As a leader, your decisions affect everybody. Leadership is not about you getting where you’re going. It’s about bringing other people along to get where they’re going. You have to bring everyone together for a common cause. But at the same time, you need to know when to take a step back and understand how things run. Join Douglas Nelson as he talks with Debra Pozega Osburn about leadership communication. Debra has served since 2016 as the VP of University Relations at the University of Saskatchewan. She provides vision, leadership, and inspiration for teams dedicated to building strong relationships. Learn how to lead with respect and compassion for others. Dive into uncertainty in today’s episode!
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Debra Pozega Osburn
Our guest on the show is Debra Pozega Osburn. She is the Vice President University Relations at the University of Saskatchewan, a long-time friend, colleague, mentor for me personally and I’m thrilled to have her on the show. Welcome, Debra.
Thank you, Doug. It is great to see you even in this virtual room and always great to get caught up. Thanks for reaching out to me.
It is great to have you on and we have had, over the first five seasons of the show, a number of leaders who have started in their roles and are looking forward at the sea of opportunity. It is a real pleasure to get to speak to you. I know many of our readers will be aware that your tenure at the University of Saskatchewan comes to an end at the end of February 2022 so we are going to get real advice on someone who has been there as we go through this conversation.
Before we get to looking forward, I want to look back a little bit. Through the work that we do here, we have the chance to meet a lot of leaders who have come into leadership, both in post-secondary, health and across the broader social profit sector, a happenstance or an accident falling into the work at the beginning before making it their career work. Tell us, how did you get into working in post-secondary institutions?
Sometimes I joke, I say, “I have not always been a vice president.” The fact is, I was usually trying to explain a decision. I made that people do not quite understand but I was a journalist for the first part of my career. For probably 13 or 14 years, I was a journalist and worked in newsrooms of various sizes all in the United States. I am a dual citizen of Canada and the US.
I had no intention of being anything other than a journalist. It was what I had always wanted to do for my career. It is what I had always wanted to be so to speak. As you know, many of us, me included, our work is a big part of our identity, who we are, how we carry ourselves and present ourselves to the world.
I started as a sportswriter, a great work, probably one of the best jobs I have ever had and then moved over to the news side. I was the city editor of a midsize daily newspaper. That was a very good newspaper and I enjoyed the work. At the same time, I was beginning to feel the need to be in an advocacy role.
In other words, there were things that were very important to me that I wanted to have a significant voice on or be able to advocate for. When you are in a leadership position in a newsroom such as I was, where you are directing the news content, deploying the reporters out on their assignments and pushing for what is going to be on the front page and all that thing, you cannot be in that advocate role. You have to be as neutral as you possibly can and set your own personal feelings aside in order to do what is best for the community. I found myself more and more wanting to be in an advocacy role.When you're somewhere new, be willing to take a step back and say, 'I might not be quite right about that one.' Click To Tweet
As it happened, the head of what was then called the news bureau role at Michigan State University, which was my Alma Mater, had come open. I thought, this is probably as close to a journalist as you can be but be able to push for a cause that you believe in. I very much believed in higher education. I always have, always will and the role that it plays in people’s lives. I moved forward in the competition for that role and was very fortunate to get it. This was in 1992 and I treasured the ability to advocate for my Alma Mater and also the public education sector, which as I say, I truly believe in.
Do you remember the first time you got to advocate? Was it all that you had hoped for?
You start out when you are in a role like that, Doug, and you are working with the local media, all of whom I knew in that particular market but in a different role. One of the adjustments that I had to make was changing that relationship that I had with a group that might’ve previously been my peers. More importantly, when you are in the news business, at some point during the day, your work is done and you have got something to show for it.
You have got a newspaper to hold up or a web now in the eNews times or webpage to show that it has been updated but when you are in that advocacy work, you can work and work. Three weeks have gone by and three months have gone by, you still do not have anything to show for it other than knowing that a needle is moving or that conversations are changing. That was a big learning curve for me.
You come into post-secondary education in the public affairs or in the news side of things and you quickly go up the ranks. You end up coming to the University of Alberta in a similar but not quite similar role and at the vice president university relations. When I think of you and the reputation, you have as someone who makes a strong case for that integrated university relations position. How did you move from that focus on public affairs to that bigger picture? Why is that important?
