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Tips From The Top: One On One With Scott Pulsipher, President of Western Governors University

I spoke to Scott Pulsipher, President of Western Governors University, about his journey and best advice

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

Scott: Surprise people? – that’s a tough question, given that I don’t find many things about me too surprising. Maybe, some simple things like that I speak Polish, or that I’ve lived in 14 cities, eight different states, and three foreign countries. Given my current role, though, maybe more notable is that my work experience prior to joining WGU in 2016 was with tech organizations like Amazon that focus on creating great experiences for customers. It might surprise people to know that this experience translates very well to WGU, where the focus is on creating great experiences, which result in great student outcomes.

Adam: What are your key goals for WGU in the next three to five years?

Scott: Because we know that education offers individuals one of the surest pathways to opportunities that lead to a better life, WGU’s mission is to expand access. And, we measure access in outcomes — students who graduate and improve their lives – rather than admissions and enrollments. So, we continue to push to increase our graduation rates, which have improved significantly over the past five years, by continuously improving and personalizing the student experience at WGU. Accurate, real-time data, reviewed regularly, is key to this improvement. We also focus on costs, and want to ensure the affordability of high-quality, relevant credentials, and increase access, especially among underserved populations.

We are committed to increasing completion rates for undergraduate programs, specifically lifting the 4-year graduation rate by 10 percentage points by 2025, reaching above 50% and significantly higher than the sector’s average. Personalizing the learning journey for each individual will be critical to increasing the probability that each student can succeed and acquire the degree or credential that increases opportunities and puts them on a path to a better life. Additionally, with WGU’s competency-based learning model, time can vary, and our students can accelerate their time to degree completion.

In addition to boosting completion, which should be an imperative for all institutions, higher education needs to catch up with 21st century workforce needs. The fourth industrial revolution is here; yet higher education is arguably still preparing students for second industrial revolution jobs. WGU has always collaborated with industry to ensure that our curriculum is relevant and meets the competencies required for the future of work, but more needs to be done by all of us. Higher education must better align learning with opportunity and workforce needs, better personalize learning, leverage technology and data to optimize student progress and faculty-student interaction and increase accountability for outcomes.

In February, I was appointed to the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, a group of U.S. governors, Fortune 100 CEOs, workforce association leaders, and college and university presidents working with the Department of Commerce to better align education with workforce needs. Solutions will go beyond traditional degree programs to include credentialing programs, apprenticeships, stackable credentials, and other innovations to help American workers compete for the jobs of the future.

A new initiative for WGU for the next five years relates to our dedication to expanding access. While WGU has graduated nearly 140,000 students in the past 22 years, we know that there are millions of Americans who need learning options that will allow them to improve their lives. WGU has demonstrated, at scale, that we can develop and deliver innovative learning models with great student outcomes. This new initiative seeks to amplify our impact, to leverage WGU’s scale and pace of innovation to catalyze accelerated transformation in the sector, and reinvigorate the promise of education as the surest path to a great job and a provident life – not just for 100s of thousands, but for millions, whether enrolled at WGU or peer institutions and providers.

This initiative requires efforts beyond the core credentialing WGU institution. Operational capabilities that expand the aperture of innovation, source and employ capital, and incubate and scale new operating entities. We’ve announced some of these already, like WGU Advancement, WGU Labs, and WGU Academy, and we expect more, as WGU becomes more of a system of organizations with a shared mission to improve quality, expand access, and optimize student outcomes.

Adam: What is instrumental to your ability to lead your team to reach those goals?

Scott: Building a culture of student obsession is key to WGU’s ability to reach our goals. WGU has always been structured around student needs, and over the past three years, our leadership team has worked to build on this foundation. It is also important to note that because of our rapid enrollment growth, WGU adds more than 100 new employees per month, so we also address the challenges that come with a large percentage of new team members.

WGU has established 10 leadership principles, with student obsession as the first and foremost, to clearly communicate our priorities to all of our employees. These principles guide our decisions and serve as benchmarks for performance management. They are clearly and constantly reinforced with employees in all internal communications messaging.

Our senior leadership team is committed to regular communication with employees. We host monthly Town Hall meetings, which are hosted by senior leaders and live-streamed for remote employees to share progress on university programs and initiatives and to build a community of employees who believe in and are committed to our students. All employee meetings begin with a student success story, often shared by a faculty member, followed by recognition of an employee who exemplifies on of our leadership principles. In addition, WGU’s intranet shares both inspiration as well as information regarding new programs and initiatives. This is key to our change management in a culture that values innovation.

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

Scott: Certainly, there are many contributing factors, but I’ll highlight two. First, startups and reinventing models for the future have been a thread connected my professional experiences. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process creation, disruption and urgent execution to realize a vision. However, I realized that what I valued most, and provided the most joy, was the opportunity to work with great people in the pursuit of a shared goal or mission. It is about the individuals and people, and my interest in influencing others for the better that motivates me.

In my career, I had some notable failures, combined with very difficult feedback that really hurt. These episodes helped me recognize behaviors that were incongruent with who I want to be and amplified how important being a great leader is to me. Thankfully, each time, I received the right support, coaching, and guidance that helped me use those experiences as learning and development opportunities.

Second, As I mentioned, my career has been focused on leveraging technology to reinvent or innovate processes and industries for future-focused paradigms – whether that be in retail, supply chain, banking, ecommerce or logistics. In all of those situations, the focus was on the customer – to improve the value for them and continually enhance customer experiences.  So WGU, with its technology-enabled innovation and delivery model, is a good fit for me.

