GROWING AS GROWN-UPS

Episode 11: Growing Ourselves to Grow Others
with Dr. Kyle Marrero

The leadership lessons that can be learned from this opera singer turned university president are so powerful that we don’t want anyone to miss them. Dr. Kyle Marrero from Georgia Southern University shares stories of facing challenges that taught him the importance of always leading from your values, being willing to try and fail, and investing in others becoming the best versions of themselves.

About our guest

Connect with Kyle on LinkedIn
Learn more about Georgia Southern University

Dr. Kyle Marrero began his tenure as Georgia Southern University’s 14th president on April 1, 2019. As president, he leads the Eagle Nation, a Carnegie R2 institution, with more than 26,000 students, 3,000 faculty and staff on three campuses – Statesboro, Savannah and Hinesville, Georgia. In his short tenure, Georgia Southern has established a new culture of high performance and evidence-based leadership, data-informed decision-making, communication transparency, and an unwavering focus on a new Strategic Plan and assessment methodology aligned with five main pillars: student success; teaching and research; inclusive excellence, operational efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability; and community engagement.

Before arriving at Georgia Southern University, Dr. Marrero was president of the University of West Georgia (2013-2019, where the institution achieved record enrollment, graduation rates, degrees conferred, fundraising and annual economic impact. The institution won the 2015 AASCU national award for innovation and excellence, the University System of Georgia selected UWG as Institution and President of the Year, and Marrero has been acknowledged by Georgia Trend as one of the "100 Most Influential Georgians," 2015-2018. Prior to his appointment at West Georgia, he held positions as vice president for university advancement at the University of West Florida, Director of the School of Fine Arts and Chair of the Music Department at UWF, Associate Professor of Voice at Louisiana State University and Artistic Director of Pensacola Opera.

Dr. Marrero holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s and master’s in vocal performance from Bowling Green State University. His background in the arts has taken him to 10 countries as an artistic ambassador for the United States Embassies and 40 states as a singer, stage director, and artistic director. He has been married to nationally acclaimed opera singer Dr. Jane Redding for 25 years and they are blessed with a 10 year old daughter, Lily.
                                            

Episode transcript

Sara Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Growing as Grown-ups. Today, we have Keith's conversation with one of our favorite leaders, Kyle Marrero.
Keith, why don't you tell us a little bit about Kyle?

Keith I mean, once we get into the podcast, people will learn some things about his early life, but Kyle is the president of Georgia Southern University, a growing institution within our state, which has always been relatively large, kind of a step below Georgia and Georgia Tech. He came from West Georgia, where I got to meet him initially as president of West Georgia, actually took that institution through a transformation that was recognized nationally. He's just an amazing leader, which is crazy because he got his Ph.D. in opera and he ran theaters and he is, you know, and maybe maybe university life is like a good opera. But he is he has just been so incredible in this environment in terms of his transformational leadership. I mean, he's just such a great change leader, but he does it in ways that are so values-based and you'll hear all this stuff come out in the interview. The other thing that you'll hear come out in the interview is Kyle -- Dr. Marrero --when I met him, was already someone who had done a really good job growing as a grown-up. But, my gosh, when he got hold of our curriculum, he just embraced it and now he talks about bigger me values and smaller me values and worry, fear, and resistance. And so, folks, you're going to hear a lot of that stuff come up in this interview. But again, I hope you enjoy this. Kyle is absolutely one of my favorite leaders, one of our favorite leaders anywhere.

Sara All right, and while I was disappointed he did not sing for you, his insights and stories and advice is just as inspirational. And so with that, let's hear your conversation with Dr. Kyle Marrero.

Keith All right, listeners, I am so excited to have Dr. Kyle Marrero with us today. He is absolutely one of my favorite higher education leaders. He's one of my favorite leaders. He's just so focused on growth. He's highly awarded across the country for just the kind of progressive work that he's put into higher education and bringing higher education into the 21st century. Kyle, welcome to The Growing As Grown-ups podcast.

Kyle Thanks, Keith. I appreciate it and I was joking with you earlier that the title is you know, it's a little nervous because it's this concept that we are in a constant state of growth, but it is something we have to accept and grab on to. I think joke with you that, you know, the old saying, I think it was, I think, Oscar Wilde that said, "with age comes wisdom, sometimes age comes by itself." And so hopefully we are in a constant state of growth together and on this journey. And I appreciated your partnership and friendship along that line.

Keith Me as well, you've been an inspiration to me and my growth. You've been so courageous in so many different ways. In terms of leaning into what's not easy for you. I mean, I've seen it in real time and you've done such a great job telling stories about that and super transparent, even with the folks. But I love the way you've encouraged others to lean in. I mean, put systems in place to to to give people the opportunity to lean in, in ways.

Kyle Well, thanks for that. And, you know, as my wife says, "they don't need to know everything about you, honey," but to me, that's part of being who I am. It's my own therapy, frankly, to get through life every single day. And I'm not smart enough to remember what I told one person or another. So if I just tell the truth all the time and just spill it all out there, then I'm pretty consistent. But our journey together has been an awesome. For the people listening to this, who don't know. We've worked together since I joined the system back in 2013, 2014 as president of the University of Georgia, brought Keith and his team in together to help us lead through six years of leadership development and growth to great success at West Georgia and now at Georgia Southern and it's been part of my journey and growth. I know I at least I want to believe I'm a better president because of it and certainly a better father and husband.

Keith Oh, my gosh. Thank you. We're honored by those accolades and it's been such a privilege to work with you guys and just the hundreds of amazing leaders that are making, you know, the thing that I always tell them is the thing that makes it such a privilege and an honor to work with people in higher education as you feel like you're investing in people that are investing in people. And it's such a generative process that that especially at West Georgia, but again at Georgia southern, there is the opportunity to actually create generational, permanent transformation in families through the work that your faculty and staff are doing in the lives of these students.

