In February 2023, the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) celebrated the 100th episode of its Innovating Together Podcast. To honor the occasion, UIA founder and CEO Bridget Burns sat in the guest chair, this time answering questions instead of asking them. She spoke about the origins of the podcast, the challenges that all higher ed leaders share regardless of institution, the roles of generosity and kindness in leadership, and the necessary qualities of humanity and humility.
The Human Face of Higher Ed Leadership
Dr. Burns explained how the Innovating Together Podcast took shape in the early months of COVID:
"There was a palpable sense that people were looking for optimism and leadership. It really depended on the institution that you were at, because not everyone is a compelling leader. And we wanted to elevate and amplify the voices that had a vision. Then, a few months in, people started saying, 'Can you please record an audio version?' You create what your audience asks of you. That's where this started. So now here we are, and it's wild to think it's been 100 episodes."
Considering the many leadership styles and ways of talking about leadership, Dr. Burns approached the UIA's guests on the Weekly Wisdom series with a strong sense of what the audience wanted from this podcast:
"I asked them to please not bring the talking point version of themselves. This is about wisdom, about sharing insights that you've learned that are probably not something that is already on a poster somewhere. We know what questions our viewers like, and what they engage with. 'What's your morning routine look like? What kinds of conversations do you have to make sure you're really doing the right work?' Having the trust of presidents to go live on the Internet is a lot. I want them to realize I'm not going to pull 'got you' questions. They need that coaxing because there is this posturing and rigid, wearing-your-dad's-suit vibe for that job sometimes, where it feels like people put on the presidency and they're trying to act presidential. But the most presidential moments have been people showing their true heart and being the most human. I think you've seen that in many episodes."
Honoring the Shared Challenges of Leadership
Over the past hundred episodes, Dr. Burns and her co-hosts have continued to spotlight the shared concerns of higher ed leaders, what everyone brings to the table in one form or another:
"Underlying all of the work of the Alliance is trying to accelerate ideas, because higher ed is very obsessed with the boundaries of our own institution. If you raise your eye level up and scan the horizon, we all have the exact same problems. They have different shape and size and modality, but it's the same stuff. It's how you spend your time, it's what to put your focus and energy on. It's this sense of loneliness, of 'Am I the only one who's had to figure out how to do this one thing?' And so creating a space where people can realize that they are not alone is part of what's been missing in higher ed. We just want ideas to spread faster. And one of the ways it spreads faster is if people are more generous with their wisdom, we will be a better place, we'll be a better workforce, we'll be more effective."
Citing just one memorable moment of a leader voicing a powerful, eloquent truth, Dr. Burns recalled a 2020 conversation with Arizona State University President Michael Crow:
"He talks about that we're just sailing, that these are choppy winds, these are intense seas, but it's just sailing. The day-to-day work of leadership is still the same. It's the nuts and bolts, it's the same bone structure, it's just the conditions that change. And for me that was a profound thing; as someone who gets to work with him all the time, he'd never shared that prior."
She added that President Crow consistently shows many of the leadership qualities that the UIA hopes to surface in its podcast:
"Observing him during the year of my ACE Fellowship was profound for me. He always helps people see a much bigger idea than they could possibly fathom. It's defined not by who we exclude, but by who we include and how they succeed. Every moment he's lifting your chin up and you're seeing a bigger idea. There are a lot of people who have managed or administrated their way into the presidency, and they are a good manager or good administrator, but there are actually very few true iconic leaders, people who have a clear, compelling vision, who get you excited and enrolled in that vision. Leadership is a real thing. It is actually something you can emulate."
Advice From and For Higher Ed Leaders
Dr. Burns often asks our guests to share the best leadership advice they've received in their career, as well as the advice they frequently give to future leaders. As the founder and CEO of a leadership-based organization, here's how she answered those questions:
"The thing that helped me in my career was advice that from someone who later became my best friend but was my roommate at the time. 'Do the job you want to do, not just the job you're given.' And a year from getting that advice, I became senior policy advisor and chief of staff of the university system. And it was entirely because I just started doing the work that needed to be done. If I see a problem, I try and address it, and in a way that invites people to be part of it. That changed my career."
The future of higher ed is likely to be shaped by current members of the UIA Fellows Program, and Dr. Burns said that she often starts by sharing Maya Angelou's wisdom with them:
"How people feel when they're around you is really what matters. And in any new circumstance, we try and describe why we deserve to be there -- and higher ed's very status oriented. As much as you can, quiet that in yourself and focus on being interested in other people. It changes everything. People really want to answer an interesting question about themselves. Giving them the gift of contemplation and reflection is one of the kindest things you can do. That has been really helpful for me, and I always recommend that for other people."
As someone who collects leadership wisdom on a weekly basis, Dr. Burns' collection of advice is always growing. She gave an example from Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, Former President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County:
"Taking care of yourself is the actual job, because decision-making is hard and leading is hard, but if you don't focus on protecting and preserving your energy so that you have the energy to do the job, then you cannot be a leader. It's helpful for people to give you permission to really take care of yourself."
Recommended Reading for Institutional Leaders
We usually end our conversations about higher ed leadership by asking guests to recommend books that have influenced and inspired them. Dr. Burns offered us two titles:
"If there's one book that you read as a leader, Leadership and Self-Deception makes a huge difference. Your brain is set up to tell you that you're right and that other people are wrong. And it's one of the important things as a leader to understand that you don't deceive yourself. The instinct you need to listen to is to apologize, to own it, to be more generous. You have to intentionally choose not to believe that you are always right and to actively seek out perspectives that counter that.
"The Speed of Trust speaks to an important growth phase for the UIA, understanding that you cannot make withdrawals unless you've made deposits, so building trust with people before you're asking for favors and understanding that trust is really a lubricant. It's the most important thing. And that's why I over-deliver whenever I make a promise. Super important."
Note: This interview originally aired on February 6, 2023 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It was sponsored by the University Innovation Lab, the UIA's digital ecosystem designed to help higher ed professionals accelerate innovation in student success with a wide array of tools, trainings, resources, and community.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
• University Innovation Alliance
• Innovating Together Podcast
• Bridget Burns
• Weekly Wisdom
• The shared concerns of higher ed leaders ("Some of Our Favorite Conversations With Higher Ed Leaders," UIA, 11/17/22)
• Michael Crow ("Leading in the Moment Despite the Distractions of Constant Change: A Conversation With Michael Crow, Arizona State University President," UIA, 11/17/20)
• ACE Fellowship (a immersive leadership learning program by the American Council on Education)
• UIA Fellows Program
• Maya Angelou
• Freeman Hrabowski ("A Leadership Career in Review: A Conversation With Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County," UIA, 5/12/22)
• Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute
• The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything by Stephen M.R. Covey with Rebecca R. Merrill
Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts
Guest: Bridget Burns, CEO, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founder and CEO of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.
About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.
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