When you are a leader, anyone who has an interest in what you are doing will closely scrutinize your every move – your formal decisions, informal behaviors and symbolic acts.  When leading a company, everything you say or do (or don’t say or don’t do) will send messages, set the tone, establish expectations, communicate directions, and develop a corporate culture for your organization.

There are many definitions of leadership, but the one that resonates with me the most is the following: “leadership is not about being the best, it’s about being willing to go first.”

Harry Truman once said that “To be able to lead others, a man must be willing to go forward alone.”When you ‘go first’ people will always have an opinion about it.  It’s much easier and takes less effort to sit back and criticize…it’s much harder and requires way more audacity to go first.

Going first takes courage. Courage gives you the personal strength to take the necessary risks and withstand the discomfort required to pursue and sustain an important purpose. Going first is about personal power, not positional power. It’s leading from within first, before leading others.

Decision Making at Capilano University

A few years ago, Kris Bulcroft, the Past President of Capilano University, the university I teach at today, was forced to make some difficult decisions to cut some university programs when the government cut funding.  During those turbulent times, I gained a new level of respect for Kris and it was then, that I knew she had something to teach me about leadership.  I asked her to be my mentor and she agreed.  Since then, we have developed a wonderful friendship.

After developing the whole premise behind my YouTube Show, Carolyn Talks, Kris was the very first leader I wanted to have as a guest on the show.  Carolyn Talks was created to help viewers get unstuck, maximize your potential and achieve more.  The show is a venue to provide tips and tools to develop and enrich your life, hints on boosting your emotional intelligence skills – the foundation to a happier life, and motivational golden nuggets to inspire people throughout their day.

Whether or not you agreed with Kris’s decisions and how she made them is not the point of bringing her on the show.  I brought Kris on the show to illustrate as a leader; you are ultimately responsible for every decision that is made in your organization.   The buck stops with you.  You have to make the decisions, set the pace and strategy and ensure everything is getting done on time while keeping people together.  That takes a lot of emotional intelligence and psychological work.

So, in today’s Carolyn Talks, I had the privilege to interview, my mentor and friend, Kris Bulcroft.  Here, she discusses dealing with public scrutiny, being a leader and the importance of emotional intelligence.


Video Transcript

CS:  Hey there. It’s Carolyn Stern and welcome to Carolyn Talks, the channel to watch if you want to get unstuck, maximize your potential and achieve more. Today I’m here with Kris Bulcroft, president of the University that I teach at, my mentor and friend and when I actually started this show she was the first person I wanted to have on the show. Thank you for being here.

Capilano University’s president, Kris Bulcroft retired this past June. At the request of the University Board of Governors, Kris agreed to extend her five-year contract from 2010 to 2015 by one more year. By staying on until 2016, Kris was able to help implement the recently approved strategic plan. The last few years of Kris’s term as president have been turbulent ones. The university had to deal with diminishing operating grants from the provincial government and budget shortfalls that led Kris to make some difficult decisions and be forced to cut some university programs.

Like any leader, leading any group through change is difficult and she took the heat. One of the reasons I wanted Kris to be here on my show is because she was forced to make some hard decisions as the leader of the University and because of that she experienced a lot of public scrutiny including a lot of news media coverage and social media posts about the Capilano Faculty Association in 2014 calling for her resignation and unflattering effigies were built of her, which in both instances became major sources of controversy.

Kris, how did you deal with this difficult ordeal of being scrutinized publicly about your decisions but then how did you? It became more personal. You were targeted personally. How did you handle that?

KB: Put it in context a little bit. When I came to Capilano University, it was a point in our history where we’d always had very low funding from the government compared to other colleges and universities in the province. We hit the wall about the time I came. There were some cuts from government and a mandate, a salary mandate that we had to self-fund. To make a long story short, we found ourselves in the position of being about two and a half million dollars short. We have no choice but to balance the budget.