Kyle Well, that's it and, you know, I love higher education. Obviously in life it's my passion, and so we look back and I look back on my career and the through line with that was always impacting others in some way and so ultimately in higher education -- as much of it's challenged and disrupted during this time, particularly the last five or ten years in its value proposition -- it couldn't be more important now for leaders, for the organization to understand its mission, its goals, its primary focus always needs to be the impact on students and growing students and their success. But we can't do that if we're stuck in place, if we're locked into place and not growing ourselves and so that's really the thrust of the work that we've done together, Keith and I believe it's helped us be successful at both West Georgia and now Georgia Southern.

Keith Yeah, Georgia Southern is again, I know the the tagline that you've almost put -- I don't know if this is university-wide or if this is just for the faculty statement for the entire university. Say it out loud.

Kyle "Growing people, purpose, action. Growing ourselves to grow others." Our greatest asset is our people and it's our staff, our faculty, our communities, our students, their continued investment and with a purpose to understanding why they're there everyday. It is to impart knowledge, to transfer knowledge, to elevate societies. That purpose, that belief in the transformational power of education, the actions associated within the goals within a strategic plan but it's really that next phrase that gets to the culture. It's this aspect of self reflection of growth, that we're in a constant state of growth. The faculty, administrators, we all have to be growing, improving and it's not just for our own sake; it's for the sake to then grow others, to impact others. So "people purpose, action. Growing ourselves, to grow others," That's our vision statement and I'm really proud of that because those higher ed institutions, you know, it's the typical "Georgia Southern aspires to be recognized as a national leader in X, Y and Z", but I really wanted to take a strategic plan and say the only way a strategic plan is successful is if the culture then drives it to where it becomes part of our actions and behaviors every single day. So that vision statement now, I believe we walked around our campus and asked any one of our 3,350 employees or 27,000 students say they've heard it. They may not be able to say it verbatim, but they understand that's what we're driving towards every single day.

Keith Oh, my gosh, and I love -- you know, we talk so much about challenge and contradiction is the fuel for growth. And this -- I want to be a little bit delicate with this But you have in your accountability systems and your strategic initiatives and your measurement of people's performance, you've created a system of accountability that has interjected challenge and contradiction into your leaders' lives, whether they want it or not.

Kyle And I think, you know, I'm a musician. So when people hear the vision and they assume being from a liberal arts background and humanities background, it's very touchy feely. But then on the back end of it, it's massive accountability, balanced scorecards. I have one, all my leaders, we have that throughout the whole divisional structures, everything's measured, 90-day actions in which we hold ourselves accountable for the progress, the updates, the assessment, all that is outward-facing on our website and that really then drives the outcome base, but then at the same time takes the humanity part of it, that, look, anyone can be a great leader and have a great vision but does anyone want to follow that? You have to inspire and help people to see their place and meet them where they are. Help them to understand their success will be the success not only of them individually, as a faculty member, as the staff members of students, but the success of the institution. And Higher ed is the strangest, probably most broken organizational structure you'd want to -- you know if you wanted to put a dysfunctional organizational structure together, you'd probably look at higher ed and say, "that's about as good as you can get" because you have these incredibly intellectually gifted, talented faculty who are independent contractors, who we judge their research, scholarly, creative activity, their service and their teaching, individually. And then they feel like they're on an island not connected to an institution -- that's the natural culture. So what we're driving in is "no, no, you're a part in helping us to achieve our goals together." And so it's been a challenge, a reward, and a continuous state of, as you said, of growth. We're on this journey together and sometimes we even act like adults. So it's really exciting.

Keith So growth, again, it just comes up over and over again with you. Something clicked in your life, I'm guessing. What -- there must have been some periods of growth as you reflect back over the course of your life. What are some significant things that happened that sort of got you on this journey of being so growth-focused for not only your people, but for yourself?

