Funding a college education has become an increasingly large part of planning for a family’s financial future. Join host and Partner of Confluence Financial Partners, Greg Weimer, as he discusses the power of education with one of America’s most distinguished individuals — Dr. Chris Howard. Dr. Howard is president of Robert Morris University, a decorated veteran, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in politics from Oxford and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, and a former member of the NCAA’s College Football Playoff committee (and those are just the highlights.) You’ll hear about Dr. Howard’s journey to success, along with his advice for both business leaders and young people. You’ll find out why it’s so important to develop a college funding strategy early — and why education remains among the most powerful investments you can ever make
Confluence Financial Partners – “Education”: Dr. Christopher Howard | Episode 10
Greg: 90% of universities believe college graduates are prepared for the workforce.
90% of CEOs disagree. Imagine that.
SOURCE: According to “The 2013 Lumina Study of the American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education and U.S. Business Leaders Poll on Higher Education: What American Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign.” Gallup and Lumina, February 25, 2014, https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/2013-gallup-lumina-foundation-report.pdf
Greg: You should listen to this podcast if you want to improve as a person, you want to improve as a parent, or you want to learn more about the innovation happening today in the universities, in our community.
Today we have the opportunity and privilege to visit with a superstar, Dr. Chris Howard, and I say he’s a superstar, and I’ll just give you a little background about Chris.
Went to the Air Force Academy, Rhodes Scholar, got his doctorate from Oxford, Harvard MBA, NCAA selection committee — that’s sort of cool, one of 13 people that pick the college football top 25 — Bronze Star in Afghanistan, Board of Directors of the American College on Education and you come to Pittsburgh in 2016 as the RMU president.
So welcome to Pittsburgh.
Chris: Thank you. We moved 13 times. My wife and I, my family, we finally got to Pittsburgh. It took us awhile while, and we’re here. Yes, we’re here. We’re not looking to go anywhere.
Greg: How’s that? If you haven’t met Chris, by the way, I’m going to tell you you’re going to.
Because it is amazing, everywhere I go, I hear your name, and you’ve only been here three years.
Chris: A little bit over three years. Yeah. I tried to get around. It’s part of the job. If you want to be a successful president in the 21st century, you got to know folks, and folks got to know you.
Greg: So, yeah. So, at RMU, what are some of your goals at RMU? Why did you select RMU, and what’s your vision?
Chris: So why did I select RMU Robert Morris university here in Pittsburgh? You know, I’m happy that I do this, get this question because quite often, I use it as a proxy that I have to convince students and
their families that come here. I say I want to go to a place that’s on the right side of history, right? With all due respect to my neighbor and Sewickley, I’m Mario Lemieux, let’s quote the other great one, Gretzky. “You need to skate to where the puck is going” and RMU is skating where the puck’s going. Why do I say that? We’re professionally focused, you know, we like to jokingly say that Robert Morris, we would call it Bobby Mo. Old Bobby Mo wants to make you a Bobby Pro.
And it used to be in business back in the day, but now it’s business, it’s engineering. It’s data analytics; it’s cybersecurity, it’s nursing, it’s education, it’s actuarial science. I could go on and on and on.
So, the fact that you know, for example, in Pittsburgh and around the country, it’s the lowest unemployment rate in the history of marking that. That, but also the challenges with making sure that college is relevant and that getting people into and through, Robert Morris has always had a history from a hundred years of doing just that. I like to say that “it’s big enough to matter yet small enough to care™.” And we trademarked that, so every time you say that, Greg, you have to give me a dollar.
You know, but so choosing a place that’s on the right side of history, professionally focused, but with the liberal arts, traditional education background, very connected to a community, Pittsburgh.
Have you looked around recently? This is a pretty cool place, man.
Greg: Cool place.
Chris: It used to be pirogi and Rolling Rock, and now it’s, we’re artisans, we have baristas and all sorts of foodies. It’s a foodie town and everything.
I like to say, and I’ll close here, I’d just say, it’s a place that sort of equidistant from the shell cracker plant and modern manufacturing in Bakery Square with Google in the airport corridor where Christina Cassotis (CEO of Allegheny County Airport Authority) is doing a great job of renovating not only the airport corridor and putting an innovation campus there.
Robert Morris sits there literally and physically. And to be a part of that journey was a, Hey, it’s a no brainer.
Greg: Right. So, here’s what I’ve been impressed with, we got to know each other, I remember playing golf.
Chris: You played golf. I acted like I played golf.
