UIA seeks a Director of Alliance Engagement! Learn more about the position here.

Weekly Wisdom 6/14/21: Transcript of Conversation With Maria Flynn, President and CEO of Jobs for the Future

Weekly Wisdom 6/14/21: Transcript of Conversation With Maria Flynn, President and CEO of Jobs for the Future

Note:
This interview in the
Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on June 14, 2021 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The transcript of this podcast episode is intended to serve as a guide to the entire conversation, and we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode. You can also access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Maria Flynn:
I think sometimes higher ed can over index on debate and going back and forth on an issue, which I think in the workplace can cause some swirl, right? So I think the more we can start thinking about how do you take kind of the content that we're learning and those concepts and move them into action I think is what's – what would be important.

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to Innovating Together, a podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I'm your host Bridget Burns. You're about to watch another episode of Start The Week With Wisdom, which for those of you who are home if you have not seen this before, these are weekly episodes where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor. And we want to talk to them about how they're navigating the challenge of this moment. We're in a really unique time, and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they are navigating and hopefully it will leave you a sense of optimism, a bit inspired, and give you a bit of hope.

Doug Lederman:
Welcome today to Maria Flynn, who is President and CEO of Jobs For The Future, which is a national nonprofit organization that tries to drive transformation in that space around higher education and between higher education and the workforce. And Maria is joining us today despite the fact that her organization's big conference starts tomorrow. And she's in probably that pre-conference frenzy, so thanks for being here, welcome.

Maria Flynn:
Great. Hi Bridget, hi Doug, it's great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Bridget Burns:
We would normally be seeing you at some conference or possibly if you were having one in person, but we're delighted this is the week of Horizons. So for folks at home, if you want I believe it's free. And you can still register.

Maria Flynn:
It is free.

Bridget Burns:
And it starts tomorrow. So you should take a look. Last year, it was I thought the best conference that was held in the virtual world. So I can't wait to see what you guys do this year. So I wanted to start off though now – Doug gave a little bit of a taste, but like for the person on the street who is just not really sure what this means, when do they call you? When is JFF, like, that's the organization I should reach out to?

Maria Flynn:
Yeah, so as Doug said, we work to drive transformation in the US education workforce systems. And I like to say that we sit at the intersection between workforce and education, and policy and practice. So foundations call us when they are looking for a nonprofit to lead or manage major initiatives. The federal government calls us to do work on issues of, like, apprenticeship and career and technical education. And then increasingly, corporations are coming to us to help them implement worker-centered policies and really help them become what we call impact employers. And we also work directly with a lot of higher ed institutions, both two-year and four-year, and some of the more kind of nontraditional or newer providers as well. So we have a large, kind of diverse client base.

Doug Lederman:
And sitting in that, I mean that's a very active space, a lot of activity. It also is very unstructured, and I'm curious how you look at sort of whose job it is, whose role it is, and I'm guessing it's obviously not any one organization's, but like, how do you assess that overall landscape? There is often a lot of miscommunication between higher education and employers. How do you assess the sort of current status of the space? It's obviously never been more important than it is now.

Maria Flynn:
Yeah, I think, as you said, I think it's increasingly important, and I think it is changing really rapidly. When I think about kind of the learning-to-work ecosystem, I define it pretty broadly to include folks like philanthropy, corporations, government research organizations, startups, VCs, so I think we have so many players, especially in the past five years, who are focused in on this space. And what we try to be at JFF is to kind of be the big tent, you know, or the convener that can bring those different stakeholders and partners together, because I think what I have found over time, and I found myself guilty of this, you know, myself over the years of people get a little too insular, right? And kind of talk to the folks who are just in their kind of corner of the ecosystem, and I think in order for us to get the type of impact and transformation that we want to see, we need to start connecting these dots in different ways.