Kyle Well, you know, I think I'd have to reflect back early, you know, in my late 20s, mid to late 20s, I think, you know, there's -- all my degrees are in music. I had a pretty active career as a professional opera singer, believe it or not. San Francisco Opera was a couple of years and Switzerland, I was an artistic ambassador for the United States Embassies, I had a nice career. Moving forward, I was very fortunate in my early 20s to make many of the elite apprentice programs, make my way to San Francisco Opera, etc., and had success. And every time I open my mouth, people, "wow, that's a that's a great voice!" and it was almost like an athletic ability for you to put some type of correlation in that is, I had this ability to sing operatic baritone voice and be able to sound like Robert Merrill, who was my idol, and listen to him and Sherrill Milnes and I could make those sounds and do it, and I was smart enough with the languages and others, and so I had success early in my twenties at a high level. And when you're just like an athlete, just as a singer in the opera world, when things are working, when these two pieces of meat in your throat are coming together, every day is your birthday. Everybody loves you. You're wonderful. "Oh, we love Kyle. He's great!" This -- so becomes this valuation of yourself based on an athletic ability, right? And that is a falsehood. That's an idol in many ways and so really as I made it through my twenties, that was who I was. I was the person who made every audition, I was, you know, having a great career in my mid-twenties and I...late, about twenty-seven, twenty-eight years-old -- and this was the late 80s, early 90s -- they hadn't diagnosed reflux, but I had a terrible case of reflux, I was waking up course every morning and there was scar tissue on my retinoic cartilages and basically having a posterior gap -- more information than you ever want to know on my vocal folds -- and so my voice wasn't working the way it did and that same look on people's face when I sang before was not there anymore. It was like, "well, what's happened to this guy's voice?" and very much like an athlete who starts to lose something, a step or whatever it may be, or an injury, it was that same valuation. And so for me, it was a point of, a precipice of, "Okay, goodness, do I want to rely on two pieces of meat, my throat, the rest of my life? Well, you know, who am I? What are my valuations? What is it what does it mean for for me to move forward in this life, to feel like I have purpose, direction if this is taken away?" That was such a big part of my identity and that really set me on a path and I was just so blessed and fortunate to have a great mentor and teacher, George Shirley, University of Michigan, who was one of the first African-Americans to sing at the Met; just an incredible man and mentor. And he really helped me psychologically get through this and said, "Kyle, you aren't your voice. You're this person who has many gifts, intellectual abilities, leadership abilities, things -- the way in which you communicate that you could do anything you set your mind to and you're also trained musician," finishing my doctorate, so I decided teaching and that really became a passion and that was the connection to academia. And then other things opened up an administration. I began running some opera companies, so I still stayed tied into that, but then really started to see skill sets and ability of growth to be adapted and adopted in a career path, still using the same talents. But it's like anything. I mean, I use this analogy. I've heard this before, so I stole it from somebody, I don't remember who. But it's like sailing when you look back at my life -- I'm fifty-seven now -- back to how did I start off being a professional opera singer and how in the world and I become a university president. You know, you look back and it's like sailing. If you want to get from point A to B, you rarely can go direct, right? If you're going against the wind, you're tacking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. All these little career moves, but then when you look back, what was the through line of purpose, of passion, of alignment, and it was always to impact others, whether that impact that I had when I was on the stage singing that I could elevate for that moment the quality of people's life to forget their troubles, whatever that might be, to then being able to be in different positions throughout my life and career. That's what I look back now and go, "that's the line that's what helped me through that." And I was at a point where if I had not made those decisions and had the courage to go to other doors that open, then I wouldn't be here today. And so my encouragement is, you know, don't look at -- sometimes we see these challenges in our lives. "Oh, my goodness, I'm not going to be the person I thought I was going to be. This is being taken away from me, it's the outside in, you know, what the world has done to me and how how am I going to move forward?" became this "everything opened up and everything was possible." But the through line was always "this is the legacy that I want, is to impact others," and so anything I can do, whether it's, you know, digging ditches or running universities, I can do that with that same purpose and goal. So that and, you know, that's what got me through that time. And I got another one for you if you want one, but...

Keith Hang on for one second because, I mean, that -- you just captured our curriculum in a story. I mean, it was the move from outside in to inside out. It was the help of not -- of another not doing this alone, Right? There was this mentor that you had that really pointed you toward. Who are you going to be? I love the phrase adapt and adopt, right? That "I've got to change." But also, we don't talk about this much on this podcast. But time is a component of our growth and and sometimes we don't get to see the through line until some time has passed, until we've tacked a couple of times to stay with the sailing analogy for a minute, but I mean, just beautiful. And then the challenge and contradiction, you've never told me that story about the reflux.

Kyle Yeah.

Keith And I've also never heard "two pieces of meat in your throat", but I hope the whole audience can let that go for just a minute. But that was so good. So yeah -- comment, yes. I'd love to hear.

Kyle Well, you know, and I think, you know, if I were to share further on that, it was then just the incredible blessing that God placed Jane in my life, who the minute I heard her sing, it was like, "Okay, this is what a singer needs to sound like." It was so just part of her very existence. I was always a very technical singer. I know that's a big surprise to you, and, you know, and I worried about it and I kvetched about it and everything. Jane just sings and it's just part of her existence and so, you know, that was also such a gift to me to have a partner that supported a new avenues where I could then still be a part of a life where she was connected to what I did before. But, you know, I'm so thankful for that. I don't know where I'd be today if not for that obstacle or that challenge. But you're so right. It's perseverance, time and addressing the challenge in a way that you get to the center core of your values, of what you want to stand for.

Keith Wow and how did you, I mean, I think you already said it maybe, but this arriving at the the center core of your values, the through line, the legacy, the destination. You used a lot of words in there. I -- was that awareness there from the beginning? Did it grow in you through this set of experiences, how did that sort of awareness come about? Because the True North allows us to deal with challenge and contradiction in a different way, but how did this you didn't use the word True North, but how did the True North come into being for you? Can you talk a little bit about how that emerged in your life and was it an epiphany or was it was it an unfolding or was it a big direction that got refined over time? Well, speak to that, if you don't mind.

Kyle Yeah, it's certainly the vocabulary that we're speaking now, wasn't there, you know, to understand that or be able to even communicate it in any way that that, you know, in the words we're using now that's been developed obviously through through leadership, etc. But, you know, for me -- and without giving my testimony -- I have to refer to my faith. I mean, the center core of that and imparting that is every part of my being and really, you know, investing in my biblical and my relationship with my savior, Jesus Christ. And I know this is a secular program, but I have to say that because that's every part of the core being of who I am and what I believe in. But you know what's really been so, such an incredible opportunity in my life through this, particularly if I think about it in the arts world, in the opera world, and in the higher ed world is the world. And so all of these values are translated into secular being and what it is in terms of how do I treat others, how I'd like to be treated, how do I invest in others in a way that I can that can be the best iterations of themselves. That was a through line that I, you know, I don't know if that was a gift or or just something -- a passion. That was my default. I mean, from from an early age that that, you know, I always feel sympathetic, sympathetic and wanted to help others in need in some way and then to be able to organize that, develop that, to be put in positions, to have to have authority, you know, overwhelming as that may be gave great opportunity. The other factor that -- and I think it's my art, the artistic upbringing, you got to understand as a singer, you have 10 auditions. If you get one gig out of it, you're a successful singer, so you're 90 percent failure rate and everything you do on the stage is criticized in writing, but you still have to get up there and perform even if they said you were horrific and so have the matinee performance on Saturday to get up and do again after you just read about how terrible you were. So that gave me a really thick skin, a sensitivity to want to have impact yet the ability to, "oh, well, sucked, I better try something else," you know. So my ability to jump into the pool and fail and thrash around and jump back out and go, "Okay, I'm not going to do it that way again," I was able to iterate, you know, assess, improve and try again and pretty much let that go. And so that was my artistic background that let me iterate through each of the growth opportunities and find out what I was good at and not beat myself up if it happened to be a complete failure. And that's, you know, through my leadership team. Please forgive me, but that's sort of how I lead a university. It's like, "look, if we don't try, we'll never know. And we got to give this a go," and then we quickly assess our failure so we can move forward, but we don't dwell on it and I think if we can get organizations to move in that way, we can get a lot more innovation happening, particularly in higher education.