Think of moving from being a journalist, where you are a storyteller to being in public affairs, where you are a storyteller but for a particular goal in mind, to then doing more of the community outreach and the alumni outreach, which is about bringing people together around a particular story. If you think about an institution and the story, it has to tell, to work with donors, which is finding ways to understand that your donors have a story to tell. You can be a part of their story if you can link up what they are trying to accomplish with what you are trying to accomplish in a way it is very logical.
It does not feel very logical when you are doing it because as you are moving and growing in your career and you are taking on these new challenges, you are always bringing your own story and perspective with you. In my case, starting as a journalist, as opposed to starting at a nonprofit agency or some of the other paths that you can take, I had a learning curve but I also needed to help other people understand the value that I brought to those various roles.
As you point out, if you are willing to learn, listen hard, get to know your communities and broaden your scope on the world, you can see how things come together in these executive positions and how that integrated approach makes a difference. If I can, I want to talk a little bit more about that because often, when we think of this thing that we call communications, we think of it as a very linear process. It is transactional.
I have a message here and you need to receive it. Therefore, I am going to bestow my message on you. I’m going to email it to you, put it on a social media post, do something and deliver that message. Therefore, my job is done. I have communicated. In donor relations, we can fall into that same trap. It can feel like a linear and transactional process. If you can think of communication, alumni relations, donor relations, community engagement and government relations, if you can think of those not as linear processes but processes that bring people together around something common, there is something common in the middle and people are gathering around it.
That is what brings all of these particular fields that typically make up a university relations unit together. These are not linear processes. We are not in the message delivery business or some briefing to the government business. We are in the business of bringing people together around a common clause and finding that common interest in that common ground. That is the beauty of it and that is where the integrated approach pays off.
When I think of you and a word that I have heard you use lots of times is convener that bringing everyone to the table to share, have, make their piece. You are bringing everyone together. You end up not only telling a different story but a richer story and a more engaging story if you have got everyone at the table rather than a different message to each group. That segmentation, while necessary, is a second step. First, you have got to get everybody around that table.
Get everyone around the table and then you can agree too on what the institution stands for. You have heard me and many others talk about the institutional brand and how it is at the core of what an institution stands for. It defines your promise. It helps people understand what they can expect from you if they engage with you and position yourself appropriately in your communities by having the reputation that you want to have with your communities. It is so important to understand how these things are not separate lines of work but as you say, “They all come together in a powerful way.”
The first question I wrote is why is it so hard for institutions to understand, find their own brand promise or tell their own story? What gets in the way of large institutions getting behind that common story?
I think it is because, in part, if you look at the collective that is a university, it is professors who are among the best in the world at what they do in a particular area. It is students who want to be as good as they can be in a particular area. It is people in your administrative units, your presidents, vice presidents and so forth, who have made their career being absolute experts in whatever the business line is that they drive.
There is a sense when you try to bring parts of the organization together, not necessarily merge them administratively. We all have to have bosses and budgets. We have to understand that we do run a business line here. We have a responsibility that we take seriously. There is often the feeling when you try to bring folks together rather than adding to their giving up so you try to bring folks together around a common message and cause.
People do not see that that is a benefit to them. They see it as a loss. That is on us as the leaders in this business to be sure that we are approaching our colleagues in order to help them understand the added benefits. The other thing we have to be willing to do and you learn this the later you get in your career is you do have to be willing sometimes to take a step back and say, “I might not be quite right about that one. I might have missed something along the line here. I might need to listen a little harder in order to be sure that I’m understanding this correctly and I’m getting this right.”Leadership is not just about you getting where you're going. It's about bringing other people along to get where they're going. Click To Tweet
You are staking out your turf and you want to be sure that you do not make a mistake. When you are willing to take a step back and say, “Tell me a little bit more about that. Explain to me your concern and what I’m missing here. What is it that I’m not understanding?” That can help you do a little bit better job of understanding these things and bringing people together.
That idea of catching yourself, maybe I’m missing something or I have taken two steps in the wrong direction here. Is there a time that you can think of or an example that you go back to or a feeling that resonates with you when you realize, “Maybe I need to check myself here.”