Greg: It was great. In fact, our mutual friend, he said, I have someone joining us. And I said, okay, who is that? And he said, Chris Howard, who’s like the, you know, Dr. Chris Howard, he’s president of Robert Morris University. I’m thinking, okay, that sounds awful. This guy, this guy can’t be any fun at all. And then he showed up, and it was like game on, and it was fun.
But one the, I learned so much playing golf with you that day. One of the things that I’ve been impressed with, I mentioned to you how we want to attract young, talented people and it was like instant, I had a call from, you know, the person in charge of financial planning at Robert Morris University. The individual you and I spoke about, you’re like, Zai, you have to talk to Zai. Lunch tomorrow with Zai, by the way.
Chris: Good. Student government president.
Greg: Student government, rock star, he’s going to be fabulous. And we really enjoyed getting to know him. So I’ve been so impressed with how you have partnered with us immediately to make sure that we have the right talent because it feels like there’s a gap that organizations like ours, we really want young, talented people and you have them, and you hear companies like ours say, we can’t find them. And you hear students say; we can’t find a job…
Chris: And we start matchmaking man.
Greg: How do you do that? And is that typical?
Chris: Well, one thing is we’ve got, you know, no man or woman does it alone. We put together a really good strategic plan: RMU 100, right? And one of the things about being that preferred strategic partner for corporation organizations, professionals and aspiring professionals in the Pittsburgh region and beyond, we got behind that, and we got behind this Professional U — Professional University, Partner U. Because we think that for this community to be vibrant is region, the Commonwealth, the country, and even beyond, we’ve got to figure out how we break down those silos, right?
90% of provost or chief academic officers think that students that graduate are prepared for the workforce. While it’s 90% of CEOs, think just the opposite. I remember you’re told that they’re not prepared for the workforce.
So, as I say in my home state of Texas: Houston, we’ve got a problem.
And one of our core values, by the way, Greg, it’s responsiveness, right? Responsiveness and also sort of the spirit of sort of working together. Collaboration’s another one of our core values.
And so, from the president on down, from the chairman of the board, Rich Harshman, who used to be the CEO and chairman of ATI who’s a Robert Morris graduate as well, I was with him this morning. With every fiber of our being, anytime we see an opportunity with a great firm like Confluence to do this, we’re going to lean in, to borrow Shelly Sandberg’s term. We’re going to lean in every single time. And in goodness, this is not just me; it’s the faculty, it’s the staff, it’s the alumni, it’s the parents.
But what I want to do is make it more systematic. You know, us, you know, three guys walk into a golf course, and something fun happened. Somebody’s life gets changed. That’s good. But a machine that produces talented, thoughtful people that are engaging, that can read the newspaper, have good ideas, have a good sense of humor, and also be technically proficient in their skill set. Hey man, we can change the world that way. So, we’re thank you for hearing us out and just know that we are open for business.
Greg: We absolutely appreciate that. And we also talked about how it’s shifted a little bit and that I think companies expect the student to come up 100% trained and it used to be, that wasn’t the case, right? Where you would go to IBM or you go to Xerox, and that’s how you would learn business.
Greg: And I think companies today—
Chris: You guys have gotten lazy. (laughs)
No, you’re not lazy. I’m just; I’m just teasing. I’m going to jump in here. You’re absolutely right. And, and I think Confluence does a really good job here, I love your idea about building your culture. And I mean, I was talking to somebody just yesterday, the Duquesne Club about that and really praising what you guys are doing at your firm here at Confluence.
But it used to be a day and age where people would go to generally liberal arts colleges, and they would graduate, and Big Blue would train them, or Johnson & Johnson would train them, or JP Morgan would train them, and it would take several months. But the pressure, and I don’t think your publicly held, but especially for publicly held firms to get the profitability to show quickly, they’ve kind of pushed that down into the universities and colleges. And universities or colleges are not exactly lovers of change. You know, don’t love to have to take this sort of more practical things that people would pick up on the job and have to do them in the institution themselves.
So, as a professionally focused institution, it started as the Pittsburgh School of Accountancy is a for-profit school a couple of blocks from here and the William Penn Hotel. Yeah, we’re cool with that. You know, we were a little, it was a little bit easier. But I do think there needs to be, and as a member of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development board, I’m kind of a give and take where, you know, we need to get them teed up and ready to be, but they can’t be all of that. In fact, in, as we think about lifelong learning, you know, we should never stop training, educating, learning, anyway.
But that, that rub right there when the person walks off the stage, and I give them the diploma to the moment they start working for you or for Goldman or for PNC or whatever, we’ve got to work that mushy middle a little better and kind of divide and conquer a little bit better to make sure we satisfy your needs. And also that we’re producing the kind of people that they know they pay good money to become. So, and for us that works because you know, they come out of Robert Morris, they have a solid foundation. And we would rather train them here in the way we believe business should work for our clients. Not necessarily some generic, we want a different standard.