Bridget Burns:
So I'm curious about – Doug is right, there couldn't be a more relevant topic right now. Everyone is talking about this, and the piece that I want to ask you about is about the skills that – there is separate – first, there is conversation around workforce, and skills, and readiness. And then there is separate conversation about the value of higher ed, and often I think they can get conflated. And I'm just wondering, if you're speaking to a lot of higher ed administrators and leaders, what skills do you think the workforce needs that higher ed is not really – like are underappreciated by the workforce or that we're not spending enough energy really focusing on?

Maria Flynn:
It's a good question. The one that comes to mind is, I think I would characterize maybe as decisiveness or confidence, or it's almost that kind of those leadership qualities. I find that I think higher ed does a great job around critical thinking and problem solving. But I find, how do we prepare folks really to be decisive leaders? How to help them quickly assess information, make a decision, and move forward? I think sometimes higher ed can over-index on debate and going back and forth on an issue, which I think in the workplace can cause some swirl, right? So I think the more we can start thinking about how do you take kind of the content that we're learning and those concepts and move them into action, I think is what would be important.

Doug Lederman:
That's really interesting, cause I'm not sure I hear a lot of conversation about that. We obviously see a lot of colleges starting entrepreneurship programs and things like that, which might have a component of that. But that's not exactly a match with what you're talking about, and that's an interesting – I'm curious if you think there are clear ways for that skill to be taught or more appropriately learned?

Maria Flynn:
Yeah, it might just come down to more applied learning, right? So how are you taking concepts and putting them into practice? And so I think that's where connections to work-based learnings, internships, apprenticeship become important. I think more broadly, like maybe backing up like one level. Like one thing – I don't know what – curious what you two feel, but I feel like every year we see a new study that says these are the five or ten soft skills or employability skills that employers are looking for. And I feel like the decades that I've been working in this space, it seems those lists don't change very much, right? And so I wonder if sometimes are we asking the wrong question? So I often think maybe it's not asking the question of what are the skills, because I think we by and large know what they are. Is it more like how do we teach and assess those skills? I don't know. I'm sure you've covered a lot of that in surveys, I'm sure.

Doug Lederman:
No, and I think that's a really good question. And part of it is one of the other things I was interested to hear you talk about, cause you are so clearly talking to sort of – to the extent that there are sides, and I don't like talking about them as sides. But they're often positioned that way, you know, there is this meme that higher ed isn't producing people with the right skills, knowledge, whatever you want to say. And I've actually heard less of that in the last couple of years than I had, I think, which I think is heartening. But one of the big questions is, is it that the people truly don't have them? Or is it that they're not well – they don't know how to talk about it, and they don't know how to – they don't know that they have them. I mean that's one of the big questions to me, and I think a big lift is arming graduates with – helping them know what they're getting and then being able to talk about it. Again I don't know that that's all of it by any means, I doubt it is. But it's at least part of it.

Bridget Burns:
It's definitely a missing part. Sorry to jump in, but like that's exactly what we found is that there was just no intentionality at institutions around this particular piece. Like people are writing off higher ed, and they're missing that it was just that we had never taken seriously that transition between college and career. We had created an office and just been like, OK, box checked. Now let's move on to the next thing, cause there is just so many things. And that's absolutely essential. We had to take it seriously. And what we found is that we needed to equip institutions where – to have career readiness or career services professionals kind of repurposed as instructional designers to coach faculty to integrate [maze 00:09:31] competency language in the classroom, in very single class. That's the thing that has been missing, and sorry, Maria, I just stole that question from you, so I – but if you have anything else to add.

Doug Lederman:
But she turned it back to us, so –

Bridget Burns:
[Unintelligible 00:09:44]. Well anyway, I did want to shift after stealing that question, so again if you want to answer it, I wanted to give you a chance, so I've broken protocol there. OK, cool. Well, I wanted to just chat a bit about you. So you've been at JFF for a long time, and you have – it's one of the organizations I really admire in terms of you've not been – you've not just been able to have impact and to do the work. But you have really figured out how to scale in a way that I just don't see a lot of nonprofits that are purpose driven, especially in this space. It's just, really, that's a lot to take on. And I'm just curious if you could share what has been most useful to you in scaling JFF into this massive organization that's having somewhat of a global impact? I know, like, I just feel like it's really setting an impression that is beyond the United States in terms of the kind of work that needs to be done.