Keith Oh, my gosh and it's so needed, especially in that environment. I love -- you know, there are better and worse influences early in our lives, right, and having a faith underpinning, I think there are probably destructive versions of that, but there's an awful lot of positive that comes. But I love the way that you phrased in the middle of that last segment, a series of questions that were that all started with sort of how do I? How do I do this? What am I going to be? It was those kinds of things and it's interesting to me that you could turn outward and say, tell me that from the outside, but but usually those questions demand an inside out answer. And if we're willing to ask ourselves, those questions of groundedness comes out of that. So those questions are so important. So tell me the second story. I got to know it. Now, I know we're going to be pressed for time for this all over but let's see what happens.

Kyle It's one that's, you know, I've shared investitures speeches and others opportunities to talk and I think I've told you this story, Keith. I have -- I apologize to my mother, who, you know, really was my stalwart and I'm a big mama's boy and proudly say that and just one of the great people that I've known in my life and every way she passed away April 15, 2014. But on May 19th, 2000, I was thirty-seven years-old, get a call: rollover, car accident, instant quadriplegic and other than a doctor pulling up right behind the accident to keep her alive, 18 months in ICU, we get her home. She lives as long as anyone has lived with a C2 vertebrae injury, basically ventilator dependent quadriplegic had swallow mechanism off and on throughout that time, but survived. And her spirit, her impact on others was just transformational to me. I mean, you know, at her at her passing, you know, at the service, there were hundreds of nurses and doctors who through all her years of care came and their story was was consistent throughout. "She made my day every time, I was so excited to be assigned to her to check on her or to be part of her care, because every day she awoke with this inner saying and I even it, excuse me, and had it put on wood. Here it is: It's all good. And her ability to get through life and see every single day as a gift, to be gracious for it and the gratitude and then, you know, always teased her, I always said you're sort of the Mrs. Rogers. I mean, she just, you know, had this way of anyone that came in and visited or when we would see her or be there with family to bring you in, that you were the most special person at that moment to be conversing with. And that joy, that that gift that she shared, I mean, just became an example to me of, "quit your darn complaining. What do you have to complain about, Marrero? You know, your life is a blessing. Every bit of it. Every day, every obstacle, every challenge is nothing. You're able to feed yourself. You're able to breathe on your own," you know, and she treated every day that it was that, you know, that it was this opportunity to impact others. And so that was just such a, you know, and it was a difficult time. I'm not trying to sugarcoat it. I mean, you know, family was forced together to make this all work, the finances of it, everything. You know, you can imagine all that around all that, that made it difficult. But the you know, the testimony, the experience and the impact on my life moving forward and what anything that comes in our lives in this journey, you know, just has helped me to put things into perspective, whether it's dealing with COVID-19 or everything else, to understand that every day has the opportunity to impact somebody it doesn't matter what challenges are before you. So to me, that's probably you know, it's one that I reflect on a lot and has meant so much as a legacy. You know, if your mother can can have a legacy. Mr. Rogers, I remember, sharing that one of the sessions that you gave us when he said, "take that moment and think of the people that have breathed life and hope into you, that have made you who you are," and that's my mom. And so there's not a day goes by that I don't reflect on on her and how she adapts and gets through -- got through her time. And so I just want to share that with you because that really -- you know, at thirty-seven years-old and then through her passing in 2014, at fifty-one, that's for me my, you know, what will carry me to the grave.

Keith What a powerful story. When you reflect, you -- again, I haven't noticed this in previous podcasts -- but you raised another key question again that demanded an answer from you and the question in that last segment was, "what do you have to complain about Marrero?" Right? And that contextualizes things. It puts it in perspective. "It's all good," right? When you reflect, and every time you sit at your desk and look at that shelf, there's that sign: "It's all good," right? But it's when you reflect, what is the byproduct of the reflection for you most times, because, again, reflection is so meaningful in our growth because, again, most reflection demands an inside out answer, demands a new sense of groundedness. So for you, what is that? I'm curious.