So, one of the other things we talked about on the golf course that day is the challenges. I was surprised by the challenges that are facing universities and the differences between a very large organization versus a smaller university like Robert Morris.
Chris: Yeah. I would say we’re not small. I’ll say “Big enough to matter, small enough to care™”—
Chris: Okay. So, it’s all a relative term. So just to level set. We’re always in between like 4,500 and 5,000 students, about 4,000 undergrads, about 1,000 graduates, and doctoral. So, we’re a national doctoral-granting university, but we are, you know, smaller than Pitt and smaller than Penn State, etc. you know, size is part of it, but also, you know, there’s about a hundred universities that are kind of untouchable. They’re the Mount Olympus universities. You’ve heard of them. Harvard, I’d like to go on the record and say there’s no BS like HBS. I went there, I love the place, but I love to tease it. You know, the Yales of the world, the Swarthmores, I mean there are some schools and their endowments over a billion dollars, Harvard’s endowment is 30, 40 billion and counting. That’s a small you know, Latin American country’s GDP basically.
So, they’re just operating with a different set of rules and toolkits, and they’re fine institutions.
Most of us are tuition-driven. The other 4,250 institutions out there, public and private, most of us are tuition-driven. And that means that we’re built for growth. We need people to make a lot of kids and the kids to come and use my product and get bigger and bigger and bigger. And what we’ve hit here, specifically in the Midwest and the Northeast is a demographic, sort of a wall to some extent. And so, if you don’t have as many people coming out to fill the seats, you have fixed costs, you have tenure, you have a union—
Greg: You were telling me, what’s the drop in high school grad, seniors?
Chris: It’s an interesting fact. So, overall enrollment in America is now 250,000 the year over year, right where it’s been going up exponentially, almost going back years before that. 5.8, according to my head of development— not development, but planning administration he says, we have 5.8 million fewer children born since the great recession, because of the great recession, right?
So, you know, the baby boomer years and all that kind of stuff, groovy like gravy, things were going up. Plus, we actually have more people from different socioeconomic strata going to university now, but they obviously need more resources, but the challenges are just, there’s just less demand. Right? And there’s probably overcapacity in higher education.
And you know, in your business, in the business of business, I used to be at General Electric and Bristol Myers Squibb. People buy, they sell, they consolidate, they do M and A.
Bankers make money. Lawyers make money, consultants make money and then, and then they do something different five years later. It doesn’t quite work that way in higher education; you don’t see as much of that.
So, we’re trying to figure out the next-next in a place where we’re going to have less demand. For the most part, we’re going to have to be more innovative, more scrappy, more willing to take risks, better with operational effectiveness. I just joined—
Greg: So, wait, that’s great stuff. Give me some examples of this. So more innovative, more willing to take risks. Like how are you doing that?
Chris: Yeah. You know what it is? Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Right?
Chris: So, first we’re trying to change, you know, influence the culture. The good news about Robert Morris is we’ve always been pretty innovative and scrappy as a rule. Everything from taking a hotel when we had too many students at one point, and we took a hotel, we run it as a hotel on dorm for a while, then we’d make it into a dorm, Buying the Island ice skating rink out there on Neville Island and launching hockey and what have you.
Those are some pretty entrepreneurial big, big moves. Moving from being in the city to moving full time out to Moon Township. You know, that’s in our DNA.
But right now, we are trying to; we talk about how we can create ideas that moved the needle. We recognize that 60% of costs for most universities is actually people, and 40% is other things, and we recognize that you’ve got to use technology to improve your operation. We’ve had a lot of success in that regard. One of the things we’re doing specifically is this thing; we call it I- squared. I’ll close my answer out with this. I think it kind of speaks specifically to your point. So, use some fancy consulting words. We want to have a gating process for ideation.
I thought I’d never say that together — a gating process. So, basically, we want to have a parking lot to throw cool ideas. So, with us, it’s something that nets $250,000, or it gets us to $250,000 in net savings. And we kind of four block it, right?
As if your podcast, people could see me making my hands do this. I’m sorry about that.
You only have done that like ten times. But anyway, so you have X-axis. Imagine that that is the cost of implementing, you know, the payoff, the Y-axis is how much it costs to kind of do it. And you put things in different grids. And so, our leadership team is constantly throwing ideas on that. And we have a Dr. Derek Jacobs, our senior vice president for corporate relations and strategic initiatives, who helps our leadership team go through those ideas.