I wasn’t the only person making the decision. I certainly worked closely with the Board of Governors and with the Executive Team. We had a long and thoughtful conversation about what’s the best course forward for the future of the university. My mantra, the day I walked in the door was always students first. Any decision I had to make and the Executive Team had to make always had to try to optimize the results for students in a positive way. After a lot of years before I even came of cutting staff, cutting operating budgets, there wasn’t really any other place to go but to look at program cuts. We did. We looked at those programs that were low enrollment, short term, short duration so we didn’t have long term commitments to students in programs. Unfortunately, some of those programs were what you would call the legacy programs. They’d been at the university since its inception. They had faculty who had been long time members of the campus community.

It was also the case that we looked at those programs that were duplicative in the system, so programs that students could get elsewhere at Emily Carr or at Kwantlen so students weren’t left high and dry without a way to finish degrees or to further their education. We did, I still believe the right decision was made about which programs because it caused the least amount of damage for students enrolled in programs. I think, first of all, going back to how do you deal with controversy, you have to have a guidepost, a signpost in making decisions that’s about something bigger than just the decision itself.

As long as we kept our eye on the prize and the prize was the long-term stability of the university, particularly from the standpoint of doing the right thing for students, you know what you have to do and you can stay the course.

CS: You kind of knew your values and you’ve stuck with those values regardless?

KB: Yeah.

CS: Then how did you not let … Then it became personal. Just a little bit of a background history, some of the art programs were cut, our studio art program where they build sculptures and all of those kinds of things. We had at our university sculptures that were already part of the university cut down, people covered them up with garbage bags so no one could look at the art. Unfortunately, and this is where I really got upset for you personally, as my friend, is they actually made a sculpture of Kris and had it on basically the front page of the newspaper making fun and poking fun of her personally and the way she looked and the way she was with your dog, et cetera. My question to you is when I heard that, I actually started to cry, because that is, one, as a woman, like I actually felt nervous for you, but two, how do you deal with that publicly, having everyone poke fun of not only what you do but how you look?

KB: I mean, I won’t pretend. It was hurtful to me. You have to, if you’re in positions of leadership, be able to separate self from the position. The decision was the decision. I figured the people who were doing the name calling and the effigy making, they didn’t really know me as a person. They only saw the decision, the role I served. You have to be able to compartmentalize self from the role. If you can do that, you can rise above what people are doing in response to a decision or a role and stay true to yourself. You have to have a very well rounded sense of self to be able to rise above the criticism that comes.

CS: Now I know I’ve asked you privately when we’ve gone out. Where did you get that from?

KB: I don’t know for sure. I think it might have been the fact that I was raised on a farm, much simpler times. I had to learn to be self sufficient as a young girl. My grandparents were very influential in my life. They really always instilled in me a tremendous sense of self worth and value. My parents encouraged me. I was a first-generation college student. My parents and teachers encouraged me to go on and do something, to get out of the mold that had been the mold my parents had traveled. I always had a, I guess because of the people around me, close friends, family, mentors, who always encouraged me to continue to strive to be a positive influence in the world.

CS: I think one of the reasons why after this, during this time, I asked you to be my mentor, and I think it’s so important for professionals like myself to have mentors. You had something that I wanted. One of the things, one of the reasons I have this show is I talk about emotional intelligence. One of the competencies that I struggle with is independence and the fact that you said, as a child, you were taught to be self-sufficient. I think that’s so important for parents to teach their children that they can do it on their own. I wished my mother had not caught me when I was learning to walk and let me fall. Or, as a child, let me order at the restaurant myself. I think that’s such an important lesson. What do you think was the biggest lesson you learned from this whole experience?