I will tell you when I got a crash course on that was when I moved from Michigan to Alberta because you are good at what you are doing. They are bringing you into a new place, community and university because they have a lot of faith that you are going to add something to that community and that somehow the place is going to be better for you being in it.
When you come into not only a new university but a new university in a new country because you have moved from the US into Canada, it is easy for you to say, “The first thing I got to do here is impressed everybody with how much I know about this space. I’m here and everybody better get with the program.”
It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to prove that you are right and the expert in the room. I will talk a little bit more in a minute about why that is true in many cases. There is a reason that great leaders go on a bit of a listening tour. It is because they do not know everything right off the bat. I would say that moving across the border into a new university, a new country to a province that I had not spent any time, forced me to have to understand the need to learn. As good leaders do, we bring people along with me.
This is the thing about leadership. A good leader has to make decisions. Otherwise, what are you there for? Typically, they are decisions that affect a lot of other people. Even while you are making these decisions, you have to constantly be checking yourself and saying, “What was the impact of that decision? Was that the right decision? Was that the best decision I could have made? How was that affecting other people?
There is that action piece but then there is that reflection piece. Without that reflection piece, you can be acting all you want but if you are not reflecting, you are missing a piece of it. The third part of that is it is not about you getting where you are going. It is about bringing other people along to get where they are going. A lot of leaders, especially in these high-level positions, think, “I got to act and make those decisions.” Action but also reflection and the ability to bring other people along. Those three work hand-in-hand.
Is there a trigger or a process that you use to remind yourself to take those moments of reflection?
There are a couple that I think about. Some of them are old sports analogies. I previously have been an endurance athlete and as a sports writer, I had a couple of things I used that I would fall back on. As an endurance athlete, I learned very early on that I had to pay attention to how things were going. If I’m running a marathon and I’m 10 miles into a 26-mile race, I have got to know how I’m doing. Am I going too fast? Do I need to kick it up a notch? Have I taken into account the weather conditions? Why is that hurting? That has never hurt before. You have to be willing to pay attention to what is going on around you and going on within you.
Most of us as human beings have a moral compass or some systemic way as people of knowing if we are doing the right thing and we are in the right place or not. You learn that as an endurance athlete and you also learn it as a leader. When you start feeling something is a little bit off, I know this sounds a little bit zen but that is a good time to say, “How am I doing here? Am I getting this right? Do I need to kick it up a notch?
The second one is a great old baseball analogy. If you have ever played in the outfield, which was pretty much the only place they ever played me when I was playing baseball, you are out in the outfield and you see that long fly ball come off the bat of whoever is at bat, what is your first instinct? Your first instinct is to start running toward the ball. What you need to do is take one step back and take a minute to judge that ball because if you start running toward the ball as fast as you can go and you realize you have misjudged it, it is awfully hard to change direction. It turns around and starts going the other way.
If you take a step back, it is a lot easier than to start running toward it. A lot of times, I’ll be in a situation and I will say, “That’s my fly ball. This is like the tenth mile. I got to do a check here and see what is working. Did I start out too fast?” I wish I could say that there is this zing and then I know I’m not getting it right.
If that was true, life would be a lot easier. It is usually not quite that evident or a series of things. I have also told my staff a couple of things to watch for to get me to do a gut check. If I find that in my leadership role, I’m having trouble making decisions, probably time for me to take a step back and figure out, “Is there something going on here that needs to be addressed?”
If I find that I am staying in the office way too long when I do not need to be here, thinking that if I skip this one more thing done, everything is going to be fixed. Each person needs to learn those by themselves what those are. I have been lucky. In I’m late in my career, I figured that out but I didn’t know that when I was earlier in my career, I had to learn it the hard way.
For me, the instinct that tells me that I’m either on the wrong path or I’m certainly not thinking enough about the path I’m on. The feeling is, what button do I have to push to make this happen? I’m looking for an absolute resolution. Many of the things in leadership positions and certainly in the role that I have now are not absolute decisions. There is no light on, light off decisions that you make. It takes time to turn the ship and for decisions to be implemented. What I’m looking for is that immediate resolution I know of, “This is not my best self. Why am I wanting to end and complete this rather than thinking about it?