And I want to have a surplus. I want to constantly be at every meeting my leadership team, every board meeting, walking through what does this idea look like?
Greg: The power of ideas!
Chris: Yeah, that’s it.
Greg: We talked in here just about we need more people to have more ideas because it tends to be somewhat concentrated. More people, more ideas.
Chris: And also, Greg, you know, what I’ve been discovering is that we’ve done a pretty good job top- down. Our people who work faculty, staff in the trenches, they’re very bright, very intelligent, and they’re innovating. We’re trying to unleash the innovative spirit for them because they see it every day.
Greg: That’s it.
Chris: So, we’re, we’re, we’re getting it and these, these don’t happen overnight. We have a good start.
And you know, we’ve done some pretty cool things to kind of move the needle, and I’m excited about including partnerships, you know.
I’ll mention one. This is kind of innovative. I got to know Teresa Carlson at Amazon. She’s a direct report to Jeff Bezos on this thing I was doing with the Department of Veteran Affairs called MyVA with Secretary McDonald. Long story short, we started talking about what Amazon is doing what Robert Morris is doing, and we thought we might do something on diversity, but she, Teresa said, my team, we can’t produce enough web, cloud service people, AWS people. You remember, the cloud, that’s where they make the money, really. Netflix is in their cloud. I think Morgan Dyckman
is in the cloud. So long story short, Amazon goes, we want to partner — and it’d be like a hundred universities — we will train your professors, two of your professors in our cloud computing the process and then they can go back, and they can teach that course.
They have to teach the course, by the way, a couple of semesters. And when the students take it, they will be cloud certified, and they take the testing, and that’s a six-figure job. Well, they told us that not only were we one of the first to jump at this, but we were also one of the easiest to work with on that. And now we have in two different schools, informatics and also engineering, we offer this cloud services called computing certification. And then the business school said, Hey, we want to be a part of that. And they have a subset, smaller version of that, like kind of a light version of that. And they offered the business school. And then they said, we want to have in our curriculum every student doing cloud computing to get one credit hour course in cloud computing.
That’s pretty innovative. No question. That was like 18 months.
Greg: Wow. So, another idea that you are telling me about is ISAs. So, and that’s not new actually, it’s somewhat dated, but it’s having a rebirth or has a potential rebirth when you were telling me about that. That was interesting. Could you explain to our listeners?
Chris: So, the origins that you start off in Yale, like in the 70s I believe, and it’s basically kind of a proxy for equity for letting people pay for their school as opposed to debt and an income share agreement or an ISA says that when someone graduates, they get some money while they’re going to school, let’s say a $5,000 ISA or 10,000 whatever. When they graduate, depending on how much money they make, their income is how much they payback.
So, if you are a wealth management guru like my son is, like are and you know you’re in marketing, you’re making good money, you pay—
Greg: We will ultimately save your son. (laughs)
Chris: You will pay more. If you are someone who goes into Peace Corps and you know, and you decide that you knew that salary’s going to be pretty low, you don’t pay anything until you are salary goes to a certain mark, you know, whatever that number is. But if you’re the top of the scale, you know it caps, I think it’s like 1.75 of what you got out of it, what you put into it, I mean what you got out
of it initially. And if you’re the bottom, you know, sometimes you will be able to pay and even when you do pay, it won’t be as much as the people making more money.
I’m not saying better jobs; I’m just saying, making more money. I’m not trying to say being one is better than the other. I’m just simply saying that income is income.
So, here’s a way, kind of using actuarial tables to say that X amount of people are going to make this much money, X amount are going to make that much money and we can kind of work it out. And by the way, Robert Morris has one of the top 25 best actuary science programs — in the world. I had to sneak that in there. Our program’s great. This commercial has been brought to you by the actuarial science program at Robert Morris University. (laughs)
But being as professionally focused as we are putting 95% of our students, roughly 94, 95% into jobs within a year after they graduate, we are in a good position to take advantage of this. Now here’s the last part—
Greg: Is it happening or is it just —
Chris: It’s happening. It’s happening at Purdue. Norwich, Utah, Clarkson, and I think Messiah. So, you know, we’re looking to be the fast follower.
Greg: Because it feels like the economics, at least people’s perception of the economics of an education, a college education, right now, is being questioned.
Chris: Yes, it is.
Greg: And I actually looked at a statistic, you know, how people feel about their debt. 36% of college graduates paying off students, student loans say that it wasn’t worth it. But those same people over their careers make $1 million more.
