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Tips From The Top: One On One With Marvin Krislov

I spoke to Marvin Krislov, president of Pace University and formerly the president of Oberlin College, about his best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share 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?

Marvin: I may not look like a long-distance runner, but in 1992, when I was living in Washington, I completed the Marine Corps Marathon. I’d been a little bit of a jogger, and I still am, but this was by far the biggest effort I’d ever made. Some friends wanted to train, and I like a challenge. And it was a great lesson in perseverance — that even if you’re not the best at something, if you put your mind to it, if you work hard, you can do it. And not only did I finish, and with a decent time, but I paced myself and was feeling pretty much OK when I was done. In fact, I got on a plane that afternoon and flew to Texas for a trial.

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

Marvin: I’ve always wanted to go where I could learn, grow and do new things. So I haven’t had a straight-line path in my career. I trained in law, and I did practice law, first in government and then in a university. At the University of Michigan, I started teaching, and I discovered I loved that. Then I went to a small liberal-arts college, and now I’m at a totally different kind of institution. Pace University is really committed to providing opportunity to all kinds of ambitious, hard-working students, and I love the hands-on approach to helping people. The thing I’ve learned that if you have a commitment to learning, and if you bring a certain set of skills, you can succeed even in areas you haven’t worked in before.

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?

Marvin: I think there are two defining qualities. The first is a constant willingness to learn and explore new ideas and consider ways to change your organization. And the other is the vision to see how you can work together with other people and groups to see how your organizations and interests overlap, so that you can find mutual benefit. The two relate: A leader knows how to work together with others, and learn from others, to collaborate and do great things.

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

Marvin: Listen. Don’t assume you have all the answers, or all the ideas. Ask people — everyone — for their ideas and advice and input. Be present. Talk to people in their own spaces. See their worlds. Go to classrooms and offices and fields and events. And have someone empowered to give you honest feedback. When you’re a top leader, people can feel like they’re supposed to tell you what you want to hear, or give you the “right” answers. Make sure you have some people around you who will always tell you the truth, even when it hurts.

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

Marvin: Mary Sue Coleman, who was the second president I served under at Michigan, used to say that people come to you with a problem that they want to hand off to you, and you need to know how to take it and hand it back to them. That doesn’t mean that you should avoid problems. But it means that it’s your job as a leader, first, to prioritize and delegate, but also to help people see how they can solve their own problems, or how you can work together to solve them. It’s the essence of leadership, really — not to be able handle everything but to know how to help others to handle their own things.

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

Marvin: Mentoring. Everyone in a leadership role — and really just everyone — should be willing to mentor people. I know I’ve benefited a lot from people who are willing to take their time, not knowing whether I would really take advantage of their advice, to help me learn and understand thing. And I know that it’s very fulfilling for me to be able to fill that role for others. Just last week I got a really nice email from a former student at Michigan who thanked me for encouraging her to skip law school and become a New York City Teaching Fellow — today she’s pursuing her passion and building schools for refugees around the world. That kind of thing is ultimately why we’re all in higher education.

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

Marvin: Theater, tennis, and travel. I acted in plays until I went to college, and then a little bit after, and one of the best parts of moving to New York for me has been that I can indulge my theatergoing habit. Theater allowed me to engage with literature, it helped me become a better speaker, and it also allowed me to learn empathy, so I could play — and understand — those roles. I try to play tennis twice a week, if I’m lucky, and that teaches me humility. I often feel like I’m relearning the game. I also like that sometimes in order to get the best hit you actually have to back away from the ball to give yourself room — I feel like there’s a metaphor for life in there. And finally travel lets me learn, lets me meet new people, builds my empathy, and lets me see the commonalities among different people from different parts of the world.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Marvin: One other leadership lesson is the critical importance in making decisions of thinking about who isn’t in the room. Are there certain people, certain constituencies that aren’t represented? If there are, can you get them in the room? Or, if you can’t, you need to make sure you consider what their views and concerns might be.

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