Q&A: Donde Plowman

Q&A: Donde Plowman
Nebraska's executive vice chancellor on leadership, strategic planning and what's next for the university

"Big changes lie ahead for our campus and every campus, because of the way society is re-thinking its relationship to public education. We have to be willing to be bold, but Nebraskans have never shied away from a challenge -- and we won’t, either."
Photos by Craig Chandler | University Communication
"Big changes lie ahead for our campus and every campus, because of the way society is re-thinking its relationship to public education. We have to be willing to be bold, but Nebraskans have never shied away from a challenge -- and we won’t, either."

After more than six years as the dean of the College of Business Administration, Donde Plowman stepped into a new role at Nebraska in January -- executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer. In her relatively short time as the university's second-ranking administrator behind Chancellor Ronnie Green, Plowman has immersed herself in the job. Nebraska Today recently checked in with Plowman to learn her thoughts on her new role and on the strategic goals for faculty, staff and students at Nebraska.

NEBRASKA TODAY: Your first semester as the university’s executive vice chancellor has passed the halfway point. What are your early impressions of the job?

DONDE PLOWMAN: I have spent the first two months getting to know people in leadership positions in the three areas that now report to me -- and getting an idea of what our opportunities and challenges are. Getting the right team in place is critical for any leader and we are beginning to fill some of the vacancies. For example, we have a search under way for the law dean and for the assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management. We have several other spots to fill. I am also working on developing a structure for how the three major units that are part of the EVC's office -- academic affairs, student affairs and research -- will work together.

"Even on days when only my husband knows that I’ve got some hairy problems on my mind, I bring positive energy to work because others are depending on it."
"Even on days when only my husband knows that I’ve got some hairy problems on my mind, I bring positive energy to work because others are depending on it."

Has anything surprised you?

It is a real balancing act to keep the regular work going while learning the areas and envisioning a new kind of future. Not enough hours in the day, or night, to move as quickly as I would like on the “envisioning” piece.

In discussing your leadership style, you often mention transparency and collaboration. Tell us more about your thoughts on those themes and how do you see them at work across the university?

When leaders are “in the dark” while trying to lead complex organizations, all sorts of bad things can happen – poor quality decisions get made, trust deteriorates, and suspicions and self-interests can take over. I want to share with deans, vice chancellors and associate and assistant vice chancellors as much information as I have so they can be in the best possible positions to lead their units. There really are no secrets in this business. The folks that report to me have extremely important jobs and my job is to help them be successful – arm them with as much information as possible. In turn, I want them to do exactly the same thing with the folks that report to them. Collaboration is important because no one individual – including me – knows enough to make important decisions by him or herself.

You’ve pinned a tweet on your personal Twitter account that reads: “The leader’s energy is an invaluable resource. It is free and under a leader’s control. That’s good news. Use it, grow it, infuse it.” Freed from the stricture of 140 characters, can you tell us more about what that tweet means for you and the university?

.
"We have to be strategic now – the slack resources that higher education enjoyed are gone. That means being intentional and strategic about everything we do."

People often said to me when I was dean, “Wow, I love your energy.” Initially, I didn’t really know what they were referring to. I began to think about it and read a book recommended by Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst entitled “The Energy Bus” that describes the CEO as Chief Energy Officer. I began to think about myself as the leader who is responsible for the energy level in my organization. Energy is an important resource that the leader stewards. I choose to bring the energy every day to work. We all do – and we either bring positive or negative energy. When I realized how much my energy level was driving the energy level of others, I really started bringing it on, intentionally. Even on days when only my husband knows that I’ve got some hairy problems on my mind, I bring positive energy to work because others are depending on it.

In six years as dean, you led a transformation of the College of Business Administration. What in that experience will help you now that you’re in the executive vice chancellor’s chair?

I am so proud of what CBA is and even more proud of what it still wants to become. The faculty and leadership in CBA have the confidence to become whatever they choose to become and they know that they have the backing of hundreds of active alumni supporters. Growing confidence, enlarging aspirations, thinking big, building lasting relationships – that is what we worked on in CBA and what I want the entire university to experience.

On the flip side, what is something about your new role, which you feel you must learn more?

The EVC is responsible for a huge number of people – hundreds and hundreds – who I will never know personally. So figuring out how to have a personal, warm style when I will never actually know every single individual – that has me thinking. I knew the name of every single person who works in CBA. I knew something about them. That won’t happen as EVC, so I have to think differently about how to create a personal, inviting style where people feel they have access to me. I’ve got some ideas but am thinking hard about this one.

.
"Getting the right team in place is critical for any leader and we are beginning to fill some of the vacancies."

Chancellor Green has dubbed 2017 “The Year of the Strategic Plan.” Even before moving into the EVC role, you were deeply involved in a university task force to envision how budget processes may work for a 21st century university. How is that process going?

Each of the four task forces is doing terrific work preparing the backdrop for a new strategic plan. I am pleased with the work they are each doing. Big changes lie ahead for our campus and every campus, because of the way society is re-thinking its relationship to public education. We have to be willing to be bold, but Nebraskans have never shied away from a challenge -- and we won’t, either.

Why is strategic planning, overall, especially important at this point in the history of our university?

I have taught strategic planning for my entire career, I have consulted with organizations about how to develop a strategic plan. We drove the major changes in CBA out of our strategic plan. A plan is nothing more than an agreement on how we see the future and how we want to move forward. It is an agreement that we will be intentional about what we do – and not just drift along towards mediocrity. It doesn’t mean that plans don’t change, because they absolutely do. It’s a commitment to a process. We have to be strategic now – the slack resources that higher education enjoyed are gone. That means being intentional and strategic about everything we do.

One change with the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor is its new role in overseeing student affairs. You have a reputation for being a champion for students – why is it vital that we focus on their success, both inside and outside the classroom?

Our students are our reputation. They get the jobs that drive our economy. They become the alums who will help shape our future. Never has industry been more desperate for employees who are not only smart with well developed critical thinking skills, but they need to be able to work in a team, to have the courage to step forward as leaders, to be responsible citizens who know how to speak truth to power respectfully, who can listen and resolve conflicts in mature and creative ways. Those are things mostly learned outside of the classroom. That’s why I am so committed to student affairs as an integral part of the education experience.

You’ve recently begun to invoke three words – excellence, community and impact. What do those words mean to you?

Excellence means never settling and always striving to be the best. And that applies to the big things as well as the small things. When organizations embrace excellence you see it everywhere – in their goals, in the way people talk to each other, in their outcomes.

Community means every human being wants to belong and each of us wants to be part of meaningful work. Being part of a community means engaging in respectful interaction and embracing diversity.

Impact means wanting to change lives, make a difference. I want each of us to think about how our work affects others. I’d like to think that our research helps change minds and in that way can change the world. Nebraskans expect great things from us and want a relationship with us. There is so much opportunity here.

Let’s look a few years down the road at Nebraska. What does success look like to you?

We have grown in stature and in size. The world knows us for excelling at a few things and for tackling big problems. And Nebraskans are so proud of us for our impact in the world.

Donde Plowman: In her words