Right? So, but the view is people are starting to question. We talk to people all the time about saving for 529s. And every once in awhile, they’ll say, “I don’t know, I may just help my child. But If I give them the money, they’d just be better off if I gave him the money.” So, there’s a lot of questions right now. And then—
Chris: When they say that, ask them what job their kid’s going to be in 10 years, 15 years? We have jobs going on right now, Greg, and, and not every single one requires a college degree or a doctorate or an associate, but many of them require some second, you know, tertiary education and definitely degrees. But don’t you want to be positioned for the unknown?
I mean the line in the military is you train for what you know, you educate for what you don’t know. It could be alluded to before; it’s a startup kit. We were professionally focused, but you know, your degree is kind of a startup kit, but you’d rather be starting with that than a lot of other things. So, we got to figure out a way to fund it properly. And to close out the comment about ISA, which is very exciting, what I hear over and over and over again from CEOs that I interact with, I’m on the advisory board of a couple of companies as well. And they’re always saying; I need people, I need talent. Well, and what we’re saying is we need students, and we need money.
So, let’s link these up. So maybe with the ISA, a company could say, I like this dude, they’re pretty sharp. I’m gonna fund this pool of ISAs. Say it’s five thousand ten thousand twenty thousand whatever. They can intern at my company, my firm, or organization. Right? So, it gets them that work experience to tie back into the educational experience. They graduate, they don’t have to pay the ISA back until, sorry, unless they leave early, right. You set up, you know, three-five, whatever years that you all agree on. Now here’s the good news. If they leave the firm, Confluence or PNC or whatever, they’re leaving because they didn’t like the company, maybe. And then they leave, and maybe they don’t have a great job lined up, but because the ISA works with your income, you just, you’re going to fall in that category where you won’t have to pay. Or you’re leaving for a better job, and you pay more.
Either way, it’s a win-win scenario, and it connects capital, which is what you got. You gotta connect capital where it’s needed. And that’s what we need to do. We need to get the people that need the human capital to give us the capital-capital to get the human capital you need.
That’s my sojourn now. You know, that’s my quest right now. And Pittsburgh’s a great place to do it because great companies, big small, medium size, great universities nearby people as you like Robert Morris, they want to try it. And you know, have me back in a year or so, when we get this thing launched, and I’ll tell you how I went.
Greg: What is some of the advice that you’d give a parent? So right now, a parent has grade school kids, high school kids. What are some of the things they should be thinking about? Cause it sounds like
with the, you know, all the changes that you’re making in innovation and exciting things, you’re thinking differently. Should parents be thinking differently, and what are some of the things that they should be preparing for?
Chris: Well, since my wife and I raised two perfect children, I am the absolute right person to give you an answer to this question.
Greg: I read your bio, and I was impressed. But then I read your wife’s and I was more impressed. Yeah.
My wife grew up in apartheid, South Africa I outran my coverage I did. (laughs)
She’s a neat lady. Just a couple, real quick on Barbara. Mrs. Barbara Howard. She’s from South Africa from Johannesburg. She’s colored, which means I’ve mixed racial descent in South Africa. She grew up in apartheid South Africa. The first time she voted for Nelson Mandela was the first time her mom ever voted. The first time her grandmother voted. And you talk about my mom and dad grew up in Jim Crow South in Texas, and this is my wife. She’s younger than me. Right? And so, she’s a tough, gritty, resilient woman. And that would be one of the things I would talk to parents about is it depends quite often to the socioeconomic strata you’re going in. So, you know, this, I want to be very careful how I answer this because there’s a lot of different types of parents and kids in very, very different situations.
But I would say that character; resilience still matter, intellectual curiosity still matters. And competition and learning how to compete fairly deal with the consequences and rebound that still matters, right?
Greg: How do you teach that? As a parent, like how do you teach that?
Chris: Well, you model it right in one thing. And when mom, when my mom went to school, she started off in college. She was valedictorian in high school. My dad was salutatorian, his high school, they end up in Prairie View A&M, and my mom always reminded my dad, I lost them last January, that she was valedictorian.
Chris: Thank you, Greg. And he was only a salutatorian, but she ran out of money at Prairie View A&M. She ended up getting married. My dad, he was in the army, ended up being an army officer and
had a great career at UPS, but my mom took classes at night, my whole life, and I remember this one time, she goes, I think I was like a sophomore in high school, my mom goes, boy, I got that grade back in business statistics, and I made a C plus. I am so happy.
She worked so hard to get that C plus. She ended up graduating Cum Laude from the University of Texas at Dallas. But that was a hard class for her. So, she modeled the behavior of, even if I work hard, I might get middling results, but I did my best.
Greg: And you watched it.
Chris: And I watched that. I witnessed it.
