Tips From The Top: One On One With Mary Marcy

I spoke to Mary Marcy, President of Dominican University of California, about her journey and her best advice

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

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?

Mary: Thank you for taking the time to connect! Perhaps one of the most surprising facts about me is that I could ride a horse before I could walk; it was just a necessity of life on the ranch where I grew up. My education started at a classic small Nebraska country schoolhouse, and sometimes I rode that horse to school. The first time I ever needed a passport was for my graduate studies at Oxford (where, in another surprising twist, I was on the basketball team — and two of my teammates ended up joining the Obama administration).

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

Mary: I think growing up on the ranch taught me a lot about resilience and persistence. I remember trying to drive cattle to shelter as a blizzard was brewing — it was miserable, and it was hard to move them through the wind and snow. I just wanted to go back inside and get warm. But at some point it became clear that I was only uncomfortable; for those animals it was literally a matter of life and death. It made my discomfort not seem so important.

I’ve always been a bit of an outsider — which may be an inevitable result of growing up in a remote area,then attending an elite institution, getting multiple graduate degrees, realizing I was gay. If I’ve learned anything from that outsider status, it’s that there’s really no point in trying to fit in. It’s much more important to find your authentic place — to acknowledge who you are and what you bring to the table, rather than trying to mimic people who aren’t like you.

I’ve been fortunate that the world has changed since I started my career, and people are more accepting of their colleagues’ differences in ways that they weren’t when I was younger. I’d like to think that I didn’t just follow those changes as I grew both personally and professionally, but helped them along a little bit.

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?

Mary: I think the most under-discussed, underappreciated aspect of leadership is the ability to genuinely listen and be present. I don’t mean nodding your head and smiling, but instead actually hearing what people are saying, including their excitement or their fear or their pain. People don’t always need to be agreed with, they do need to be heard and genuinely seen.   

I also think it’s important for people to know their work matters. Not just in a linear way, but in a larger context. Freud said that people need love and work to be happy. I’d amend that to say love and meaningful work. Helping a team or an individual know how their work contributes to something meaningful — in my profession, that means helping change students’ lives for the better, which is pretty inspiring stuff — makes the daily work more compelling, and contributes to building a strong team.  

It’s also important for leaders to cultivate a genuine commitment to diversity. I want to see faces of color around the table. I want to see people with different backgrounds, genders, and perspectives at the table. There’s no substitute for having a breadth of different voices and experiences to develop a vision or manage a complex problem. Dominican University itself is an incredibly diverse place — one that, in many ways, reflects the population of the whole state — and supporting our students requires that we listen to as many ideas and perspectives as we can.

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

Mary: Good question! First, and I’m not embarrassed to say this: listen to everything the Huffington Post and The New York Times tell you about sleeping, eating, and exercising. It’s just true. There’s no need to experiment any more!

On a perhaps more serious note, I’d remind any leader or entrepreneur that there’s no substitute for genuine curiosity about people and ideas. You can’t be judgemental and curious at the same time — so lead with curiosity.

Lastly, there’s no reason your vocation and avocation can’t be the same — and in fact, they really should be. We put so much time and energy into work that genuine enthusiasm is almost impossible to fake, which means that if you don’t enjoy what you do, it will have ripple effects for not just your work but your life. On the plus side, the reverse is also true!  

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

Mary: When I think of my mentors, the best advice that comes to mind isn’t anything they said. It’s how they modeled authenticity, integrity, and commitment through their actions and relationships. I was fortunate to have a series of mentors — in college, in grad school, in my first jobs — who were not only generous with their time but led with tremendous honesty and integrity. It was actually a shock when I realized that kind of integrity was not necessarily the norm. I remember one person saying ‘ethical decisions are made daily. Commit to getting them right.’  

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

Mary: I’m fortunate to be in a profession where our mission is to change lives for the better. Higher education is still the single greatest avenue to personal and social transformation in the world.  How privileged am I to be the president of a university? For me, paying it forward means ensuring young people have access to higher education, and doing everything I can to help them be successful once they get here.

Part of the reason I decided to go to Dominican was the diversity of its student population, which came from a realization I had when I was meditating: the students of Dominican look like the population of California, and that looks like the future of the United States. If we can get this right, we’re doing much more than just helping these students — we’re charting a hopeful path for future generations across the country.

Beyond higher education, I think every leader needs to realize they are not going to be in place permanently, and that their job is — as the Boy Scouts might say — to leave the place better than they found it. Part of that is providing support and professional development for a strong leadership team, and supporting succession planning.

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

Mary: I hike pretty obsessively, and I read, both fiction and non-fiction, a lot. Both have shaped me in pretty specific ways.

I think of hiking as more-or-less fundamental to my well being. I hike about 75 minutes every morning — it gives me a chance to be in nature, solve problems, and think. I use the time to reflect and to craft ideas. I try to stay offline, and often that’s the only time I’m unplugged all day, so it is precious. Usually the only function I use on my phone when I hike is the voice dictation if I have an insight I want to remember.  

When I was a kid, I read a lot, but it was always nonfiction. When I got to graduate school, I realized that educated people read novels. Who knew! Middlemarch changed my life — in some ways it introduced me to the human capacity for grace in the midst of suffering, and ambition for a communal good. The book was described by Virginia Woolf as ‘one of the few English novels for grown-up people.’ And it is. It’s thoughtful and generous about human relationships, but it’s also tough and occasionally tragic. The end is a paean to people who made a difference in life but rest in unvisited graves, so there’s a humility to it.

For what it’s worth, I also golf — badly. Like so many other things in life, it’s humbling.

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

Mary: Why not! My niece is a young leader at a finance institution, and she recently asked me to talk about leadership and life with her colleagues. I offered 5 maxims to work by and 5 to live by. I’m rarely this pithy, but it was a fun exercise — and helpful, too.

5 Maxims to Work By:

1)  Know what matters in your job. Why does this job exist, and how does it contribute to the larger good?

2)  Use technology for what technology is good for. Use people for what people are good for.

3)  There are 3 types of employees. Not skilled but good attitude: train them. Skilled and good attitude: promote them. Skilled and bad attitude: fire them.

4)  Lead with authenticity. We spend about 90,000 hours of our lives at work, almost a third. No one can fake it that long. People judge you by what you do, not what you say or promise.

5)  Lead with compassion. There’s a quote from Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

5 Maxims to Live By:

1)  Know how you find meaning in life, and create regular space for it – family, church, volunteer work – but also the way you interact with others.

2)  Know what boundaries you need, and enforce them.

3)  Know how to nourish yourself – exercise, eating, meditation.

4)  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

5)  Vacations are not a weakness.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Photo Credit: Jojo Harper

Tips From The Top: One On One With Mary Wittenberg

by Adam Mendler

Inside Influence: One On One With Mary Shenouda

by Adam Mendler

Tips From The Top: One On One With Jo Kirchner

by Adam Mendler

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.