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A Discussion with Terrell Strayhorn On the Importance of Reading and Having a Growth Mindset

A native of Virginia Beach, Dr. Terrell Strayhorn graduated with honors from Kempsville High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in music and religious studies from the University of Virginia (UVA), a master’s degree in education policy from UVA’s top-ranked Curry School of Education, and a doctoral degree in higher education from Virginia Tech. His academic […]

Terrell Strayhorn
Terrell Strayhorn

A native of Virginia Beach, Dr. Terrell Strayhorn graduated with honors from Kempsville High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in music and religious studies from the University of Virginia (UVA), a master’s degree in education policy from UVA’s top-ranked Curry School of Education, and a doctoral degree in higher education from Virginia Tech. His academic success led to many achievements and awards, including a Jefferson Cup at UVA, the Curry School’s Outstanding Alumni Higher Education Faculty Award and both the Graduate Student of the Year Award and Don G. Creamer Outstanding Alumni Award at Virginia Tech. Currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Strayhorn is Professor of Urban Education and Immediate-Past Vice President for Academic & Student Affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College and he serves as President/CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting (www.dogoodworkLLC.org).

Why did you decide to create your own business?

As the founder and CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting, I started by business for several reasons. In a very practical sense, my work with institutions and corporations as a professor picked up dramatically in 2015-2016 and I was receiving 2-3 formal invitations or requests for professional services per day. As a full-time professor and center director, there simply wasn’t enough time in the week to meet the overwhelming demand. I also got advice for several faculty-leader mentors that I should start a business as a way of drawing lines of distinction between my “work work” and my consulting gigs.

I also started my company because I saw a problem that we could address for our clients in a way that was unique and leveraged our success in other areas like research, grant writing, and public speaking to do so. For instance, college enrollment rates are declining across the nation. This impacts us all, but it hurts small colleges and historically Black colleges and universities particularly since they tend to be enrollment-driven and tuition-dependent. I know from research, some of which is my own, that we could help these institutions develop fresh enrollment management plans that identified new growth markets, conduct campus climate surveys that inform decision-making, and take deliberate action through faculty development or cultural programming to provide a sense of belonging for ALL students, giving the school a competitive advantage over others. We help colleges and schools support students.

What does a typical day consist of for you?

Given the nature of my work, there really isn’t a typical day per se. Typically, I wake up early, make a cup of coffee, and read the Washington Post, New York Times, and Chronicle of Higher Education. Before starting my work, I enjoy a 30-minute “free writing” session where I write a daily devotion, add a few paragraphs to a chapter or article I’m working on, or outline fresh thoughts for an upcoming keynote lecture.

After that, I study my calendar and “to do” list to see what my main priorities are for the day and I jump right in. When possible, I will send any emails or place any calls early to get them out of the way, allowing me to focus on my work.

Before lunch, I try to devote some time to social media for work purposes–touching base with my communications assistant, social media manager, brainstorming new content, liking/retweeting information posted by staff, or sharing news about exciting projects or upcoming talks. Then, it’s back to work after lunch–anything from communicating with clients, prep calls, reviewing contracts, generating payroll, or reviewing my calendar with my assistants to make sure that upcoming meetings or campus visits don’t conflict with personal obligations or family events.

After devoting much of my day to work and business development, I try to spend time with family and friends on evenings and weekends. Favorite pastimes include Houseparty (the app), eating out, watching television, and playing the piano and guitar.

What keeps you motivated?

There are a number of things (and people) that keep me motivated. In a professional sense, the overall success of the company is a motivating factor—so, too, is the overall success and competitiveness of any academic program with which I’m affiliated. As college enrollment and retention rates drop, there’s quite a bit of competition out there between Do Good Work LLC and other companies or firms that promise quick results at a high sticker price. Being able to compete by offering evidence-based solutions to student success problems and to earn industry “cred” for the company along the way fuels my motivation.

Empowering employees and helping others (especially students who benefit from such help is another major motivator. I derive much joy and satisfaction from coaching, mentoring, and teaching others how to achieve their goals, pursue their passion, and be successful. This happens in the classroom, on the (speaking) stage, and in the company. I can help others identify their passion or what drives them toward specific goals despite difficulty, their purpose or the reason why they exist (usually different from one’s job or vocation), and their plan for achieving life goals. And I can do this for my students, proteges, but also my staff team in a way that empowers them to be leaders in their respective areas of the company.

How has your company grown from its early days to now?

Do Good Work Educational and schools to improve student success. From its early days to now, the company has grown significantly in terms of clientele, resources, staff, and impact. Now our clientele includes leading colleges, universities, schools, and increasingly businesses chiefly concerned with maximizing student success, improving learning/work conditions (especially for underrepresented groups), and agencies trying to build evidence-based cultures. We’ve worked with Cornell, Colgate, UNC-Chapel Hill, Iowa State, Michigan, and so many more.

