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NorQuest College With Carolyn Campbell

By July 7th, 2023No Comments21 min read
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NorQuest College continues to grow more into an institution that helps show the way on solving problems together. Douglas Nelson introduces Carolyn Campbell, the President and CEO of the institution. Carolyn explains that the deep purpose of NorQuest is to be a place where people come to transform lives and feel that they belong. Equity, diversity, and inclusion are highly-prized values. These values ensure that the students have the healthiest, happiest, and most joyful experience they can at the college. Sit back, relax, and enjoy this episode!

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NorQuest College With Carolyn Campbell

Our guest on the show is Carolyn Campbell. She’s the President and CEO of NorQuest College in Edmonton, Alberta. We’re thrilled to have her on the show. Welcome, Carolyn.

Thank you, Doug. I am so happy to be here.

We’re excited to have you on not only because you and I used to work together during our time at the University of Alberta and some of our colleagues here at the Discovery Group but because you’ve taken an innovative path. In a short time, you’ve been the President and CEO at NorQuest with an exciting current for the time strategic plan that we’ll get into through the interview. To start us off, tell our readers a little bit about NorQuest College and the great work that you do there.

Thank you for the introduction and it’s a real honor to be here. I’m happy to talk to you about NorQuest College. At NorQuest, we do aim to be a place where people come to transform their lives. That’s our deep purpose. It’s something that we’ve held true for many years and will continue to and has become a real foundation of our new strategic plan. We think it’s a place where people can come and find a place to belong.

The work that we do spans foundational learning to career-focused programs. We have a variety of disciplines. We think we’re making a pretty big impact on Alberta’s economy that far exceeds our size. We have 25 post-secondary career credentials. They’re largely made up of diploma and certificate programs. We’ve got eight foundational programs. These include things like academic upgrading, employment preparation and English language training.

We want to make sure that we’re providing our graduates with in-demand skills. We’re focused on student success and industry collaboration. We have a workforce advisory committee. We have a very prominent board. We’re able to perform a pretty vital role in Alberta’s economy and deliver a return on investment that we think is second to none.

In short, we’ve got under 8,000 full load equivalents and about 21,000 learners served overall by the college. We think we’re quite diverse. We’ve got 35% of our student body that’s coming from outside the greater Edmonton area and 65% that comes from around here. We’re about 65/35 female to male students. One other exciting point about the college and when you come here you see it and it’s a dynamic place to be is that we have 114 countries of birth represented amongst our student body and 78 plus first languages spoken on campus. It makes us happy. Eight hundred thirty-one of our credit students self-identify as indigenous.

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That is quite a track record, particularly in an era where organizations, post-secondary and otherwise, are very appropriately focusing on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s baked into the heart of your organization.

It sure is. We’re going to be talking about our strategic plan within this show but it’s called NorQuest 2030. We are who we include. Equity, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, decolonization and Wahkôhtowin Strategy, which is our indigenous strategy, are fundamental parts of that strategic plan. They have been a big part of the work that we have been doing for several years especially in 2020. It’s pretty exciting where we’re going without work too.

Before we get there, the conversation I want to jump into is your career path to being that seventh President and CEO at NorQuest College. A perfectly drawn straight line from finishing post-secondary to becoming the President, if I’m not mistaken.

A not quite straight line. It’s fun to talk about it. Do you know that I have three arts degrees? My first degree was a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I did Art History. I did a Master’s Degree in Painting. I was on what I thought was a pretty straight line to being a painting professor but along came my passion for administration within the post-secondary sector. I found myself, the Associate Dean of the Business School running Executive Education, which honestly was very creative and exciting work and the real precedent to the work that I’m doing at NorQuest.

I ended up getting a job. I had the proverbial tap on the shoulder to come to the province and work for the Government of Alberta as a Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism. That was about putting together my pretty deep work within the arts and lots of board work within the arts and culture and academic sectors and thinking about leadership too and the work that we did at the university. I love that ended up going to the city of Edmonton.

I knew that down the road, I wanted to get back to post-secondary sector and felt that it would be valuable and useful to know and understand two orders of government because having worked as you did within post-secondary for twenty years, I was five years at MacEwan before the U of A too. For twenty years, I knew how closely aligned a lot of the work and the policy and the regulation but also thinking about the kinds of problems that society is dealing with and how post-secondaries could help those problems. I thought it’d be great to roll up my sleeves and get in there. It was very valuable.

It was honestly something like a bucket list thing and it still makes me wonder at how this came to be. I did end up finding out about a PhD program that one could do part-time with Oxford University. I’m doing a PhD on the side at Oxford on the Board Governance of Major Arts Museums. I’m looking at the role of indigenous sacred objects and how boards play a pretty big role in making decisions and returning those objects and thinking about the governance of museums.