Greg: Seeing your parents work hard and give effort and failing and then still getting back up.
Chris: You got it right.
Greg: Right, I mean, it’s important.
Chris: It is important, and is it, you know, and we can curate our kids’ lives. I, I often say I want to, I, I was wrong. I was born — Steve Klemash. He was a Robert Morris graduate, runs the EY board practice. Great guy. He used to run the Pittsburgh office. He goes, man, I was just born one generation too early. Man. If I could have been my kids, I’d been in great.
Greg: There’s nothing wrong with your kids seeing you work early in the morning.
Chris: My dad was the same way. I mean the work ethic of be your, I mean a lot of the Robert Morris kids, the ones that graduated now they’re doing so well. They tell the same stories. But grittiness matters. Work ethic matters. And you know, the other side is that we, we run the risk of becoming helicopter parents, or fighter pilot parents, curling parents.
Greg: That is so me, it’s tough because we get paid to solve problems. So, I have to pull back
Chris: You know, Bill Walton, I’m a friend of Bill Walton, the basketball player. He says, Chris, the worst thing you can do for your kids, you love — the worst thing you can do for those you love are the things they should do for themselves.
Chris: He goes, you become an enabler. And you know what makes you a good person is not because everything was a Disney movie. Yeah. What makes you a good person is because you got kicked in the crotch, and you got up.
And you have some grit, some resilience, and some soul, which also creates the E word, which is empathy.
Think about this; this one thing I talk to students all the time. I said there’s two E’s, you know, it’s empathy and effort, right? Those are the two things you can control. You can put yourself in somebody’s shoes, right? And you can work hard, period.
Greg: Not a bad recipe.
Chris: And then, if you do those two things and you have a little bit success, and this is a thing that’s powerful about being in America, it is not true about many other billion souls unfortunately as well
— then you have a sense of agency.
When I was in the classroom a little bit earlier in my career, not in as much as I think I like to say as a mentor told me. The campus is my classroom now, so I’m not in classrooms as much. But I used to talk about the power of agency. So, I’d say, “if you do A, do you think that B will happen?” And this is honors; these are honors students at the University of Oklahoma. I was a vice president, professor. And they would say, yeah, I believe that. I go, then you’re special. Because most people in the world don’t think they can have any control. They think they’re pushing the ocean.
Greg: That’s interesting.
Chris: So, you think you can, and your kids, they think they can affect change—
Greg: Because it’s true. Because it’s true in this country. And in this city. Look at the change that you’ve made in this city. Yes. And the impact you’ve made in the city.
Chris: You’re nice to say that.
Greg: But for real, in three years. And I mean, boom. So, congratulations to you. I appreciate it.
Chris: Barbara Howard, you hear what, the nice thing Greg said about me. I just, I’m just saying. (laughs)
Greg: It has to be true.
Chris: But the cool thing about it is also we can do micro example that in a university setting, we have the student engagement transcript are set, and these are the co-curricular activities around leadership and the arts and other things, some civic engagement, what have you that we require our students to do some of, that kind of sits on a transcript with their academic transcript and part of that is that is to grow that agency thing.
Do a community project, do something with the fraternity, your sports team, or whatever to move the needle a little bit. It goes a long way.
Greg: By anybody’s standards. You’ve had success, so you’ve done some of those agency things, and it sounds like you certainly learned a lot from your parents and I hope this doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, what I’m about to ask you, but you clearly have had a ton of success. What are some of the rituals? What are some of the things you’ve done personally?
You just took a big deep breath. But I want to know that, if I were, if I were a listener and I’m thinking, wow, this guy, look at all this stuff he’s done, what are some of the things that you’ve done that you believe were instrumental in your success?
Chris: I’ll say a couple of things versus off. Yeah, I told my team that should, I did kind of a town hall thing with a couple of groups. I said I’m like a duck. I’m cool on top, but I’m paddling like hell underneath.
And, and this goes without saying. Of course, I had my moments of wow, knocked to my knees. I mean, there’s a great quote by Lincoln says, I’ve been knocked to my knees and overwhelmed by what I was not able to accomplish. Something like that. And it just brings tears to your eyes. This image of Lincoln, you know prostate, thinking about how, and he was one of the greatest men in human history.
So, I’ve had my ups and downs, and you know, attempts at things that failed, a plane crash, when I was in flight school, having to bail out of an airplane and almost perishing how and, and, and, and, and a whole list of other failures.
I always say, you see this resume with all this good stuff? I got another one. And it has all the failures on it. And if you want to see it, call my wife Barbara and her email address is, and she’ll tell you all about them.