The company’s resources have grown significantly too. When we first started, we had a Google doc and Gmail accounts, but now we have our own dedicated website, company-branded email addresses, business cards, and company accounts. We strive to be a paperless company, in keeping with our sustainability values, so most employees are provided laptops, tablets, mobile devices, and subscriptions to any software or apps related to their jobs. We use Dropbox for filesharing and a host of platforms for virtual conferencing like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts to name a few.

The staff size has grown significantly too. From just me to a full-time assistant, a seasonal part-time assistant (for high-demand seasons), a communications associate, social media manager, several research interns, and a forthcoming slate of faculty affiliates. With so many exciting, new developments, our impact has grown too. We’re working with many more schools and colleges, touching many more students’ lives, investing more money in student scholarships, generating more reports and papers, yielding more citations, social media followers, and policy changes. By redefining student success, we’re literally changing lives.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Usually most of it comes from my staff (or team), my family and friends, and primarily the students who I encounter each and every day. Those on my campus who push me to be the best professor and administrator I can possibly be. Those in my classroom who challenge my ideas and embrace my teaching in ways that enlarge us all. And those who learn and study at the dozens of colleges and schools with whom we #DoGoodWork each year.

Who has been a role model to you and why?
My maternal grandmother, Creola Evelyn Warner, has been one of my greatest role models. She passed away back in 2013, but lessons from watching her live her life boldly, courageously, and lovingly still guide so much of what I do today. Her life motto— “Love many, trust few; learn to paddle your own canoe”—was one of my very first life lessons on the power of love to overcome hate, that trust is earned not given, and self-reliance and learning. In many ways, her passion for helping others, correction with compassion, and faith in the face of fears motivated my own interest in teaching and preaching as professions. I strive each day to impact my students and colleagues the way she impacted me personally, our family collectively, and her beloved community in coastal North Carolina.

How do you maintain a solid work life balance?

For starters, I let go of the idea of achieving true “work-life balance,” where one puts just as much time/energy into one domain of life as another. That’s unreasonable in my line of work, juggling so many different roles, responsibilities, and interests, although I’ll admit losing lots of time in the past pursuing perfect balance.

I do NOT think you can ever truly “balance” everything per se, but a better way to (re)think this is to figure out how you can successfully juggle a mix of work and life responsibilities without experiencing major stress, or dissatisfaction. It’s also about performing this juggling act well enough that there’s still free time for me to unwind, ride my bike, go running, or play the piano, admitting up-front that time spent doing things you love can never be time wasted.

My balancing act takes work—and I’m far from perfect—but using a calendar synced with my iPhone, auto-notifications for upcoming deadlines, an electronic to-do list, web-based business management apps, a supremely wonderful assistant, and very supportive staff, I’m able to balance a lot and stay on top of things. Love and support from family, friends, and my Yorkie pup sustain me when my light is dim and my energy low. Oh, and coffee…a cup of Joe goes a long way!

What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?

“Love many, trust few; learn to paddle your own canoe” -Creola Evelyn Warner, my maternal grandmother

“Stop worry and…go do good work, that’s all that really counts” -Dr. Don G. Creamer, my doctoral advisor and life mentor

What is the biggest life lesson you have learned?

As a business owner, I once operated in a way whereby mistakes and failures negatively affected my performance and success, not just individually but even companywide. For instance, I used to let small mistakes—a staff member’s tardiness to a meeting, being double-booked, a typo on a company flyer, or small turn-out for a company event—negatively affect my mood, motivation, and mindset. I wouldn’t just beat myself up (although I did that a lot), but I would also let minor mistakes and disappointments become major frustrations and hamper our optimism, productivity, success, and existence.

At that time, a single email from one client complaining about not getting a call back from a staff member would drain my attention. I took most mistakes and failures as indictments against me and my leadership, my team and their abilities, the company and its capacity to compete. I was leading with the wrong mindset, one that gave little room to mistakes, failures, growth, and development. With help from books like Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” and other leadership experiences, I learned to replace that approach with a growth frame that saw mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn, grow, and change for the better. This has helped me now see how mistakes, failures, hiccups, and lags positively affect success–they help make me and my company better. Missed phone calls have led to process improvements that connects the company line to around-the-clock answering service, as well as 24/7 emergency line directly to senior staff. Double-booked meetings led us to implement a new server-based calendar sharing software that grants viewing privileges to all staff.

What trends in your industry excite you?

I’m excited about a number of trends impacting education, consulting, and small businesses today. For instance, rapid adoption of new, innovative technologies; increasing availability of data; advances in mobile apps and artificial intelligence; developments in cloud technology (not just Google Drive but now iCloud, Dropbox, Box and others). All of these trends coalesce and significantly strengthen Do Good Work’s ability to operate on a mixed staffing model, where half of our employees are in-person and almost half are remote—that is, working for the company but living across the country in Ohio, DC, Virginia, Washington state, and Chicago. This is a growing trend in companies and, with so many technological advances, I take steps to get/keep us connected, create/maintain a positive work environment and sense of community for the team—anything from monthly video chats to IM communications, e-Rewards systems, and providing tons of technology to ease workflow and foster collaboration. I’m excited to see where this can take us in the next 5-7 years as we continue to grow our research capacity, engage an international advisory board, and offer more resources to our various constituents.

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