With all that along came NorQuest, which frankly has been my dream job for many years because of the work that we do here with communities to help grow people. The purpose of the college was always clear and strong but what I also appreciated about NorQuest college was the deep academic work that I knew was happening. It was correlated to industry and business. That took me back to my roots and professional development of both MacEwan and the U of A. I do keep a studio downtown in Edmonton here where I live so that I can keep trying to plug away and get into the painting studio.

When you’re able to find time to go into that studio is that restorative time or is that creative tension working that out? What is it like when you walk through the door of the studio after a long day or a series of long days as president and CEO?

The way I look at my studio practice is that it is for sure a process and it is a practice. When I was a little girl, my parents got me involved in piano and I took piano. I didn’t finish grade eight because it’s getting too hard. I learned about getting up in the morning and playing or in the evening, dedicating yourself to. I try to have a certain number of hours a week that I will make sure that I’m diligently working, continue to do research around painting, painting practices, reading academic journals or biographies of artists, to make sure I’m staying up to date. You got to get in there and you got to do the work.

It’s both restorative. I see it as work and it ebbs and flows. There are times where I might get lots of work done and feel like, “I cracked out sixteen paintings this year.” Other times because of my work that I value so much, I feel it’s okay if it’s maybe a couple of paintings. I hope they’re big paintings and they’re paintings that I can do something with. I do try to keep it up.

Thank you for sharing that. That’s some interesting insight into how, as a leader, you stay fresh. When you’re feeling particularly creative doing your artistic work, does that spill over into the creativity in your role at NorQuest?

It sure does. I’ve often used analogies of studio work in my work-work. Things like the process of critique. Going into a room and having blank walls and you’ll have to make something. What they teach you in art school is that that something has to be critically analyzed vis-a-vis what’s happening externally and across the world, the best of the best in the artwork. You need to be hard on yourself, make sure you’re saying something, open to critique, good with showing and be able to say, “Sometimes it doesn’t need to be perfect. Let’s get this work out there and understand that it’s a body of work.”

It’s something I wrote a paper about for my PhD program for my thesis. It will be for the boards. I’ve been looking at institutions that are at an inflection point or a crisis point. What happened? How do boards and executives work during a crisis in order to bring all your inputs in and then start telling stories? How do you have material things that you’ve produced that start to represent what that institution will look like in the future? I find that endlessly fascinating. On a minor note, going into the studio is that deep focus. I find that it’s somehow giving me the ability to sift and sort the things that I’m thinking about in a very healthy way.

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That issue of how the board and senior executives respond in times of crisis, we’ve seen a lot of that across the sector over the last couple of years as a result of the pandemic. What I’ve seen is the organizations and the boards that respond well are the ones that have done a lot of the pre-work that know where their values and their principles are. They have a clear sense of the direction of their organization that may be blown off course or delayed somehow or in some way. They have a true north to return to. Not every organization has that. Those are the ones that can get lost or subject to getting lost. What’s your perspective on that?

When you talk about true north, it’s interesting that you should use that language because we very deliberately have been using the language of our learner as being our true north here at NorQuest. We have what we call our big aspiration, which is that NorQuest is where people come to transform themselves and find a place to belong. We think that we make the aspirational attainable. There’s a path for every single learner who comes to us. That’s something that we want to build out and it will be the work of our learner experience department or portfolio.

The work of our academics is like, “How do we open things up and be as barrier-free as we can?” We think a lot about being Edmonton’s and our region’s comprehensive community college. We want our learners to be empowered and make positive changes. Something that we found a phrase as we were doing our strategic planning work, which I like is that “We lift as we climb,” that we combine drive with social change. We reflect equity, diversity and inclusion at every level of our institution and with all of our learners.

Coming back as well to what we were talking about the crisis, inflection points and scenario planning that one needs to do as an executive in an institution and you need to bring forward to your board in which I learned a lot at both the province and the city. Start the strategic planning process with some pretty comprehensive work around your assumptions and some scenario plans. We came up with about five that very much guided our work.

It’s fascinating to me when organizations are willing and open to doing that deep work and that pre-work. Their strategic plans tend to be much more rooted in the actual work of the organization. While there is a great ambition and aspiration in the plan, it starts from the positions of strength or the identified areas of weakness that need to improve. A number of organizations jump into strategic planning, saying, “We’re going to look forward.” If it’s not anchored either in principle or in current performance, it’s harder for those plans to find traction.

There were a couple of things that we did to ensure that our work was deeply rooted in what we value at NorQuest College, around our purpose and principles. Also, it had us getting that long line of sight. We’re going to 2030 so we call it Norquest 2030: We Are Who We Include. Where it started was going back to the first listening tour that I had the privilege of doing when I started at the college. What worked out fortuitously was that because of COVID, which is not a good thing at all but how we reacted to it was positive in that we had this listening tour and I managed over 1,000 staff to have an opportunity to talk to well over 600 of those staff.

