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Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn marked one year at the helm of the school on in May.

Randy Dunn, president of Southern Illinois University 

Q. What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

A. My first administration job was as a school principal when I was 25 years old. I learned you can never have too much communication. It's the life-blood of any organization. The larger and more complex the organization, the more vital it is. ...

I now write a bi-weekly column through the academic year, sent out by email. Employees tell me they appreciate those. It's human nature to gripe about our employers, but in the end more people want to be a part of something bigger, working toward something bigger. ... My column isn't to rehash, but to talk about how we are working to address challenges. Communication has to honest and authentic, not a bunch of fluff. People see through that. ...

Q. Did you have a mentor early in your career? 

A. There was not one person in the classic sense, but I have stolen bits and pieces from all kinds of people over the years. One, in part, was from a professor of mine who taught me about one-on-one communication. He had a way of pulling people in with eye contact. There are people out there -- they say Bill Clinton was one -- who could make you feel like you were the most important person in the world. 

Q. What is your morning routine? How do you prepare yourself for the day?

A. I hold off on having meetings until 9 a.m. I get coffee, run through emails and read and respond to any from my direct reports. I visit websites for several daily newspapers -- The Southern, SJR, Belleville, St Louis. Then I visit sites for The Chronicle of Higher Education and Then I try to visit websites within the SIU system.

I have a rolling to do list on paper on my desk. I keep an index card in my (front shirt) pocket and write down things I have to do throughout the day and I transfer those to my rolling to do list. Part of the challenge in roles like this is prioritizing. We are paid to prioritize. 

Q. What do you look for when you hire someone? Are there key interview questions that you ask? 

A. What's tough is that a lot of people are hired via search committee. I give great deference to the search committees, but it also tends to round out the corners of the candidates and lowers the denominator. 

For me, the first thing I look for is technical competence in their field. Once that has been established, the rest is subjective. It gets to be a focus on being simpatico, which is beyond liking someone but knowing you'll have a good working relationship. 

It's important not to look for a clone of yourself, but I look for how they manage workflow, communication and if we have shared values. 

Interviews tend to be conversational. I want to hire people who are respectful of who works for them. ... I'm not into the top-down management style. ... 

You can't look like you're micro-managing, but I like to sit in on interviews for applicants for middle management positions. Even as a school superintendent, I would sit in on teacher interviews. 

Q. What is the best way to improve employee morale?

A. I circle back to this idea that authenticity is key. But there's no magic pill for morale, especially when you're facing cuts and analyzing positions for layoffs. It's tough to have people feel invested. All you can do is push out as much information as you can. That's the critical element to leadership in these times. ...

I think of moral as a collective construct just as much as an individual construct. At the university, there are people who come to work proud of what we do and excited to be fulfilling a larger mission. For those people, morale isn't an issue. I don't want to discount it, but we can talk ourselves into moral issues easily. 

Q. What career advice would you give to a new college graduate? 

A. I would say get into that position you have some passion for, whatever that may be. Among the opinion makers, there's a push for universal college education, but I don't buy that. Every occupation has value. If there's a passion, they will be able to run with it. Life's too short to feel like a drone. 

It might not be your first job, but keep an eye on what drives you. 


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