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Tips From The Top: One On One With Clif Smart, President of Missouri State University

I spoke to Clif Smart, President of Missouri State University, about his journey and best advice

Maroonation in St. Louis was held at the Palladium 1400 Park Pl. The event raises money for student scholarships. Photos by Kevin White/Missouri State University
Maroonation in St. Louis was held at the Palladium 1400 Park Pl. The event raises money for student scholarships. Photos by Kevin White/Missouri State University

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?

Clif: I spent a year living in Kabul, Afghanistan, when I was 12 years old as my father was a Fulbright Professor at the University of Kabul School of Architecture. We traveled throughout Asia then with little worry of terrorism.

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

Clif: I’m completing year eight as president of Missouri State University after serving as the university’s General Counsel the previous four years. I’m a lawyer by trade who has lived in Springfield, Missouri, since 1992. This is my first university presidency.

The university hired a president who wasn’t a good fit and the individual lasted less than a year. During that time, the provost returned to faculty. The Board of Governors asked me to serve as interim president as there wasn’t a natural number two in place. I thought I would return to my General Counsel job within the year; however, we had a really good year, turned enrollment around, fixed some policy issues and raised the most money in school history. The board encouraged me to apply for the permanent position and I’m still here. I made a bad cabinet hire early in my tenure and kept him around too long. I learned from that experience to follow my instincts in hiring and be willing to cut my losses sooner rather than later if a poor decision is made.

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?

Clif: I think it is critical to be both accessible and approachable. People must have opportunities to share their ideas with you and you must be open to the ideas of others. Having processes that give input to all constituent groups is critical in this business. Then, you work to develop relationships with as many folks in the community and government as you can.

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

Clif: 1.) Be genuine; people can tell if you are pretending to be something you are not and they don’t like it. 2.) Hire people who are better than you are and free them up to do their jobs, always having their backs if they fail. 3.) Never throw away a relationship. You never know who will be in a position to help you/your organization in the future.

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

Clif: Get on social media! My participation in Twitter and Instagram has helped me to create a relationship with students.

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

Clif: Take the time to mentor young professionals.

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

Clif: I’m a huge sports fan: Cardinals baseball and all MSU Bears sports. I believe everything is a team sport; we fight to break down silos and all work together to accomplish our goals.

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