Maria Flynn:
Right, so one, I think when I – so I worked at JFF as a member of the leadership team there for about nine years before I became CEO. And when I became CEO almost five years ago, I really felt that in order for us to scale and really have the impact that we wanted to have, we needed to make ourselves kind of relevant to this moment and to the moments in the future. So we have really set off a pretty extensive transformation journey, but I think, to your specific question, I think the things that have helped us is one, really looking at what are the skills and competencies that we need on our team in order to meet the needs of the companies and the institutions that are coming for us to help, right? So really looking at, like, how do we do that?

The second is raising the money and investing in the systems that we need to operate at scale. And so we've gone, you know, from a group of us – a relatively small group of us all located in Boston together, to I think over 200 people now across the country working together. And so just operating an organization that is so different than it was just a few years ago has required a lot of different ways how we think about our operations and how we fund that. And then it's also, I think, that this is an issue among nonprofits in general. One is how to emphasize the importance of unrestricted or flexible dollars, right, that go beyond restricted program grants. And also really looking at – to me, I know there is a lot of debate around whether nonprofits should operate like a business or not. But I actually, you know, I'm in the camp that, like, you need to think of it as building and scaling and operation, an organization, and that you need to – obviously the work itself is the heart of the organization.

But you have to be intentional about how you operate in the market, how are you meeting the needs of your customers? How are you kind of setting your own tune and not just kind of meeting the needs of funders? So I think there is a lot of delicate dances in there to figure out as a nonprofit. But it's been an exciting couple of years, and I think we're really well positioned right now for the next couple of years ahead.

Bridget Burns:
It certainly looks like it. I know that many of us who run smaller organizations look up to JFF as kind of like the exemplar of how to do it right. So very cool.

Doug Lederman:
What has been the biggest challenges sort of as a leader in those last couple years? Putting aside the obvious challenges of, say, a pandemic and things like that, but in terms of that scaling. It sounds like you've gone from – you've changed not only in size but in how you work. What have been some of the biggest challenges, and how have you met them?

Maria Flynn:
One is we launched JFF Labs about three years ago, which is kind of our kind of market-facing arm or our kind of innovation engine, so to speak. And so I would say that was an opportunity, though, and a challenge. Because I think a challenge in the sense that we began working with a whole kind of array of new clients. We brought in kind of different types of leaders that were kind of new to JFF or the education and workforce space in general. I think it was the right move to make at that time, cause I felt that going into the pandemic last year, if we hadn't made some of those shifts, I think as an organization we would have been caught flat-footed, right? So like, being able to move more into, you know, looking at technology-driven solutions, looking at impact investing, looking at the work of corporations more specifically.

So I think just kind of adding on that type of new approach to a legacy organization is certainly a challenge that had to be navigated. And then I think, like all of us, I think operating a national nonprofit in this space during the Trump Administration was challenging as well. Right, so I think, again, a lot of careful decisions to be made, especially cause of the fact that we do federal government work as a core piece of our business. So a lot of navigational issues there.

Bridget Burns:
I'm curious about your career. I know I just want to – could you share what has been the most surprising aspect to you? I mean, where you are now and just, I'm just interesting to reflect back.

Maria Flynn:
Yeah, I think overall, like, I just feel that I have been just extremely fortunate. So before I was at JFF, I was at the U.S. Department of Labor for the first half of my career. And was able to work under three administrations, so the last parts of Bush One, all of Clinton, and seven of the eight years of Bush Two, right? So really, and I think that's why I do really see the power of being able to work across the aisle on these issues. So I think just that experience of working on what I felt really key initiatives across those administrations, from school to work back in the 90s, or the wired initiative during the Bush Two administration. And then being able then at JFF also just to kind of see a number of initiatives that had great impact in the role that JFF was able to play in them.

