Dr. Stephen Standifird of Bradley University: “Find your passion”

Find your passion. We all have bad days. We all face adversity in one form or another. I find that the greatest asset for powering through adversity is a zeal for the work I do. Conversely, a lack of passion makes every day seem like adversity even when things are seemingly going well. Passion for […]

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Find your passion. We all have bad days. We all face adversity in one form or another. I find that the greatest asset for powering through adversity is a zeal for the work I do. Conversely, a lack of passion makes every day seem like adversity even when things are seemingly going well. Passion for the work is the fuel that gets me through the dark days and helps me truly understand and celebrate success.


As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stephen Standifird, President of Bradley University in Peoria, IL. Dr. Standifird’s passion and focus on forging inroads and creating a sturdy platform for Bradley students to explore and discover their true calling and purpose in life is a key component to the university’s success. Prior to heading up Bradley, Standifird served as Dean of Butler University’s Andre B. Lacy School of Business.

Previously, Standifird served as Dean of the Business School at the University of Evansville. He earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from Purdue and MBA from Northwestern, going on to earn his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies at the University of Oregon. His teaching and research include strategic management, power, and politics in organizations, internal management, conducting business in China, organizational behavior, organizational design and change, and principles of management. A powerful combination of experience is contributing to his success as President of Bradley University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a first-generation college student who became a college president. As a result of my education, I’ve had the opportunity to travel various parts of the world, meet many amazing people and do things no one else in my family has been able to do. There is a fullness to my life that I directly attribute to my education. Early in my career, I worked as a chemical engineer. I was good at math and science in high school and was encouraged to pursue an engineering degree. I quickly realized that my path was elsewhere and got an MBA. Even as I worked to discover my true passion, I was presented with a number of amazing opportunities as a result of my college education. My journey into higher education comes from a calling to be able to provide to others the transformational experience I have enjoyed as a result of my education. In my role as president of Bradley University, I get to spend every day working towards improving an organization dedicated to unlocking human potential. I get to be a part of creating the transformation experiences for others that have been so impactful in my life’.

Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.

My darkest days go back to when I was working as an engineer. I always received positive reviews for the work I was doing, yet deep down, I knew I was not doing my best work. Engineering is absolutely the right path for some, but it was not the best path for me. Thus, my failure was one of not being fully engaged in my work. I was showing up and checking boxes, but I was never fully engaged. I would often get a serious case of the Sunday evening blues anticipating having to go to work Monday morning. It was a job, not a calling and I knew it. In my academic career, I have been stretched and challenged in ways I was never stretched or challenged as an engineer. My passion for the work has helped me push through those challenging moments with a great sense of satisfaction, a sense of satisfaction I never achieved during my brief time as an engineer.

What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?

One of my great early mentors was the former dean of students at Purdue University, Betty Nelson. I was serving as the Student Body President at Purdue at the time. Partly as a result of my Student Body President experience, I was already beginning to sense that my path was not clear. I was having a conversation with Dean Nelson and indicated to her that I was unsure of ‘what I wanted to do when I grow up’. Her immediate response was that I was asking the wrong question. The question, she argued, is not “what do you want to do when you grow up?”. The question should be “how many things can you do and experience as you grow up?”. There is a great amount of wisdom in this statement. Many assume you can and should have a clear sense of your chosen path. In reality, this is something we need to discover by exposing ourselves to a multitude of experiences and ideas. During my darkest days, I remembered Dean Nelson’s advice. I began exploring options including pursuing my MBA at Northwestern. It was during this exploration that I discovered my passion for higher education. And once I discovered my passion, the path became clear. I was applying for Ph.D. programs even before finishing my MBA.

Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve success? What did the next chapter look like?