With that, I learned some of the narratives or the common themes that were coming through, this deep commitment, everywhere from vice-presidents to our frontline workers to the people who are closest to our students, our faculty, what did they value and care about. As we go through this process, deeply engaging with our staff internally was huge. When we were working with someone who was helping us out, a facilitator, he was like, “What would you like to see in the plan or what would you love to see?”

What I would like to see is what I think you would expect. What I would love to see is that when I get up on a podium and I’m talking to people about our strategic plan, the people see themselves in the plan. They recognize the language and the work and that they would even say, “We’re doing it. We’re on our way.” That excites me.

First of all, you are to be congratulated for doing a listening tour. Often, we hear CEOs and leaders saying they’re going to take the temperature of the organization and spend a period in learning mode but it is a rare leader who exercises the patients to let that run its course and to listen. I’m curious to see who sat down with your Zoom rooms and was able to connect with so many of the team there at NorQuest. What were you expecting to hear? Were there any surprises?

What I was expecting to hear was a lot of the connectivity that we have to the community because that’s very powerful at the college. I was expecting to hear as you would. I did a couple. The first listening tour was like, get to know you. I wanted them to have a chance to hear a bit about my story too so that we could get to know one another.

In the second one, what we dug into and maybe more of what I didn’t expect to hear was the real meaty ideas around how we could be inclusive and how we could connect with the communities about very great ideas around applied research. This is something that I had been learning about during my PhD program.

Connecting that to some of the excellent thinking that’s happening in the research area within the college, we have a great opportunity to bring together what I like to call the blurring of lines between industry, academia and government to solve problems. We have a big opportunity in the college to grow our applied research in order to meet with people within Edmonton and people within our region. What issues are you seeing around the workforce, even poverty, healthcare and some of the things that we teach?

With that, how do we then bring back material that’s going to be great for our students and create this virtuous circle? We take all of that work and see it getting rolled up into a plan that focuses on our learners, people, connection, investment and transformation. What I’m hearing back from people is that they’re saying we hear ourselves in the plan. We hear inclusivity but we also hear how we’re going to, in a way that is socially impactful, create new revenues for the college and grow our workforce relevance, grow in ways that are also meeting the needs of the province.

It’s been pretty exciting to have both those tours and there’s going to be a third. Now that we’ve got the plan revealed, where do you see your work? I want to hear from people and get narratives and stories that I can then share in environments like this one with you but certainly in speeches and in all my external meetings.

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It comes through your sincerity and the authenticity, both of the plans. Your leadership comes through listening to you describe the strategic plan and the process that you’ve undergone to develop it. I’m curious as to how much you found that message around being a place where people come to transform their lives. How much of that was a consolidation of a whole bunch of ideas that came together that that’s the summary of? Was this something that you found nearly whole in the heart of the organization or is it the pieces that you’ve put together?

It’s a bit of a combination of things. I found it and it was what attracted me to the college. That purpose for and that the people who work here are deeply involved in communities. Passionate community players are so known by many communities. That’s very rewarding. Something also happened, as COVID was giving us, in a way, a new zeitgeist, worldviews and ways of examining the world critically, more social justice and social engagement.

I have a strong belief in the role of institutions in being responsible to your communities, people and staff in paying attention to what’s happening externally and having a voice on that. That’s hard because when do you have a voice and when do you not have a voice? That’s something we actively talk about. What we do is we’ll come back often to our North Star, our learner and aspiration of what are we meant to do.

I have a strong belief in the future of work as we imagine the future of work and how work can be related to a frontline worker on artificial intelligence and machine learning. There are tons in healthcare. Over 40% of our work is on healthcare. There’s a lot of community support. As you think about the problems and the issues and how the institution has a point of view around that, I found that through the strategic planning listening tours, there was a coalescence around that point of view.

We had been doing deep excellent culture work before I started that we’re keeping on with. It helped us through COVID. That also gave us a platform for people to have a voice. That leads to lots of considerable responsibility as we work toward the execution of outcomes in this plan because we’re hitting the ground running.

We have some pretty ambitious goals around getting to a 100% workforce integrated learning but can we do that? Can we grow our full load equivalent by at least another 50% or maybe double when we think we can? The bringing together of the social purpose side of the college and the revenue side, the business growth and what I’m seeing is that coming together nicely with NorQuesters now.

It’s remarkable that you talk about that because you don’t describe those as being intentioned or in conflict at all but instead accelerating each other, building on one another.