I think what surprises me, though, is just like how hard some of these, like, foundational rocks are to move within the system, right? And so I think a lot of the changes that we have seen is kind of around the borders, I would say. And I think it's true for higher ed. I think it's true for more traditional workforce development. There are just some of those core central issues that I think have – for decades have seemed insurmountable. I think or I'm hopeful that we're at a moment in time where some of those things can be questioned more fundamentally. But I'd be curious what you two think. Do you think we're at a moment, or do you think that, like, now with the reopening, people are like, well, we'll just go back to doing what we were doing?

Bridget Burns:
I mean, I do feel like there is this appetite for change, but it's also people are overwhelmed and exhausted from change. So it's like a two-edged – that's part of the issue is that I'm, like, I think more is possible now than ever before. I also think that people are so exhausted and tired right now, it's like we know now that we could do it. But we're just like, can you just give me like six months to recover? So yeah, I don't know if that's a good answer. What about you, Doug?

Doug Lederman:
You know, I'm more – spend more time on my sort of, again, higher ed side of this equation, and I have been asking that question a lot about whether higher education institutions have been given a bridge through record investment by the federal government right now that, again, desperately needed to help a lot of institutions not necessarily survive, although for some. And I think the question is, does the momentum that had been accumulated and the sort of muscle building of "Oh, we can do new stuff, we can try new things," does the higher ed mostly changes when it has to like a lot of organizations? And to the extent that the federal money relieves the pressure, I'm a little worried that the compulsion to change may ease enough that some of the hardest things – and when you talk about the structural things that are hard to move, part of it is those foundational things. A lot of the answers are fairly clear, and yet we don't have a ton of structures in place. I mean, you talked about the Labor Department. The differences between what's on the labor side versus the education side and the federal government and elsewhere, I mean, it probably is something you've spent a few restless nights thinking about. But it's hard to have the structures to move the – to move things.

Maria Flynn:
I hope so, cause I just looking at congressional committee jurisdiction, right? Like as you were saying, like, department turf, like I think that's where things really tend to get bogged down. But hopefully we'll see some big changes.

Bridget Burns:
Well, we know that you have a big conference to run, so we will wrap in just a second. But we'll end with two kind of rapid-fire questions about advice. I always find this – I selfishly get a lot out of this. But like, what's been the advice that someone else has given you that has been really most useful to you in you career? And then separately, when people are thinking about leadership, I'm going to ask you what advice you most often give them that's from you?

Maria Flynn:
Yeah, I would say the most helpful advice I received was just the importance of being an authentic leader. And I remember years ago, there was someone who was trying to like give me advice. And they said, "You should be more like me." And I'm thinking, like, "I don't want to be like – I don't really want like you. Like I want to be like me." And I think that that's just a key to leadership is being authentic to who you are, right? And lead from that place, and then you build teams around yourself to complement your skills. So I think just the power of authenticity, I think, is really important. And advice I give others, one is – and I think that this is particularly true for women, but probably broader, is just being OK with making the unpopular decision, right? So being OK with not being loved by everyone, right? Making decisions that are either not going to go well with your organization or maybe externally, and I think just the importance of being able to stand in those decisions is key. And I would also say I think sometimes leadership can be lonely, and so developing just a network of peers that you can talk with as the challenges ebb and flow I think is key as well.

Bridget Burns:
All right, well I think that's great advice to give anyone, so thanks so much for spending this time with us. And good luck to you and your team at this conference. I hope – back in the day when we would be in person, you would put together this big event, and then afterward you'd try and have a little come together or like a let's all go and meet down in the lobby, rejuvenate. But it's like I mean nobody wants to be on Zoom after that long.

Maria Flynn:
I know.

Bridget Burns:
So it's like, it's really hard to figure that out.