Every step of my academic career has had its own set of challenges. Higher education itself is going through transformation. After a century of growth, we are now beginning to feel the pressure of traditional undergraduate student enrollment declines. When combined with the fact that there are roughly 4,600 colleges and universities in the US, roughly the same number of Dairy Queens in the US, it’s no surprise that my industry is under significant pressure to transform. It has all the makings of a classic turnaround environment, and a number of institutions are not going to survive. The challenges we face in higher education today are unlike anything any of us working in the industry have ever seen. And yet, I come to work every day fired up to tackle these challenges because I am driven by a devotion to the work we do. Even in the darkest of days, and there have been more than a few dark days this past year, I go home with a strong sense of purpose and passion. I have bad days just like everyone else, but those days don’t overshadow the sense of accomplishment I feel. I have important work to do, work that drives me and helps me navigate through adversity. We in higher education have an opportunity, an obligation, to recreate higher education to better serve the needs of today’s students. It’s tough work. It’s important work. And it’s work I am impassioned about doing. This is what gets me through the challenges of the day and ready to come back the next day to do it all again.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)

One and perhaps most important, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Intentionally put yourself in situations that stretch you. It’s a human tendency to want to be comfortable, but our greatest growth comes from times when we challenge ourselves the most. My wife and daughters are all dancers. I am not. However, I did volunteer recently to be in the opening scene of a Nutcracker performance in which my daughters were performing. It was truly one of the most challenging things I have ever done. And arguably one of the most rewarding. My dance career is over, but the skill sets I developed by putting myself in an intentionally uncomfortable situation serve me well when adversity comes my way. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and you will be better equipped to tackle adversity when it comes.

Two, find your passion. We all have bad days. We all face adversity in one form or another. I find that the greatest asset for powering through adversity is a zeal for the work I do. Conversely, a lack of passion makes every day seem like adversity even when things are seemingly going well. Passion for the work is the fuel that gets me through the dark days and helps me truly understand and celebrate success.

Three, know you are not alone. All of us experience some level of adversity during our lifetime. Some more than others, but adversity is part of human existence. And when you experience adversity, know that others can be there for you. I have benefitted throughout my career from the wisdom of others. In my current role, I periodically find myself picking up the phone, sending an email or finding other ways to reach out to colleagues past and present to get their insights into challenges I face. And I am equally happy to be the recipient of phone calls from others to help them through their adversity. When things get dark, don’t go dark. Find new light in others and let them help you navigate the adversity.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This is what we do best when we are at our best in higher education. Not surprisingly, I encountered many of my most powerful mentors through my educational journey. I already mentioned the powerful role Dean Nelson played in helping me find my true calling. Professor Vernon Foley at Purdue University helped me learn how to see issues from multiple perspectives. Professor Paul Hirsch at Northwestern was a key mentor in helping me successfully launch my academic career. And the list goes on. I believe strongly that mentors are everywhere waiting to be discovered. There is a classic statement often attributed to Buddha: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The most powerful mentors are perhaps those that open our minds to the possibilities. This is what great faculty do. This is higher education at its best. Do I have a single dominant mentor? Not really. I have been blessed to interact with a number of faculty members and other mentors that have been more focused on helping me open my mind to the possibilities. And in doing so, they gave me the greatest gift of all, the ability to find my own path and become the best version of myself. This is what we do in higher education when we are at our very best.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our biggest project right now is designing the university of the future. Higher education is going through a transition. This creates a wonderful opportunity for us to think differently about how we add value for our students. We are currently in the midst of a strategic realignment that began by surveying 1,600 prospective students concerning what they want from today’s higher education institutions. The traditional assumption is that higher education is all about careers. What our prospective students are telling us is that careers are important, but they want more. They want to have lives of meaning and purpose. want us to help them discover and achieve the lives they want. This is requiring us to think differently about how we deliver education to today’s students. And when we truly figure this out, it will create truly transformational experiences for our students.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This one is easy. I am driven to create institutions that maximize human potential. The movement I hope to inspire is the (re)creation of a higher education environment where students are able to discover and achieve the lives they want. I want to inspire the creation of higher education institutions that empower students to have lives of meaning and purpose.

Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?

The most powerful investment you will ever make is an investment in yourself. Find a mentor, program, or institution that is committed to helping you find your passion and become the greatest version of yourself. Higher education can be your partner here but don’t settle for what someone else defines as right for you. You will be your very best when you find the path that is right for you. Focus on finding the institution, program and/or mentor that is committed to helping you be the best version of yourself.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-standifird-66287a4/

Thank you so much for your insights. That was really inspiring!

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