Tips From The Top: One On One With Brian Jones

I spoke to Brian Jones, President of Strayer University, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Brian: I suspect people would not know the deeply personal connection I feel to the mission and students we serve. I’m the son of parents who were themselves working adults who, when confronted with a growing family and a shrinking pocketbook, sought to improve their lives by going back to school part-time. In my dad’s case, he went to work at a large insurance company loading boxes of closed files into storage. He went to school at night while working that job. Got a bachelor’s degree. Later earned an MBA at night, and went on to become that company’s first black executive. His decision to get a degree, while working and raising a family, changed the trajectory not just of his and my mother’s lives, but mine, my brother’s and those of our children. I am deeply committed to enabling for others on non-traditional paths that same kind of social mobility through education.

Adam: ​How did you get here? ​What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Brian: The short answer is that I got here by 1) spending a lifetime building a network of people who care about me and have helped and supported me along the way; and 2) being willing to take risks in my career, to do new and different things that add new skillsets and provide different dimensions to my perspective. I’m a lawyer by training and had remarkable mentors early in my career. With the exception of my first job out of law school, EVERY job I’ve had in my career has been the result of someone in my network introducing me to the opportunity. And over the course of that career I’ve had the opportunity to pursue many disparate paths. I started a non-profit think tank; I’ve worked in federal, state and city government; I’ve been an executive of a fast-growing (and ultimately fast-shrinking) start up and a large publicly traded company; I serve on corporate and non-profit boards; and I was once an entrepreneur, co-founding an ultimately unsuccessful venture-backed company. All of these experiences – successes and failures alike – provide lessons, perspective and nuance to the way I approach problems, challenges and opportunities. What I know is that taking risks with your career – learning new skills, acquiring a broad perspective, building a wide, diversified network, and understanding that failures can make you stronger and more agile – is essential to impactful, fulfilling work.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Brian: The most effective leaders I’ve known and worked with are, first and foremost, curious and open-minded. A leader must approach the world with a wide aperture – understanding what drives and motivates people, and what forces move the environment in which he or she leads. But they must also be resolute about the right things – the mission that underlies their work; the demand for accountability, having little tolerance for those that undermine that mission. Finally, sincerity and empathy. A leader’s effectiveness is founded on trust. Without it, one simply cannot lead. Sincerity and empathy – a belief that a leader’s word is his or her bond and that he or she feels a genuine kinship with those he or she leads and serves – is the very bedrock of trust. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Brian: I’ve been fortunate to serve in each of these capacities. I’d say 1) Trust is your currency. Without it, you simply can’t ultimately succeed. 2) Risk is your fuel. The risk of failure can be a great motivator and source of discipline and growth. The most rewarding successes I have had have all begun with a little fear and uncertainty – uncertainty that I was sufficiently equipped to tackle this new, unfamiliar challenge and, of course, some fear that I could fail. But those were in turn the motivation to dig deep, work hard and find a path to success. 3) Failure is your teacher. Embrace the occasional failure as an opportunity to learn, to get stronger. Think of EXPERIENCE – good and bad – as the foundation for growth.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Brian: When I was General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Education my chief of staff once reminded me that “you’re the leader, everyone’s always watching you.” That lesson – that a leader always has eyes on him or her – was critical for my development. It taught me that how leaders conduct themselves matters. People take their cues from their leaders. Leaders set the tone. Leaders create the culture. Show me a dysfunctional organizational culture and I’ll show you an organization where leaders exhibit dysfunctional behaviors. 

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Brian: Be open to sharing your experience and insight. Mentor more junior employees. And, of course, if you have the time, share your talent with community oriented organizations that can benefit from it. I personally have committed to serving on the boards of schools, education nonprofits and arts organizations that benefit underserved communities in my adopted hometown of Washington, D.C. 

Adam: ​What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Brian: For years I loved biking. Biking alone; biking with my family. My health – I have ALS – now precludes me from riding. But I still love being outside with my family. Beyond that, traveling and eating great food are how I like to spend quality time with the family and friends I love.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Brian: Just that it’s so very important for us all to keep in mind that there’s so much work to do to make the world a richer, happier, more just place. And none of us is promised tomorrow. So go forward with a firm belief that life is too short to dawdle. We all have an obligation to deploy our talents to do our part. So don’t waste time; get to work, and find joy in it.

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