But in all seriousness, I think that other resume is what makes you appreciate the other one. Right? But in terms of success, I fancy myself a leader, and I say there are three things. You have to do, three PhDs, you need to get to be a good leader. So, this is a little bit of my, it’s not a secret sauce, but how I kind of see the world. First thing is you get a Ph.D. in yourself. I think leaders that do well know themselves well. And I started off at a pretty young age. I was self-aware but not self- conscious. So, when I was in eighth grade—
Greg: I is an important distinction.
Chris: Yeah. When I was in eighth grade, I said, you know what? I may get A’s, A minuses, maybe a B plus. I go, I think I can make all A-pluses. I’m not as smart as everybody in this room, but I know how to work smart. And I made straight A-pluses. Back to the agency thing, literally said I’m gonna make A-pluses. And I did. And, and I recognize that it wasn’t just because I was super smart and so I, my whole life, I’ve kind of know what I do well and know what I don’t do well. Leaders, people that are successful people say you need to take—
Greg: What’s interesting about that is, that’s a result goal, not a process goal. Right. So, it’s like A plus, not the process of I’m going to study and more an hour every day more. Then you had to put together a process.
Chris: That’s exactly what I just told a student that a couple of days ago. Real nice young lady, she actually did her MBA at Robert Morris, and she’s down at Clemson, and she was one of our faculty member’s daughters. And she was asking me about, you know what you want to do, any advice? I told her: you break up your big goals into small goals. And so, but I did that, so I actually backward planned and just like you talk about with your investors, you get a backward plan, you’re going to get there. There you go. So that was part of, so getting a Ph.D. in myself being self- aware, getting a Ph.D. in the world around me, being contextually aware. So, the first one is being self-aware, and number two is being contextually aware.
So, understanding things like, as I’ve moved up to the skill sets that have allowed me to be successful, say as an individual contributor, running a small organization is different than running a medium-sized, then running a bigger enterprise. Also, having moved 13 times and been all through civil society in different jobs: education, intelligence, military, nonprofit, for-profit.
Recognizing that I could take some things I learned at the Air Force or GE, General Electric to Robert Morris, but not everything. Cause I always say, if I spent all my time saying, well back at General Electric, we did this, people will say, get your butt back at General Electric.
So being contextually aware. And the last thing I say is that you know, part of my success is trying to get a Ph.D. in leadership. Constantly, constantly reading about other leaders and what they’ve done well and what they haven’t done well.
Greg: One book, a must-read. What would it be?
Chris: Warren Bennis wrote a book called On Becoming a Leader.
Chris: Leadership guru, was it the Marshall School of Business at USC but also was an Army soldier, a decorated soldier in Korea, ran the University of Cincinnati, right. He’s kind of a leadership whisperer, Howard Schultz, a lot of these people, and became a great leadership professor and wrote extraordinarily well in terms of business and in management leadership. And the book On Becoming a Leader is one that I always have people that I mentor read, and I said, that’s the price, that’s the price of it, read that book and then we can talk.
Because he talks about leadership as a journey of self-actualization, self-control, self- management, self-actualization, right? And that whole process of being the best leader is an authentic journey to being the best you. And so, On Becoming a Leader is an outstanding read. I recommend it to your readers. It talks about developing empathy—some of the things I’ve kind of borrowed. I’m smiling because, years ago, I had a student in my, I used to teach that in this class, and a student who unfortunately fell ill with cancer and he wanted to meet Warren Bennis, and the young man survived. And this is before Mr. Bennis passed away. Dr. Bennis passed away, and I called him, and I connected them, and he had this great conversation. That’s the kind of guy he was.
Greg: It’s interesting when you’re talking about, he said you’d speak upright when you believe in, you speak up. So I was, I was with a gentleman the other night on Tuesday night at Alla Famiglia, great
restaurant. And he said, I believe— he was doing something courageous, he’s very generous, a very generous person, I was amazed by him — he said, that’s because I believe when I die, I’m going to be asked two questions. “I’ve given you great resources. What have you done with them?” So he’s very generous, donates a lot of money. He said the second thing that I think I’m going to be asked is, “I’ve given you the ability to speak without getting tongue-tied. How did you speak up when you thought it was appropriate?” And he said, because of those two questions, and I firmly believe I’m going to be asked, that’s why I do the things I do. This was interesting.