That’s something that we actively and intentionally talk about because that’s something you’re going to have to make decisions on a daily basis, business planning decisions and so on. It’s about the conversation. We have lots of listening circles and forums for people to make sure they’re talking about things and having the conversation as well. It’s important to stay as external as one can. For the executive is what are we continually learning and bringing back to the organization to help other people?

As the leader of the organization that has these grand and important ambitions, when you wake up on any given Wednesday, who is it you need to convince?

First and foremost, it’s our learner. We want to stay close to our students and make sure that they’re having the healthiest, happiest, most joyful experience that they can at the college. That’s everything from what does our registration system looks like and how do we market and talk about ourselves externally. We use the expression, “See yourself here,” but can people start to see themselves here as a learner? The quality of our programs.

We have our workforce advisory committee and special program advisory committees. There are well over 250 people, as I understand it, who are providing constant advice and guidance to the college, to our faculty and to our leaders around programming. Something that we think about every day is this cycle of continuous improvement. We think about culture too every day and how we are making it also a fabulous place to work.

For readers who are interested in how leaders think about being authentic and truly representing their organizations, understand what Carolyn has given. I’ll reflect it back to you, Carolyn. Tell me whether this is an instinct for you or how you develop this skill. You were talking about how important it is to share the good news and to be externally focused and letting people outside of the college know about the work of NorQuest.

I asked you, who do you need to convince? You immediately went back to the learner or to the core of what you had identified as your North Star. That continuity is unique in leadership in our sector. Is that something that you learned through your professional experience or is that innate to be anchored in what your purpose is and return to that time and time and again as you have through this conversation?

You’ve made me think of something special that I haven’t thought about for a while but I did think a lot deliberately when I was getting going in my career in professional development at McEwan and then at the University of Alberta. My dad was a traveling salesman. He was so customer-oriented. He would come home and tell these stories at the dinner table, what fabulous conversations he’d had with his customers and how it would make him so happy. My dad was a real rock on tour. He could tell a story like no one else.

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It was brought to life. For me, it was through McEwen and then through the U of A. I was at the University of Alberta for fifteen years at Executive Education. I did my Master’s degree while I was working there part-time. It was something that is very near and dear to my heart was this constant thread of working for at the U of A, at Exec Ed, we would call it the client because it would be either a big customized program for organizations or we would have open programs for individuals who were coming in.

As tight a line as you can imagine, cause and effect on how well we did with whether or not our learners were happy and satisfied. Baked into my DNA is to be helpful, listening and make sure that your learners are satisfied and delighted. There are tons of competition out there for sure. We have such a real tremendous return on investment at the college. We never take that for granted. How do we continually meet with our students? How do we continue to break down barriers?

For me, the more we find that successful, it’s very rewarding and then you get these great stories from the classroom. The instructors have been inviting me into their classes which is great whether they’ve been virtual classes or even in-person classes. I’ve had the chance to come in. I won’t go as far as a guest teacher because it’s not that far but maybe it would be a leadership program. I would have the pleasure of being invited to come in and talk about leadership or talk about culture. I got asked to come into an art history class. It was great. I talked about my PhD stuff. It’s important to remember whom we serve.

I appreciate you sharing your approach and the tremendous progress you’ve made. I want to end our conversation by looking forward. Carolyn, what are you most looking forward to in your role as President and CEO at NorQuest College over the months and years to come?

I see the college as continuing to firmly step into this space of the comprehensive community college in our region. There is so much to be excited about with that. I picture more of a bustling space with more students, programs and research that we’re doing to make a contribution to communities. I see with that, individuals who are finding their own personal freedom to be themselves and find their own work.

We can help to be a part of a conversation about anti-racist decolonized organizations that are going to spark innovation, that is going to ignite thinking. With that, it challenged our economy and society to grow because NorQuest is an institution and will continue to be growing more into an institution that can help show the way and solve problems together. With that, I find it very exciting and a real privilege and an honor to be here.

Thank you so much for sharing your vision and the great work that’s happening at NorQuest. Thank you for being on the show.

You are most welcome. It’s been a real pleasure. This has been fun. Thank you very much for having me.

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About Caroyln Campbell

Carolyn Campbell is the President and CEO of NorQuest College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and is working on doctoral studies at the University of Oxford on the subject of board governance of major arts museums. She is a former Deputy City Manager, Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism, and Associate Dean of Executive Education at the University of Alberta. She has served on over twenty-five boards and committees over the past two decades, with a focus on higher education, community and cultural boards, including Cabinet Chair of United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, Vice-Chair of Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and member of the Premier’s Council on Culture. Carolyn has taught strategic arts management and governance in the MBA program, and painting, drawing and visual design as a sessional instructor in Fine Arts at the U of A. She is a practicing figurative artist with a studio and membership at the Harcourt House Artist Run Centre.