Kyle Well, you know, look, you've gotten to know me and you also know that I like things. You know, like I said, I like our plan. Let's execute our plan. We'll assess as we go. You know, some might say I'm a little bit of a control freak, but I've gotten a lot better at that. And that's when I pressed into during that time, particularly my mom. I know there was no control there. You know, this was -- she was -- days she may live, days she may not live. I mean, I remember, you know, my mom, you know, I got a little bit of worrywart, a little risk-assessment in me, I should have been an insurance claims adjuster or something but, you know, we got her a van and a wheelchair and the whole bit, and she wanted to go out, you know, I'm like "Mom, you know, maybe we shouldn't go out today, you know, batteries, not maybe fully charged," this, that...And she'd just look at me and go, "What? I'm going to die, you know, get over it. Come on, let's go!" You know? And so she really made me press beyond the fear, the worries, the fears that keeps us resistant of of change or growth, of pressing into things that are hard or uncomfortable. I mean, she -- you know, so as I grew through that and reflected on it, it was really that, you know, tackle those worries and fears and resistance, because if you don't, you know, what are you going to live in a house, in a bed, on a ventilator, you know, and not experience any of the world? And so that was that contradiction for me of seeing that played out right in front of me and then pressing into what's happening to me and "how are you going to change, Kyle, and grow from this?" And so, you know, my wife says sometimes I'm fearless and that I scare her because I'll--"let's do it! Let's go!" You know, or I'm pretty decisive and, you know, but it is because of that growth opportunity from that experience that, you know, what's the worst that can happen? You know, I mean, not to do foolish things, clearly, but it is this opportunity in life to embrace it fully and again, not be afraid of failure. Give it your all. I mean, no one outworks me. That's, you know, I'm never going to be outworked. So that's never the issue. It is more, you know, along this journey, if you don't open yourself up and try, you know, and you live in fear or worry, you will never grow and you won't impact people to the level of which you may desire. So, that's what I learned from that, really. And it's look, Keith, you know, it's not like I'm fifty-seven, it's not like I got it all together. There's days I struggle like everybody. I mean this last year's been overwhelming. You know, there is no there is no playbook to run 27,000 student institution on three campuses of 3,000 employees in a worldwide pandemic. You know, so, you know, there's, you know, three o'clock. I might as well just have a little alarm because I wake up at three going, "Okay, all right. You know, what have I forgotten? What's going on?" And so, you know, but if not for the life experiences that I shared with you and the perspective around that. You know, I'd be a lot grayer than I am right now just in the last six months, that's for sure.

Keith Oh, my gosh. I wish I had known your mother. I mean, what a special person. And how important is it almost if you don't --I mean... There was a -- you're saying there was a blessing or a silver lining even in what happened, nobody wants that to happen to anybody. But how special is it to have that kind of person in your world and as an encouragement to others, maybe even, "who is that person in my world, right, that can have that kind of influence on me?" is maybe an important question. What is it now, Kyle? What's what's going on now? What are you bumping up against? I mean, you're right. There's no playbook for 2020. You've had book burnings, you've got students, you've got faculty, you've got COVID, you've got social unrest, you've got racial tension. I mean, it's all going on in your world. But what are you bumping up against right now? Like, where's your greatest opportunity for growth, do you think, when you think about it?

Kyle I need a drink of water before I answer that one. You know, it has been an extraordinary year. Now, you know, you and I have talked often, particularly in the last four or five years, you know, that higher education was probably being the most questioned it had ever been in terms of its relevance, its return on investment, etc. and if we didn't adapt and change and innovate, you know, we are in danger of this disruption, really making us obsolete. So now you throw in the urgency of all of the racial social unrest, particularly. I mean, you know, everyone needs to think of a particularly a public university of our size, largesse, and diversity. You put a lens over that and times it by ten. You know, this is -- we're a hotbed and always have been in higher education, political, racial, social equity, etc. and so this all heightened right in the midst of a pandemic. Planning on that and working towards how can we reopen in an environment and with those safety protocols, etc., so put that in then budget cuts, because revenue collection in the state was coming basically from the shutdown, 10.8% Budget cuts to all of the university system institutions, the university system of Georgia. So facing that, trying to do it without lay-offs, trying to do to protect our people as a central part of our vision statement and our ability to move forward, our promise to our students and, you know, safety levels, protocols, healthcare protocols of which none of us have dealt with, I mean, in higher education and so incredible learning curve, an incredible opportunity to put into place operational aspects, contact tracing, notification, isolation, quarantine areas, testing all the protocols, the PPE, everything within the classroom, mapping out the classes, adjusting 5,000, working through all that was an exercise. But you know what? The coolest thing, the coolest thing about all this is at the center of it, what's your mission? Our mission is to deliver quality education to our kids, to our students, and to continue to transform their lives. Then clearly we've got to protect the safety protocols, healthcare of our workforce, et cetera, and financial sustainability through this so we can weather all of this. Those are really the three things and so I try to make it really simple in the communication so we can all work together towards that. And then the neatest thing that all the work we did at West Georgia, all the work that we've done here with a strategic plan was to say, "what are our values? What are our values as an institution? Let's look back at those and let's lead from our values to the outcomes we desire." And as we did that, it became more and more on board with our faculty, with our staff, through everything to understand their part in this, how we protect them, how we get through this together. And it hasn't been perfect as many of the public institutions, we had an uptick the second week, but we managed it, brought it back down and we've made it through and we've been averaging in the teens per week with 30,000 human beings; that's been unbelievable. And so, you know, at the center of it again is what are the principal goals and outcomes? But then the values, I think where we get in trouble, particularly in leadership, in higher education, others, as we look to the outcomes. We measure the outcomes, we drive to the outcomes, and then we forget how did we get there? Because you have to leap from your values through any whether it's good times are bad times, because if you dispense your values, you've lost it all. Doesn't matter if you're successful because not many people will be happy or feel like they were part of that process. And I never want to forget -- again, I go back to people. Without the people, we're nothing. They have to see their part in this. They have to they feel engaged, the humanity aspect of it. It doesn't matter how good your plan is, if they're not buying -- if they don't see themselves in that or the success both individually and corporately, it isn't going to be successful or it's not going to be sustainable anyway. So that's how we've gotten through it as the hardest times. And it's continuing, you know it's not like just because this semester is almost over, it's going to continue until the vaccine, until we have some type of mass immunity. And that's going to be six to eight months, nine months, 12 months perhaps. So it'll continue, but the way we've gotten through it is our values that then extend and result in the outcomes.

Keith Does that help? Does that help allay any of the what we talk about as worry, fear, resistance, the things that if I take this step, if I lead in this way -- are you at a point in your life where you are more keenly aware or it's not there as much? What is the -- what do you what do you have to bump up against to keep the institution and all of these people focused on where you're going? What's -- In other wo -- in a different way to ask the question is what's hardest for you in leading that way? And if you don't want to answer the question, I totally respect that.