KB: I think that you learn that you’re stronger than you think, that when things look the darkest, there’s even then, humor in it all and people who support you and how important friends and family are in times where there are challenges. Everybody has challenges in life. One of the humorous things, I was parking my car in the parking garage when late one evening and this woman who lived in the building but I didn’t really know about my age, she came up to me and she said, “I know who you are.” I said, “Yeah.” She says, “I know I shouldn’t be saying this to you, but I just feel I should.” I said, “What’s that?” She said, “I just want you to know, not all Canadians are like that.” I was really touched by the fact that a stranger would come up to me and really try to offer emotional support for a situation that I found myself in. I really benefited from the kindness of strangers and the North Shore community was tremendously supportive of me. You make the decision, you feel like you’re alone, but you’re not really alone. There’s a lot of ways that people come out and support you and are trying to really encourage you to stay strong and do the right thing.

CS: The one thing that I worry about because I’ve just launched my new website and launched this show is I do worry about public scrutiny. As a leader, I believe leadership’s not about being the best, it’s about being willing to go first. Going first comes with challenges. By putting myself out there, I do worry that I will have the same scrutiny. What advice would you give me before any of the scrutinies come that I can replay this video and remind myself of what I should do when someone does leave a comment that’s not positive?

KB: First of all, I’ve certainly advised many people at Capilano and elsewhere in my career. When you get scrutiny, whether it’s a poor performance evaluation by a boss or something’s posted anymore with social media on the website, the worst thing you can do is respond directly to it, right?

You’re usually at a point where you’re hurt, you’re angry, you want to defend yourself. It never plays out well. To always look at it, distance yourself, give yourself time, figure out if there’s some way you can respond to the person in private. Some things do deserve a response but usually not immediately and usually in a way that’s more reasoned and responsible than the comment that was made toward you.

I do think in today’s media age, people who are leaders, it’s a difficult situation to be in when you’re really breaking new ground, maybe threatening the status quo. It’s tough. I think any more people have to go to really, like I said, know where your values point, keep that compass ahead of you and do what you feel is the right thing because you’re going to get scrutiny and it’s hard.

CS: I mean, that’s one of the reasons I have this show because I want people … Emotional intelligence is all about not reacting right away. It’s about being able to be aware of our emotions, express them in a constructive manner and manage them. I think that’s key. The other thing that I talk about with my clients is yeah, knowing what you value. That’s so important. I love the quote by Walt Disney, “When your values become clear, making decisions become easier.” I think that was pretty clear for you when you had to make some decisions.

Last question. How do you think learning to lead with emotional intelligence can be beneficial in life and particularly in business?

KB: I think that the old business model was a rational model, right? I think we have learned that there’s a lot to leadership that is effective, the emotional side of it all because it involves people. You have to, in the context of decision making and consensus building and moving an organization forward, contemplate and consider the people within that organization. I think my background as a sociologist served me very well because I’m a good observer of human behaviour and particularly group behaviour. I think it’s been useful to bring that into my work as a university president and an administrator because I do think all the time about the context in which people’s lives play out in the workplace. I think it’s also important to realize as an administrator that there’s more to people’s lives than just their work roles. I think all the time about the importance of family and friends. I realize people are juggling so many things in life today in addition to their work life. How can the workplace help with that and at least acknowledge that?

CS: If there are leaders out there that don’t have a sociology background, what courses, what books what resources can they use to learn to get more in touch with understanding people better, other than my program?

KB: I have to think being a good listener is really important. Asking good questions, but then really listening for the answers, some of the most influential people in my presidency were the students themselves because I learned very early in my presidency that students really understand what the future of the university needs to look like. I took it upon myself to create opportunities for conversations with students in so many different ways where I wasn’t doing all the talking. I asked questions. They answered and shaped the conversation in ways that I didn’t have the ability to do it because I didn’t see the world the way they saw it. A good listener is paramount as a leader.

CS:  At the end of our show we always share a golden nugget as a little inspiration. This week we’d like to share your golden nugget. Do you want to share it?

KB:  I think it has a lot to do with the things I’ve been talking about while I’m here. To put it succinctly, I’ve learned in my career and in my life that the best view is from the high road.

CS:  Awesome. If you loved the interview and you have a question for me or Kris, leave a comment below. Sometimes the best discussions happen after the episode. Stay tuned for the next Carolyn Talks.

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