While my cumulative experience in higher education is my three years at WGU, I have previously participated in advisory boards at my alma mater’s business school, and guest-lectured and directed professional seminars. I have deep passion for education, and the role it plays as the greatest catalyst for individuals to change their lives. Before I joined WGU, I was intrigued by the model and innovative culture, but my decision came after I attended one of the university’s commencement ceremonies. These graduates, who attend with their parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren, are often celebrating the achievement of a goal that has been delayed for decades, and this experience convinced me that I wanted to be part of WGU. Fundamentally, WGU and I have a shared motivation: to change the lives of others. I am so grateful for a professional opportunity that is so aligned with my personal “why.”

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Scott: I think the best leaders recognize the inherent worth of every individual and that they make it priority to invest in their team members to develop them to reach their potential and then push them to go even further. This should be a core tenet of our interactions with others, both pleasant and difficult ones. It might be easy to engage others in their success, but can we serve and support them in times of struggle and failure.

I would also posit that the best, most inspirational leaders exemplify gratitude, kindness, humility and service. Gratitude, in particular, affords one the basis for optimism. It gives us the ability to see the best in others and the world around us, and all of the blessings and opportunities with which we are privileged. It enables leaders to motivate, inspire and invite others to a better state – both for them individually, and for an organization, group, community, or society.

As it relates to kindness and service, the best leaders recognize that their effectiveness depends upon the success of others, and thus they invest in them and coach, guide, and enable them in their respective roles and lives. As leaders, we should be inspiring others every day to do simple, small things that bring about great things.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?

Scott: At Amazon, I had the privilege of interacting with Jeff Bezos, who is one of the most creative and visionary individuals one could meet. Maybe less well known, though, is his commitment to creating a principle-driven organization and developing individuals and leaders to perform their best. Like any organization, Amazon depends upon its talent, and I was always amazed at the culture that Jeff developed at Amazon.

More important to my personal development, though, was Tom Taylor, now SVP Alexa at Amazon. He demonstrated the fundamentals of developing others, inviting their contributions, and recognizing them for their successes, while coaching them through failures. In particular, he asked great questions that invited perspectives and facilitated productive reasoning.

I would also have to call out Whitney Johnson, who has been a personal coach to me. She has an incredible ability to see an individual’s strength, while identifying blockers to personal growth. She has helped me learn in new ways and develop new habits that will advance my character.

But, in all sincerity, the greatest leaders in my life have been my mother and father, and my wife, Jennifer. My parents because they saw me, and still see me, in my future, better state, rather than in my mistake-prone and undeveloped earlier self. They don’t compel, but persuade, invite, and motivate me to learn, grow, and aspire to great(er) things. My wife, for her perseverance in the face of struggle, and her incredible compassion and empathy for the human condition, and service that uplifts all those around her. I could not ask for stronger examples to follow.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Scott: Great leaders never stop working to improve. Frequent, candid feedback is vital for leaders, and for many, the best way to use the feedback to improve is to work with a coach, someone who is not part of the organization. Working with a coach requires a time commitment, but more importantly, it requires that we be open to criticism and willing to make changes to improve. Like experiences we have with failure, it can be tough, but will help leaders grow.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing, and leading teams?

Scott: Start with a clear understanding of mission and organizational beliefs. Hire only those individuals who share a dedication to your mission and who, as we say at WGU, “believe what we believe.” We have learned at WGU that this is fundamental. Also, the best teams are diverse teams, so while a basic commitment to mission is vital, great teams come from different thinking, communication styles, and backgrounds. The combination of these ingredients – a shared purpose with different perspectives – fosters an environment of productive reasoning, driving towards better, more integrated ideas and solutions.

The most important element in managing and leading teams is communication. Communicate goals and objectives clearly, measure and report progress, and provide candid, constructive feedback regularly. Perhaps even more important in leadership communication is listening. By listening, leaders demonstrate their respect for individuals, encourage team members to contribute their best thinking, and learn what they need to know to make the team successful.

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

Scott: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received as a leader of a large organization is with regard to earning trust and respect. No amount of official authority can compensate for having the trust and respect of the teams we lead. We need our people to feel that their ideas and opinions are valued. Ultimately, as the leaders, we have to make decisions, and to make the best ones, we need a climate that fosters open communication and even argument. Then, once decisions are made, we all commit and move forward.

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

Scott: Mentoring. As leaders, we should all be mentoring not only those who report to us directly, but also those who within our networks who can benefit from our mentoring. Whether you do this formally through an outside organization or you do it informally through your community, professional affiliations, church, or otherwise, sharing your guidance and experience is one of the best ways I know to really pay if forward.

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

Scott: Interesting question, if only because I’ve not previously contemplated what I have learned from them. I suppose there are two. First, I do enjoy outdoor activities – particularly, golf, snow skiing, hiking, and camping. From these, I do take away a couple things. One, that being outside of our walls and among nature has a real balancing and calming effect on one’s mind. I find it rejuvenates my soul. There is a certain pleasure in feeling connected to something greater than one’s self, and the daily responsibilities of life. Second, golf itself – may be a lesson in continuous improvement. No matter how many times you play the same course, you play it differently. There’s a lesson in golf: to improve, it requires doing things differently – not just the same things better.

Another hobby for me is investing. My academic and early professional background is in finance. From the professional experience, I learned I didn’t love it so much that I wanted to do it for a living. But, I am still drawn by the challenge of gathering, evaluating and weighing the prospects of public and private investment opportunities. I think this feeds my interest of figuring out how different industries and companies work, and what the differentiated capabilities are that drive real value. It also affords me a lot of references for ideas and innovation that might be relevant to improving WGU’s offering for our customer – our students.

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

Scott: We’ve covered a lot. Maybe simply to wrap is to express how grateful I am for the opportunity to be a part of WGU. It is such a privilege to work with so many wonderful people who believe what I believe, who believe in changing the lives of individuals and families and want to the legacy of their lives to be measured by the impact they had in the lives of others.

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