Kyle No, look, and and I'll always be honest like I am with you. Of course, you know, I have fears and worries with this. You know, this is not hyperbole, but it is life and death. You know, it isn't just education anymore. You really have the well-being of human beings involved in the decision-making and implementation of what you're doing in this COVID environment and so, yes, of course, there's moments where I go, "oh, my goodness, are we doing the right thing?" But what I can tell you is through that, as we move through it and the values again and leading it and assessing and quickly adapting again, I'll go back to the fail quickly, assess, improve and be okay. The second week, second week we had 508 cases on our campus. Now it's still very large campus. So, you know, it was but it was certainly an alert. It was, "we got to do something. Contact tracing, we're getting behind in." So we quickly admitted it, assessed it, and proved it within ten days and back on track and got everything down. I think that's where particularly government agencies, others, frankly, get in trouble is they aren't quick to say, "okay, that wasn't great, we're going to improve now. This is what we're doing," and transparently talk about it. And that's what got us through. Now, I'd be lying to tell you that everybody thinks everything's wonderful. Of course they don't. We're an institution. I mean, you know, if it's you know, I love it because it's like going to rehearsal. It's back to my artistic life. If all the artists I was working with in our AIDA production thought I was wonderful as the director and we were all hit in the right direction for the production, no. But what I learned in that experience was to take the collective intellect of everybody. You have your vision, but then integrate with them and help them be part of that solutions of where it can go and be engaged in that, taking it all in, let them see their part in what you're doing, still driving it, still making the decisions because you're hired to be the leader. But that engagement aspect of it, at the end of the day, probably makes it better than anything you could have thought up or come up with yourself, certainly because the collective intellect is always going to be stronger when it's harnessed and focused than a singular leader coming up with what exactly what should happen. That helped us through it and it's got most on board. You know, the other part of leadership, if you want some advice, is if you're leading, you aren't gonna make everybody happy. You just aren't. And at some point, you have to be able put your head on the pillow and go, "I have been honest, transparent, truthful and in this, I have taken into account all the considerations and I have done the very best I can," and admit when it fails and move quickly to the next solution. So that's you know, it's the old 80/20 rule. If you got 80% on board, you're doing really, really well as a large organization. And that's our goal. Really as we move forward. Yeah.

Keith Yeah. Oh, that's so good. So much in that. You may have just answered the question in the last a couple of sentences, but But what is your advice to younger leaders on the journey to people who are not where you are yet, but that, you know, see potential in themselves? What do you -- how do you like to counsel those that you get to have counsel with?

Kyle Well, you know, you can't be afraid of failure. I know I'm repeating myself, but that's critical. I think that holds so many people in place, particularly leaders, because no one, you know, no one wants to appear weak, out of control, or in some way incapable. You know, that's just not a human condition or emotion any of us want to feel. But that vulnerability, particularly in the leadership aspect, to be able to help your team collectively be the best iterations of themselves as a team is only going to strengthen the organization and if you're if you're looking at it just to make yourself look better, you'll never be successful. And frankly, the organization will be more successful if you elevate everybody to their greatest opportunity for success. So have courage, you know, be open to new ideas, even if they aren't your own. Don't try to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, that's probably the worst thing you can be in some -- even if you maybe have a better idea than somebody else. You know, the old joke is "you never know who might have a good day," so make sure everybody has the opportunity to engage. But also, you know, particularly within your leadership teams, when they see that you value their input, their engagement, they'll be more apt to be thinking creatively, wanting to bring new ideas. And so that's, you know, and I get that it's interesting that you ask this question because I talk a lot to our student government leadership and, you know, typical eighteen to twenty-two year-old that has just moved into a leadership position, whether it's student government president or vice president, one of the executive teams, etc., you know, they'll say, "well, here's my vision, here's my plan," and then six months later, "I couldn't get anyone to do all the things I wanted to do. They made it fail!" Well, okay, okay. It might have been the best plan in the world, the greatest vision in the world, and that you just delegated it all and said do this and it's, you know, until they see themselves in that part or part of that or feel engaged and can see their contribution or even their ideas in it, they aren't going to give you 100%and delegating, is not getting the task done. They have to understand the why. "Why am I doing this? Why is it important? How does it help me and the institution or whatever your governing?" So communication is another, you know, I can't -- even if it feels like you're over communicating and, you know, you have to find every way to communicate. It's not just email. It's not just verbal. It's not just, you know, but you have to invest in one-on-ones and really get to know the people that work with you and take that opportunity to understand what they want, what their desires are. So, you know, and that takes time and not everybody wants to take that. But my advice to any young leader making their way up through and that has aspirations or ambitions, is the more that you help others to become the best iteration of themselves around which you work in your environment, those incredible opportunities will come to you. You won't even have to apply or be interviewed because people will be coming to you. It'll shed more light on you as being a great leader, the more selfless you are in that aspect.

Keith Oh, my gosh, Kyle, I want to encourage any up-and-coming listeners to go to the transcript, pick up those last five minutes, look at every word that was just said, and start asking yourself the question, "what does that mean for me?" That was just brilliant. Thank you for sharing that. I just think there was so much humility. There was so much "level fiveness" as we talk about it in that in terms of just seeing the bigger picture and rising above the different points of view, but how do you knit things together instead of just manage the differences? Folks, we're making the transcript available. If not, just back up and listen to the last six minutes, ten times. Take your own notes. Thank you. Hey, what are you most -- we've got to wrap this up pretty soon but what what are you most excited about in your world right now? What's going on that you're just pumped about that is working that you want folks to know about?

Kyle Well, look, Georgia Southern, you know, has been through a lot in the last three or four years, consolidation, bringing together cultures on multiple campuses with great heritage and pride and legacy in different communities in southeast Georgia. We've really moved forward in that really cast the vision of what the collective opportunity is within a regional concept, the areas of logistics, high tech we're going to be leaders in both from a public impact, research opportunity and talent development for the region with Savannah being one of the largest ports in North America. That's going to be a great opportunity for us. We had a record enrollment for our freshman class in the history of the institution, up 32% in one year.

