on the organization’s goals and metrics for success. Then, define your most critical challenges and offer the team a blank canvas to paint you a new picture packed with creative solutions. Encourage them to take risks that are free from the influence of tradition and other constraints. When you trust the knowledge and candor of the people you hire, it’s easier to let them take risks on behalf of your organization.

2)  Use your goals to guide risk-taking. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work for and be mentored by some exceptional leaders. Over the years, I’ve observed them take a variety of risks—from what would be considered measured to potentially catastrophic. The common theme among them was that their decisions were always tied to the goals of the enterprise. That’s because at the end of the day, you must be able to demonstrate the return on investment or value of the risks you and your team have taken. If it doesn’t help achieve the goals of the enterprise, then it is not worth consideration or resources. My advice to leaders is to build strategies that not only provide a clear roadmap for achieving your goals, but also embrace and equip your team with risk-taking as a critical part of their problem-solving toolbox.

3)  Think—and act—outside of the box. It’s not uncommon to hear leaders challenge employees to “think outside of the box,” but how many enterprises are prepared to have them act outside of the box? For many organizations, policies serve as invisible fences that restrict their ability to innovate. If the goal is to drive change through innovation, leaders must remove barriers by ensuring that existing policies can accommodate bold action. For leaders working in industries that are highly-regulated, I encourage you to find ways to educate regulators about policy changes that can continue to support needed innovation.

While there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating and taking risks, my hope is that these three lessons will be helpful as you lead your enterprises through this period of constant disruption. When you run into obstacles, remember this famous quote from Thomas Edison– “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

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3 Golden Rules to Consider When Hiring a Leadership Team

A senior leader is only as good as the management team that he or she assembles. I’ve learned that firsthand in both the public and private sector, and I’ve found that following three golden rules made all the difference for me when it comes to hiring the people you surround yourselves with.

1. Hire people smarter than youYour leadership team is an extension of you—it should extend and add to your skills and capabilities. And that’s doubly important if your goal as a leader is to drive transformational change in an enterprise that’s new to you.

2. Hire people who will challenge you. In an earlier article I shared that transparency isn’t just about being open about your challenges, but also about being open to the people around you. When it comes to hiring a leadership team, surround yourself with people who aren’t intimidated and can challenge your assumptions—and then give them the freedom to do so.

3. Hire people who complement you. Just like you should hire people with different skills and backgrounds to expand your knowledge, also look for people who complement your leadership style. If you have a strong personality, look for someone who can take a lighter touch in difficult discussions, or if you’re not an inspirational speaker, find the person who can fire up a room and have him or her engage with key stakeholders.

Of course, all this requires you to know yourself and exercise the kind of humility and soul-searching that comes with professional maturity. For me, it took mentors, friends, and family members who were willing to give me honest, judgement-free advice about myself, even when it wasn’t easy to hear. I also had to be willing to listen, accept the truth in their words, and do the work required for self improvement. This doesn’t mean losing your authentic self; instead just remember that if you feel like the smartest person in the room—or if you feel the need to make others on your leadership team believe that you are—you’re setting yourself up to be limited by the expertise and leadership style you already have.

While those skills and expertise landed you a senior leadership position, they’re unlikely to be enough to drive transformational change.

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Two Thoughts for Leaders Driving Change in 2018

As we begin the new year, it’s natural to reflect on the ways that we as leaders can drive change in our organizations. The good news is that most leaders now see it as self-evident that they have to be more willing to try non-traditional approaches to innovate, particularly in long-established enterprises. But often, I see people trying to bolt non-traditional strategies onto very traditional ways of doing business. That may work, but chances are it won’t work as well as we’d hope. Nor will it lead to truly innovative solutions to deeply rooted problems.

The Value of non-traditional Assets

If we are to lead transformational change, we need to marry non-traditional strategies with non-traditional skillsets, skillsets that expand our organization’s collective capacity to drive change. In my prior role as the leader of one of the largest community college systems in the nation, that meant introducing people with business expertise to the City Colleges of Chicago leadership team to ensure that a $700 million enterprise could better serve its students. Into a world of PhDs, we introduced MBAs skilled in change management and measuring outcomes in new ways. It wasn’t easy to find people willing to trade private-sector salaries for a chance to change lives, but doing so brought us new ways to cut operational costs and increase spending on instruction and capital investments. That, in turn, gave us the space to innovate in many other ways that improved the lives of our students.

Bringing business leaders into an academic enterprise drew its share of detractors, but I had a good example to follow. Mayor Richard M. Daley assumed significant risk by appointing me—a seasoned business executive with no higher education experience—to lead the community college system I once attended. This decision was further validated by Mayor Emanuel, who instructed me to double down on efforts that would drive change. They knew my story and believed it mattered—a homeless high school dropout who, thanks to the community college system, found her way back and grew into an accomplished business executive. I’d like to think my non-traditional mindset helped drive the change I wanted to bring about.

Transparency should be a catalyst for change

Throughout my tenure as chancellor, we utilized transparency as a catalyst for innovation. With both internal audiences and the public, I was very open about the shortcomings of our efforts to make change at City Colleges, and data helped to make it clear where we were falling short and how far we needed to go. Being transparent and using objective data are essential to underscoring the need for change and building support for innovative ideas that take people out of their comfort zones. But then, how do you turn those ideas into action?

I’d argue that along with being transparent about the vital statistics of your enterprise, you must create an environment where its leadership team—and ultimately, everyone with a stake in its success—also can personally be transparent. I’m not just talking about creating an environment where people can be vocal about what they think, but one where they can be transparent about who they are—their personalities, their leadership styles, and the ways in which they see the world. There’s nothing less productive than a room full of people sitting around trying not to offend each other. Organizations thrive when leaders create an environment that goes beyond acceptance and includes genuine appreciation of candor and personal integrity.

Again, I was lucky enough to have a good example to follow. When I worked at the utility Exelon in the wake of a series of outages that contributed to chaos during one of Chicago’s blistering heatwaves, CEO John Rowe took full responsibility for the company’s failures. A billion dollars in infrastructure investments followed, but it was his honesty and willingness to seek new answers from a wide range of strong-willed individuals that turned the tide.

So as you look ahead to this year, I urge you to be intentional in your efforts to add non-traditional skillsets to your organization; they have the potential to unlock new ways of thinking, solving problems and driving transformational change.