When we worked together at the University of Alberta, I didn’t always know that. I spent a lot of my time when I was in that Chief Development Officer role at the University of Alberta. What button do I have to push? It was after I was not in that role that I was able to look back and go, “That is not the best me. That is almost never the right way to handle something. That reflection is important. As you say, “It is better to learn it in real-time rather than needing to leave the job to realize where you have made those.”
Some day you got to make a decision. You can’t keep walking around that problem issue or opportunity and keep walking around it, hoping that the light bulb goes off over your head. Sometimes, you do have to make that decision but if you have followed the path that you are describing here, Doug, there is a pretty good chance it will be a good decision. Often, it is not only one right decision. There are good decisions and there are not good but rarely is there one decision that you are going to make.
One of the problems I see a lot of leaders facing in our work is the consequences of not making a decision, which seems to be far greater than making a bad decision or a not quite right decision. The absence of resolution, the absence of direction or taking a step causes a lot of problems in organizations. You were at the University of Alberta and successful in your role there. You make the change to come to the University of Saskatchewan. What lessons did you try to take with you from the University of Alberta to the University of Saskatchewan other than now it is green and white, not green and gold?There are good decisions and bad decisions, but rarely is there just one decision. Click To Tweet
There is that green pattern if you go from Michigan State, which is green and white, to Alberta, which is green and gold and to Saskatchewan, which is green and white. We were talking about the importance of listening, getting to know your community, understanding what the challenges are and what the impact is that you can have.
When I made a move from Alberta to Saskatchewan, I was more forthcoming before I made a move and saying, “What is the goal here?” Let’s talk about what this is going to look like. What are the most important things that we need to accomplish as an institution in a five-year period? It could be a 10-year period or a 2-year period. That is in your own mind but I was much more articulate with myself about what it is that I am going to try to get done here. What can and should be done? What is the president hoping happens? What does the university need from me and understanding that?
We are public servants and servant leaders. I’m not coming to any institution hoping to change that into something that it needs to be. I’m coming to a university or an institution to help it be the best it can be. I need to understand what does that means to this community? What does the best university look like? That was learning when I had gone to Alberta and that would have been several years ago. I was not as in tune with the need for me to ask myself that question.
The work we did together in Alberta and the work that I’ve done here with my colleagues in Saskatchewan has been fabulous. I came into both with a bit of a different mindset. Neither one of them was bad. It was where I was in my career and I was ready to say, “Let me understand this. I will get about doing what I need to do as a leader and a member of this executive team to try to have that impact.
I was talking to one of our former colleagues about you and I said that I was going to have the chance to interview you for the show. I said, “What do you remember about working with Debra?” She said, “One of the things I always loved and appreciated about Debra was she does not talk about people. She talks about individuals. She focuses on what is important in this person. It’s not people and not just serving the public generally. She always would talk about people and could put a name on it. Even if she did not say the name, it felt like she thought about what is the impact on an individual not just on people.”
I had not thought of it that way but as I reflect on it, I was like, “That is true. That is how she talks.” How you lead is much about focusing on the individuals either around your table, the table that you are a member of or the individuals that your institution serves. My temptation is to think that your journalism showing through but what would you say about how you are able to keep it about individuals and not about people generally?
I worked for a while at USA TODAY as a sports writer and it is a very large national newspaper space outside of Washington, DC. Millions of people are reading your stuff every day and it is easy to get the feeling that you are part of this big machine. There was a story that needed to be done one day about the Carnegie Mellon Men’s Cross Country Team. You have got this big newsroom full of people were covering the Olympics, the NFL, this, that and the other. I said, “I will do that story.” I got a little thing going on about cross country running and long-distance running so I said, “I will take that story.”
I did this story about the Carnegie Mellon Men’s Cross Country Team, which had won its 56 straight dual meet, an NCAA record in dual meet victories. I do not hire in it, I will not be doing run dual meets anymore but that was the case at th at time. This would have been in the 1980s. I wrote this story and it is not a very big story. It is tucked away about page four in the sports section.
I come to work on the train the next morning. I see the guy in front of me looking at the USA TODAY newspaper. He is flipping through the paper and gets to the sports section. He flips it open to that page, looks at that story, puts the rest of the paper down, takes that page and tears that story out about the Carnegie Mellon Men’s Cross Country Team. He puts it in his pocket, leaves the rest of it paper sitting on the seat, gets off the train and goes about his business.