Keith In the middle of COVID?

Kyle Yeah, yeah. Kind of terrifying, huh? But, you know, that was a year of really putting in a strategic and our own plan, marketing and driving that and telling our story, because if you don't tell your own story, others will replace what they believe you are and we did a great job on that. Collectively, the team did and we saw the fruits of that labor. Record faculty research last year and we're doing well again this year. Record graduation rates, four and six year graduation rates in the history of the institution. So, you know, even in the midst of COVID, focusing on our values, leading from our values, with the plan, with the accountability structure, investing in our people so they see their place in it, we're seeing successes that were part of our strategic plan. And in spite of COVID, in spite of budget cuts, and in spite of social and racial unrest, we're moving forward. And then the last point that I'm really proud of is our you know, we're in the South, we're at Georgia Southern. We've had a history here of racial issues and incidents on our campus and we've really tackled that head on transparently, openly, and said, you know, "this is what we are not good at and this is what we're going to improve," and we've mapped that out in an inclusive excellence action plan, accountability, a climate survey, and key performance indicators that will drive us forward in an environment where I believe we can be really proud of where everyone has the opportunity to be successful here at this institution. So those are the exciting things in my mind. Even in spite of COVID, in spite of all that's happening around us, we're finding success and I'll finish where I started. It isn't just because we said we're going to do it, it isn't just because we put measurements out there that we're trying to obtain, it's we've invested in our people, in their constant development and growth, and they're the ones that are making it happen, you know, not me. They're doing it. And that's the greatest part about being president of Georgia Southern right now.

Keith So well said. If the people want to learn more about the institution do they go to Georgia Southern.com? Or is it the website--

Kyle Edu. Georgiasouthern.edu and find everything about it and then if they -- specifically around what we're doing, Keith, with Leaders Lyceum, with Studer Education through our what we call "performance excellence", which is evidence-based leadership of culture, high performance, everything we talked about, we put that all transparently outward. You can see our scorecards, action plans, philosophy around everything we're trying to do.

Keith Oh, my gosh. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why I said at the beginning of the podcast, this is the most progressive, innovative, game-changing, transformational leader in higher education right now. Kyle, others are paying attention to this. Selfishly, as a longtime resident of the state of Georgia, I kind of wish we could just boundary this so that we don't get -- a board from another institution saying, "hey, why don't we see if we can get him?" I want you here for our people but that's totally selfish. Anyway, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for spending time for sharing your insights, your wisdom. "It's all good." I love it. Dr. Kyle Marrero, thank you so much.

Kyle God bless you,

Keith. Love you, man. All right. Thank you.

Kyle Take care, my friend.



Sara Oh, my goodness, Keith, how fun was your conversation with Kyle Marrero?

Keith His energy level's, a sight to behold, is it not?

Sara Oh, my gosh, he is just contagious with goodwill and optimism and I mean, I just hearing the story about his mother, it just all made sense, but he really is one of those people that it's just a joy to be around and I love that we got to bring his story to our listeners. There are so many good things in this conversation. I always try to take notes right as I'm listening because I want to have things to talk about and comment on and I had to pause your conversation with him so many times because there is so much good stuff. And I just a couple of things that I think were so important and that, again, a thread that we find in so many of these conversations, it came out in our conversation with Dale most recently about this idea of. Like, where do you where do you find your identity, right, and he talked about losing his ability to sing opera at such a young age in his mentor, made the comment, "you aren't your voice," and when your success and your identity has been so strongly connected to that for your early professional life, to lose that, it really is a a life challenging opportunity. I mean, I had an opportunity like that, an opportunity. It was not an opportunity in real time, a challenge like that where early on, you know, first thing out of grad school, my first job, I was laid off and I'm like, "wait a second, what? I'm not--" Let me just be blunt, I was fired and that, like, when you lose what you do as your identity is like, "oh, I didn't realize how important that was to me," and for him to lose that through opera, I think was a really a growth opportunity for him and really identifying what he he cared about and it was so clear and he said it from the beginning and he repeated it throughout, that his life is about impacting others and whether he's doing that by singing opera, by leading a theater company or by leading a university, "what can I do to keep impacting others?" And I think when people face challenges and I know these this past year has brought so many challenges for people, is to really look at who are you? What are the things that really matter to you that that you want to be your source of identity? Bringing those more internal to you so that whatever happens outside of you is not going to shake that. I think Kyle is such a great example of that.

Keith And just to build on that a little bit, Sara, I think, you know how much I love the explanatory or contextualizing power of the bell curve, the normal distribution.

Sara Oh, you love the bell curve.

Keith I know sometimes too much, but Kyle is one of these people that, for whatever reason, was born, I think, with almost an innate capacity to grow well. I mean, you know, everybody just heard the story and it's like through every step of the way he's done that. But I think the thing that we can take away from this and the thing that that we can learn is that you don't get to a place where you can talk so easily about the impact that you want to have on others and what you want to be and how you hold yourself in place and what worry, fear, and resistance you need to battle against to get to where you want to go without kind of doing this on purpose. Most of us, the reality is, is most of us need help in doing that and Kyle's ability to kind of know who he wants to be is something that we can do, we can evaluate what are those things? You know, your identity in an opera singer is -- he mentioned, this is almost like being a professional athlete, right? And if you're a professional athlete or if you're a professional opera singer, it's so easy to see that our identity might be wrapped up in that. It is harder for those of us that don't sit out again in that tail of the distribution, but we've got things that we're getting our identity through that are a lot of times not so obvious and not so easy to put our finger on, right? And yet, as you just said, the importance of us figuring out what are those things that are trying to define us or worse, that we're allowing to define us, right? Can we name them? And who do we want to be?