Maria Flynn:
I know, but I hope folks will tune into Horizons. It is free. We're going to have both live sessions as well as a pretty extensive on-demand library of content. So I hope folks check it out, and hopefully I'll get to see both of you in person soon.

Bridget Burns:
Yes, for folks at home, you just need to look up JFF, Jobs for Future Horizons, if you type in Horizons, I think it's one of the first things that pops up. It's tomorrow starting, and then it's for the rest of the week, or no, it's two days.

Maria Flynn:
Two days. We have three cabinet secretaries. We have Governor Kasich, and we've got a lot of corporate leaders, philanthropic leaders, so I hope folks will join us.

Doug Lederman:
And me.

Maria Flynn:
And Doug, so like you definitely have to come.

Bridget Burns:
Star of the show, star of the show. All right, well, get your tickets while you can, I hear Doug Lederman is going to be there. Well, thank you so much, Maria, as always it's always such a delight to speak with you. I always find you to be so just like – I mean I think you really take the authenticity advice really seriously. You've always been very refreshing, and just calm, and like just very chill whenever I talk to you, so I always appreciate that in leaders, cause it's a rare quality. So for those of you at home, we will see the same time as always next Monday. We actually have the chancellor of UC Davis and if – hot tip, the way he – he became on my radar because he had like the funniest tweet ever where he was dressed as the Mandalorian. And his name is May, and he said this is the May. And anyway, so apparently like a meme or just like a pun is – that's enough for me.

Maria Flynn:
That's awesome.

Bridget Burns:
So can't wait to talk with him.

Maria Flynn:
Oh and I want to say, Bridget, congratulations on your impact report.

Bridget Burns:
Oh thank you.

Maria Flynn:
I read it last week, it's awesome. So everyone check that out, too. It's really impressive.

Bridget Burns:
I appreciate it, thanks. And Doug, everyone is going to come to your thing too, so. All right.

Doug Lederman:
Take care.

Bridget Burns:
Everybody, it's been a wonderful week, and we hope this gave you a little bit of positivity. And we will see you next week.
 

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Maria Flynn, President and CEO, Jobs for the Future
Maria Flynn is president and CEO of JFF, a national nonprofit driving transformation in America's workforce and education systems. She is regarded as an authority on the future of work, the role of technology in the labor market, career pathways for underserved individuals, and employer engagement. In 2018, she launched JFF Labs to bridge the traditional education and workforce systems with innovative approaches and technology-enabled solutions. Before becoming CEO in 2016, Maria led the Building Economic Opportunity Group as JFF’s senior vice president, helping entry-level workers advance while enabling employers to build and sustain a productive workforce. Prior to joining JFF in 2007, Maria served with the U.S. Department of Labor's Senior Executive Service in high-level positions involving employment, training, and research. At DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, she oversaw youth and adult policy, supervised research and evaluation strategy, and managed the agency's $12 billion annual budget. A nationally recognized expert on workforce development, Maria speaks regularly at corporate and nonprofit events, including the Council on Foreign Relations' “Training for 21st-Century Jobs” panel, the SOCAP18 conference, and the Fortune CEO Initiative. She was recognized by The Commonwealth Institute and The Boston Globe as CEO of one of the top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts for 2018. Maria is regularly interviewed in the media about the future of work and has been quoted in Bloomberg News, The Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, and Fast Company, among others.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director 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.

Rate, Review & Subscribe
Learn why hundreds of people have rated this new podcast 5 stars! Please join others and rate and review this podcast. This helps us reach and inform more people -- like you -- to help increase the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States.

Click here, scroll to the bottom, tap to rate with five stars, and select “Write a Review.” Then be sure to let us know what you loved most about the episode! Also, if you haven’t done so already, subscribe to the podcast. We’ll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed and, if you’re not subscribed, there’s a good chance you’ll miss out.

Stay Current! Check out our Blog Go Now

or check our videos YouTube