There was something about that story, which for most people would be a throwaway story, that had an impact on that person. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if he know the coach or he used to run, whatever but here is this story that means something so important to this guy that he tears it out of the paper, puts it in his pocket and leaves.
Every day, we take action, make a decision, say something, write something, call somebody, send an email that has an impact on a person that we will never know. It’s those personal contacts and what that fellow brings to his reading of that story, email or whatever it is, it has a profound impact on him. You don’t always think about that but everybody has their own story that they bring with them. You also heard me say that we talk about relationships as being between institutions. The university and the government or the university and its donors but relationships are in between institutions and people. The more we remember that, the better off we are going to be.
That is true in life and certainly at work. Remembering that relationships are between people is important. Thank you for sharing that story. Not only did that person on the train exhibit good taste in sports writing. A great way to think about the work that as leaders we do every day is that we do have that impact on individuals who received the messages for sending a real part of the decisions that we are making.
The other piece that I wanted to give a reflection on that I thought of in preparing for this conversation is the things that you do. Unlike anyone else that I have worked with either in my current role or as a colleague, you have a very good eye for identifying the things that are not being done or could be done. It is not just incremental improvement or transformation of the work as it is in front of us but what is it that no one is doing or what is it that we could be doing that is going to help us get to that long-term goal and being able to lead into that neutral space? It is difficult and uncommon that leaders to do that.
I can think of several examples in the years that I have known you where you have chosen to steer into that neutral space, which is scary for a lot of people. I’d love to hear you talk about that. What is possible? What is it we are not doing? Why don’t we pursue that? How did you come to that as a leadership strategy?Relationships are not between institutions. Relationships are between people. Click To Tweet
You have described it well. You are very astute about these things. This is why we have had some of the great conversations in the past, probably. A lot of people don’t go into that occupied space because it is scary in there and it is easy to fail. Post-secondary institutions are not always places where failure is well-tolerated and there are good reasons for that.
We are publicly and donor-funded. Many people are affected by the work that we do, so there is a good reason that we always want to be on the successful end of things. Of course, we do. In order to get into that unknown space, you have to be willing to take some risks that can have a negative impact on you if you don’t quite get it right, don’t understand the situation and make a decision that is not fruitful in the end.
However, if you get in there and figure it out, everything changes. That ball that you have been trying to move forward and have not been able to get past this particular point, all of a sudden, you can move past that point. That hurdle that you thought you were never going to get over, you get in that empty space, you take a couple of steps forward. It falls down right in front of you and you are able to get past it. It is difficult to get in there is because it is uncertain and just as human beings, do we want to invite more uncertainty into our lives? Probably not.
In order to be able to feel comfortable going into that space, you have to understand the risk. You have got to be willing to take it on. It is not for everybody but if you are willing to reflect on that, test yourself, try to get in there, have those conversations and seek that insight, it can be quite rewarding and can make a huge difference.
You are never in there by yourself either and this is the thing that you remember. When we were in Alberta and I have had the same experience here in Saskatchewan, you will try to move forward into unoccupied space or territory that people don’t think you need to be in for whatever reason but you are confident that there’s a good reason to take these steps.
Almost always, there are other people who are willing to go there with you. It is that they have not had anybody willing to go with them before. It can be quite remarkable and rewarding. As you have heard me say too, “Let’s try it.” If it does not work, we won’t do it anymore. I have examples of things that we tried at Alberta on the communication side here in various ways and things that we have done that we said, “That one did not work.” In general, no harm was done. We gave it a try. It did not work. Now we are going to go onto something else.
There is an important leadership lesson in there that when you decide to go first to go into that unoccupied space, you do not have to go alone. Leaders who feel like they have to go and show and be the ones that are the solo explorers in that sometimes make great discoveries but more often than not get lost in that neutral space. It is important to think about who you are taking with you as leader of the team, whereas a team of colleagues going into that space.
Thanks, Doug. That is a great insight.
As we come to the end of our conversation, I’m curious to hear and curious for you to share with our readers the advice that you would have for new leaders. Someone who is coming into a senior leadership position whether it is an AVP or a vice president for university relations at a University in Canada. What advice would you have for them for their first 30, 60, 90 or 100 days as they step into the role?