Sara Yeah, so good, I think one of the phrases that Kyle said that I just loved was that "we have to lead from our values", right. And with all the things that came their way and all the challenges that they're facing in 2020, it wasn't "how do we get to our objectives?", it was "how do we lead from our values in pursuit of those objectives?" Right? And it was about the quality education for students. It was about protecting his people and then that just helps that just helps you make those decisions, and when people don't like the decisions you make, right? He talks about how there's always going to be somebody who doesn't like your decision when you're leading from those values, you can lay down it at night and rest because you know why you did what you did. You know, you're moving in the right direction and I just think that is. Something that we should all aspire towards is really being grounded in those values, knowing what they are, knowing what matters leading from those and not just leading to an objective.

Keith Yeah, such an important point, Sara, having that be our lens, just the way that we wind up seeing the world is not easy. We don't really see it in leaders until they are further along on the developmental journey a little bit for it to be "that's just how they understand the world." However, all of us can start focusing on what should those values be for us? How am I going to own those in the way that Kyle owns those values and the way Dale showed that he owns those values, right? And again, so much of this winds up going back for us is that we've got to be intentional. We've got to make space, we've got to reflect and reflection takes time. Right, and so how can we put ourselves in a position to actually name what these things are for us, right? Name the things that are holding us in place, name the things that we want to be about, name the things that are going to be preeminent if life comes off the rails, which I mean both the story of the opera and his voice giving way and the story of his mother, or -- that's life coming off the rails, right? And it's what holds you on the tracks. It's the values that becomes the True North in so many ways.

Sara Yeah. And Keith, we didn't talk about this before we started recording this podcast, but one resource that we have found useful and that we use with a lot of our clients, are value card sorts, and I don't know if you can recall offhand, we can put the link in the notes, but they're available out -- just do an Internet search of value card sorts. And there's lists of words that can help spark your thinking about this idea where you can kind of go through some exercises of how to identify the things that you really do care about the most, that you want to be priorities in your life, that you want your decisions and your influence to to move in those directions and so finding a resource like that, I think can be really helpful to our listeners.

Keith Yeah, I mean, because what's going to happen is we are going to bump up against challenges, maybe even in 2021.

Sara Oh, no.

Keith Who knows, we might have used up all of our challenges in 2020, but even in 2021 we may bump up against things and it's so interesting when you've done a value card sort, when you've determined "what are the top four or five things I really want to be about?", it creates an evaluation point to say, "oh, am I going to be this reactive? Yeah, I'm just going to react in kind of how I am or do I want to live into this?" And, you know, just on the heels of this conversation with Kyle, he's such an exemplar of what that can look like: to live into the you that you want to be, even when things aren't going the way that you hoped that they would go.

Sara Yeah, and there's one other thing in his interview that I loved, that I was not anticipating coming from him and it kind of tees up something I want to do in a future episode or several episodes on the podcast is when he talked about this idea of not being afraid to try things and fail and learn from that and he talked about it early on in the interview and then he talked about it again in his advice to up-and-coming leaders is this "don't be afraid to fail" but iterates assess and improve, right? And it goes back to what we talked about in our last podcast with this idea of small steps and experiments is if you live under this pressure, that you have to get it right the first time, that failure is devastating and threatening to you and -- You're just not going to be able to grow because you're going to be hindered by that fear and Kyle leading a large institution is saying, "all right, I may not get this right, but we've got to try something and we're going to try it. We're going to admit when it doesn't work, we're going to say, all right, guys, what can we learn from this? What can we do over again?" and that's that same principle we talked about with the small steps. And I think there's a lot we can learn from that process. And I use it in some of the work that we do in the context of design, thinking, and innovation and how those principles apply to leadership and I do want to go deeper with that on another podcast. I just love that Kyle brought it up with this openness and transparency and vulnerability that I think so many leaders are scared of, but it's like, "let's just try something, let's see, and let's let's learn from it and let's get better," and with that, the humility to say -- I love the phrase he used at the end -- was "don't try to be the smartest person in the room," like "lean on that collective intelligence." To say "what we can come up with together is better than anything I can do," but that requires a humility that, again, I think can be threatening to some leaders. To go in and say, "help me, like, let me hear what you have to think about it, I'll still take responsibility for the final decision, but I'm not going to pretend that I know the best answer in these unknown situations," and I love that about Kyle.

Keith Yeah. And again, he has gotten to the point in his journey growing as a grown-up that this is -- you could hear it in the way that he said it -- this is just the way he sees the world now. He sees the world in terms of sort of embracing and loving and leaning into failure. So much so, that that comment went by in just a flash and we didn't even spend any time on it. But Sara, the thing that I love about what we're trying to do with this podcast is that we can do these things intentionally. We can decide that "I'm not going to be scared of failure on this thing this time, right? What did I learn new about me from trying that and doing it?" And that is how the lens grows. That's how we ultimately wind up seeing the world and not just trying to do the world, right? We see it differently in new ways, we're not just trying to make ourselves do things that will be effective, but by doing the things that we think will be effective, it allows us to change that lens and keep growing as a grown-up. So we've talked so often, Sara, about all the resources available at growinggrownups.com. Folks can go there, start with the growth gap tool, look at some of the other offerings that we have out there. By the way, Sara, I think it will be next Friday.

Sara Friday This coming Friday.

Keith On the 22nd, we are going to do -- we would love to have you join us for a live webinar that we're going to do for an hour on using the growth gap tool. If you didn't hear us talk about that much, we covered it a lot at the end of the last podcast. Go back and listen to that, the one that Sara and I just did about New Year's resolutions. But, folks, we hope you enjoyed this one. I know we sure did.

Sara Yeah, have a great week. We'll see you soon.