Beverly Warren talks change leadership as Kent State University’s new president

 

Newly appointed Kent State University President Beverly Warren wants accessibility and visibility to be the hallmarks of her tenure. Putting that vision into practice means ensuring there’s time on her schedule to fulfill the myriad duties of her presidency and meet with stakeholders, all while driving toward her goal of developing Kent State into a global destination that draws the best and brightest to Northeast Ohio.

The first step she’s taken on that journey is to get the pulse of the community and discover as much as she can. During the months leading up to her July 1 start, she visited the campus regularly to learn from outgoing president Lester A. Lefton and meet as many people at Kent State and in the surrounding community as she could.

“Getting insight from those who actually enact a vision is a really healthy place to start,” Warren says. “And they can help with pacing of change.”

She met with students, the senior leadership team at Kent State and traveled to each of the seven regional campuses, which meant driving 500 miles in two days, to see for herself what life is like at Kent.

Being visible

“I don’t know that I can tell you the name of the president of my university as an undergraduate, and I want students to feel that they know their president and they know their president cares about them,” Warren says. “The same with faculty and staff, so I try to be as visible as I can because I want them to know that I’m engaged and I value what they do.”

College presidencies today are complex positions, she says. They are external advocates, fundraisers, lobbyists and the external face of their universities, all of which takes a lot of a president’s time. Being visible and accessible is a challenge, she says, because there are only so many hours in a day to manage all a president’s duties and maintain the financial viability of the institution.

“I just think it’s worth the investment to make sure that I’m connected internally, because my belief is if I’m visible and I’m connected internally, I have a much better story to tell to the external audience,” Warren says.

Being visible, however, means finding the time to meet with stakeholders. That requires Warren to be strategic with her calendar so that her schedule reflects the core values and expectations she’s set.

“We try to be very strategic about internal visibility and external advocacy, and that sometimes ebbs and flows,” she says. “For example, I’ve been probably quite external at the moment, just trying to meet people, particularly people within Northeast Ohio. Blocking off time for strategic thinking and analysis is probably the hardest one.”

Warren has made it her style to be visible, which she says comes more from a personal frame of reference than emulating that of others.

“I’m centered in the belief that people matter, and that if they matter I need to engage with them and give them tangible ways to know that I value them,” she says.

Accessibility, however, is something she has to work at.

“You know, people are surprised when I say I’m a pretty strong introvert, but I so enjoy people. They say, ‘Well, that doesn’t make sense.’

“I enjoy people. I enjoy learning about people. I enjoy hearing their stories. I think I’ve always been a people person, and yet it also takes me some quiet time to recharge the batteries and do my own thinking and reflecting in a much more solitary way. So balancing that is a challenge for me.”

Building coalitions

When it came to getting to know the staff she’d be adopting in her new role, Warren says she scheduled meetings around each of the divisions and the vice presidents leading the divisions on the president’s cabinet. Those sessions began with one-on-one meetings to learn more about who each vice president is as a person as well as that person’s role in a particular position.

“That was the first hour. And then the next hour I asked to meet with key leaders in that vice president’s team because, again, my point of reference is we do the best work when we work together as a team and we all know the roles that we play and what we contribute to the greater good,” Warrens says.

Understanding who they are and conveying expectations is one thing. Earning the staff’s trust is another. To this end, a full-day cabinet retreat was held at the end of July.

“And that was the time when we had space to learn one another, learn kind of what we expect,” she says. “We just talked openly and honestly about expectations. I try to lead in as transparent a manner as I can, and I think that then builds trust.

“Trust doesn’t happen overnight, but I think beginning to talk with them individually and collectively, having the retreat, I think, is a way — the more time you spend with one another, and we have opportunities to interact, trust evolves.”

This isn’t the first time Warren has transitioned into a leadership role at an institution of higher learning. Through her experience, she says she’s learned that an important first step is articulating expectations for style, culture and initial goals.

“My culture and style is one of respect and civility,” Warren says. “We’re not always going to agree on points of view on a matter, but we should all be respectful and civil in the discourse. So setting the stage for expectations of culture and style, I think, is very important.”

Setting the pace of change

Having begun to establish her style to her colleagues, her next challenge is to calculate the pace of change, which Warren calls the hardest piece of transition leadership. She learned in her previous position that it’s important to be patient with change, but not complacent.

While at Virginia Commonwealth, the president, who was in his second year of leadership at the institution, wanted to move forward with a new strategic vision. It involved moving the institution forward more as a research university. She says she and the president understood that to move that philosophical shift too fast would cause some anxiety, and it did.

“I think sometimes you do have to push the pace, but you also have to realize that individuals don’t change overnight, institutions don’t change overnight,” Warren says. “So that was a learning experience for me like none other that I had experienced.”

Setting the right pace for change means having a sense of how dramatic the change is going to be on the community.

“Thinking strategically, you look at where an institution currently stands and your vision for that institution and how large is that delta. The larger the delta, the slower the pace of change, because as I said, people don’t change overnight.

“People are drawn to an institution because of its culture. If you’re thinking about shifting its culture then you have to be patient with that process. If it’s fine tuning, then I think the pace can be much more rapid.”

Putting it all together

While becoming a global destination won’t be easy, Warren says she’s working with a healthy institution that’s well positioned for a bigger role.

“So the biggest part of that, then, is how do you best tell your story.”

Warren says she’ll work on telling Kent State’s story nationally to attract students to the city and university that are completing a transformation, realized through the recent downtown renovations that look to connect the campus and area businesses.

“I’ve seen the before pictures, and I’m certainly living in the after transformation. But I think this is a community and a university that has really come together, realizing that our best future is a shared future — a partnership future,” Warren says.

“So I think it’s the transformation of the city as well as the university in terms of being this very, very attractive place for creative and talented people. It’s a great college town now.”

Takeaways:

  • Visibility and accessibility show engagement.
  • Take the time to get to know stakeholders.
  • Be strategic when setting the pace of change.

The Warren File:

NAME: Beverly Warren
TITLE: President
COMPANY: Kent State University

Born: Statesville, North Carolina

Education: Bachelor of science degree, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; master of science degree, Southern Illinois University; doctoral fellowship, University of Florida; doctor of education, University of Alabama, with an emphasis in administration of higher education; and doctor of philosophy, Auburn University, with an emphasis in exercise physiology.

What is it that you find appealing about sports? Well, I’ve always been someone who has enjoyed an active lifestyle. I love sports because of its combination of competition and cooperation. I think we focus too much on the competition — the winning and the losing — but when you look at teams as they compete, there’s just a whole psychology of how cooperation and collaboration leads to the greatest success. I just find sports fascinating; I find it fascinating to watch, fun to watch. And from a psychological perspective, just really fun to analyze.

How would you define what it means to be a good coach? I think a good coach is one that brings out the best in people, both personally and in relationship to contributions to the sport. I think sport is such a great way to learn life skills and leadership skills, and so the best coaches, to me, are those that really work with players to kind of develop and evolve life skills.

What do you find is key to staying driven in your professional life? I really am energized by the people with whom I work. And even on my days of fatigue, if I’m able to engage with the people who live, work and play with me in this environment, I just have a passion for trying to make a difference, and those people always remind me of that. So I feed off the energy of the people I serve and work with.