Chris: Living by a code. You know, I just saw A Few Good Men at the Public Square Theater, and I don’t know if you guys saw that, it was so well done. The old Jack Nicklaus movie — Jack Nicholson, excuse me. Jack Nicholson. There’s no golfing in that movie. (laughs) Rocky Bleier and Larry Richard alternatively played the judge. So, it was pretty cool if you ever remember the scenes. But when, when I watched that there, there was that whole idea of, you know, “Santiago died because he had no code.” It is a Kiefer Sutherland who played the Lieutenant and the movie and the guy who does a great job in the play; he had no code. I’m not into this old school biblically. That guy’s like, I had the Marine here, and I got the Bible there and — but we need to figure out as one of my mentors and friends, and Jeff Santaford used to say, we need some “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”
We need a leadership philosophy, a compass, a true north, whether it be faith or whatever. Because you know, life’s like this: You’re either in a storm, just leaving a storm or heading into a storm, so you better get a damn raincoat. Right?
And so, with me, I’ve got some things that are from my faith and what have you. And then my guidance is: I want to lead, I want to serve, and I want to grow.
So, if I’m leading, serving, and growing, I’m in the right place. But if one of those parts, legs of the tripod, is not working, then it’s time to reconsider and redirect or what have you. And it might not mean going somewhere different, but I want to lead, I want to serve, and I want to grow. Right. So those are important points.
Greg: Very impressive. I’m going to ask you a question totally off, totally off subject, but I got to know this. What’s it like picking the top 25? (laughs) Like what’s that room like?
Chris: It’s a little bit like you know, being university president, someone’s going to be mad at you. You just don’t want everybody to be mad at you at the same time.
So, it was a college football playoff selection committee. Right? I’ve been on there for three years. I’m, I’m just, I’m rotating off now, and it has been a privilege, a hoot. It’s just been so much fun. And I’ll tell you, and we had our last pick of the top 25. And we got to kind of have a senior day where we talk to each other, the fellow committee members and the staff and kind of reflect. And I said, you know, there’ll be dissertations done on this process, because the way it works, it’s a room, maybe three times bigger than this. Lots of computers, lots of data. And you have a voting system. And we come in, bring in the 160 something, and then it gets down, and we vote on 30, and there’s, yeah, the, you need at least like three votes and make the list.
That all happens electronically. And then we start rank ordering in terms of groups. So, we, they’ll say, pick the top six teams and the top three of that six, we’ll talk about them. Then in the top three of that six will be our top three or something along those lines. And you had this amazing discourse with these really, really smart people that know football. You know, Coach Frank Beamer, legendary. I had Ty Willingham. A year before, it was Condoleezza Rice. I didn’t have the honor to be in a room with her, but I got a chance to know the secretary. And then you talk about it; you debate, and then you push the button and how you rank.
But you don’t know how anybody else voted. So, people can say what they want to say, but they vote what they think they need the vote. And the ability and this is, as a leader, you’ve got a team, if you can give people to speak their mind, they need me to worry about the consequences, but they’d be brutally honest, and they’d be able to change their mind, to be vulnerable. You’d have a great team. Cause you know, you’re the boss. It’s hard. You want to please people. There’s politics. You don’t want to look stupid cause you U-turned.
Greg: Some of that is having the leader not push back immediately, 100%, and challenge the idea right away, or you’re not going to get another one ever again.
Chris: So beautifully said. And so, it’s, there’s a chair of the committee who has to kind of bring us along. But you’re absolutely right. So, these lessons, it’s not just picking — I try to learn from everything.
Greg: So do I.
Chris: I kind of watch how Rob Mullins, who’s the AD at Oregon has, or and before that was Kirby Hocutt at Texas Tech, has kind of orchestrated the conversation. But again, you make your vote. We don’t see it. So, I don’t know what you’ve voted, what I voted. And then we’d go at it again. And so, the purity of trying to get it right, we kept telling ourselves in the room, let’s just get it right. Here’s the protocol. Let’s be brave. Here’s a protocol. Go through it. And you know, it’s been a lot of fun.
Greg: So, you’re in Pittsburgh. Do we have you to blame that Pitt has not been in the top 10 for the last three years? Have you ever voted? Let’s get it on record. Chris, have you ever voted for Pitt to be in the top 10?
Chris: No comment.
Greg: Chris, thank you so valuable, this conversation. I really appreciate it. I hope the listeners do and thank you for your service to our nation. Thank you for making Pittsburgh a better place. Thank you on behalf of all those students that they’re going to have a brighter career. And thank you for your ideas on leadership and helping all of us be a better version of ourselves.
Chris: My pleasure, and thank you for not laughing and even played golf. You and Doc Gage are great people. Thank you very much, Greg.
Greg: Thanks for listening. If you’d like to hear other subject matters that may be of interest to you, please check us out at ConfluenceFP.com/podcasts.