There are a lot of things that we need to think about as we step into these new leadership roles. One of those things is what are the decisions that need to be made? Sometimes we know what needs to be done. We have listened hard and seen where the university and institution are going. We know what needs to be done but we have trouble making that decision.
Part of it is understanding what are some of the major decisions you are going to need to make and what are the things that you need to have to be able to make them? Is it a conversation with your president, board, campaign cabinet or alumni board, whatever the case is but knowing what are the decisions that you need to make?
You need to be both action-oriented and reflective. As you are moving into these new positions, you need to be willing to take a look and say, “How am I doing here? Are our people moving along with me? Is this one of those things where I’m out ahead here and people are standing back waiting to see what is going to happen?”
If it is the latter, that’s not necessarily a bad thing unless you are not aware of it. It is not that you are out ahead of people and taking them a while to come with you. It is that you are ahead of people and you do not know that they are not coming with you. That is the real challenge. That self-awareness and willingness to be reflective are important.
Doug, all of us need to have people outside our organizations that we can talk with about both the challenges we are facing, excitement and the rewards that we see coming with the progress that we are making so we need people either in previous organizations or outside of our organizations entirely. Some people have executive coaches, former professors and old colleagues that whom they stay in touch with that thing. You need people that you can talk to and bounce ideas off of.When you're going to unoccupied spaces, there are always other people who are willing to go there with you. Click To Tweet
I have never hesitated. I have got a core group of people both here and in The States, both professional and personal acquaintances of mine. I always have someone I can call and say, “I have been trying to get this done and I just can’t figure it out. Let me tell you what is going on here. Let’s see what you think.” You would be surprised when you talk something through with a person who is not immersed in the system that you are in. They can point something out to you that you entirely nest. You can come back and bring what you have learned with you.
Those would be the three things that I would think about. The fourth thing is you got to have faith in yourself, the organization and the people around you, Doug. You have got to have faith in the purpose, what your organization stands for and what you stand for. If day after day, week after week, month after month goes by and you can’t find that level of faith, that is a chance for you to take a step back and say, “Am I in the right place? Am I doing the right thing? Is this the person that I am and the direction I need to go?” Having faith in your organization, fellow leaders, your team and your mission is important.
My final question to you is as you come to the end of your role at the end of February 2022, what are you going to do in March? What are you looking forward to doing? What is the first thing you are going to do when you’re no longer vice-president?
I will say that is the most common question that I get. What I would say there is that I enjoy my work, my colleagues, our purpose and the mission of the post-secondary sector in Canada. It is something I have been proud to be a part of. All that said, there is a big world out there. There are a lot of things that I have wanted to spend more time doing that you do not have the bandwidth to do when you are in these senior positions because there is not the time and the ability.
I am involved on a couple of different nonprofit boards. I enjoy the work I do on these boards and I’m looking forward to spending more time with them but figuring out now how I can take what I have learned and find whatever that new thing is that I want to do with it. I love the mentorship role I have played especially with women coming up in these leadership roles in their careers. That is something I would continue for sure but I expect I might sleep in a couple of days. At least for that first week, that might be an option.
Debra, I appreciate you making time to be on the show and share what I think amounts to a masterclass and leadership after a distinguished career and making institutions better. Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks, Doug. It was great to see you and reconnect. I appreciate the opportunity.
About Debra Pozega Osburn
Debra Pozega Osburn has served since 2016 as Vice-President, University Relations at the University of Saskatchewan, where she provides vision, leadership and inspiration for a team dedicated to building strong relationships, for creating a culture of philanthropy, and for telling the USask story. She came to USask after serving in university relations leadership roles for almost a decade at the University of Alberta, including seven years as vice president.
Long a proponent of the role post-secondary education plays in increasing the strength and resiliency of communities worldwide, Debra earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University, where she also competed as a varsity athlete. She was a journalist for 13 years before returning to her alma mater to serve in several senior University Relations roles, earning her master’s degree and Ph.D during that time. In 2003, she became a partner and principal in a communication consulting firm, focusing on the education and non-profit sectors, before moving with her family to Alberta in 2007. She holds citizenship in both the US and Canada.