“Throughout my career, I’ve either been involved in start-ups, fix-ups, or ramp-ups, and usually, it’s three to five years in those various settings.” -David Gyerston
[00:00:00] David Gyerston: So much of this begins with the reality that these presidential roles are too big for any single person to manage. We’re always looking for the next Moses or David. And the reality is, there is no Moses or David anymore that can possibly handle everything that needs to be done. So I’ve stopped thinking about finding presidents and started thinking about teams that can make up the office of the president, which is a different perspective.
[00:00:28] Tommy Thomas (2): Our guest today is Dr. David Gyerston. David completed bachelor’s level studies in theology at Lauren Park College in Ontario, Canada. Took his BA in Philosophy and Religion and Psychology from Spring Arbor University. He has Masters level studies in College Student Personnel and Sociology from Michigan State. Masters level studies in Comparative Higher Education from the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration and Management from Michigan State University.
All of these degrees were completed by a man who never graduated high school. At least not the way most of us did. In fact, one of his high school guidance counselors told him that he wasn’t smart enough to graduate and he should drop out and get a job in the gold mines or the lumberyards. From this inauspicious beginning, David went on to be the President of three different universities. He and I have been friends for at least 20 years, and it’s an honor to have him as our guest today.
[00:01:33] Tommy Thomas: Before we take it too deep of a dive into your professional career, take us back to your childhood. What two or three experiences do you remember as having shaped you best?
[00:01:47] David Gyerston: Tommy, I am Canadian. I was born in Toronto, but I was raised in Timmins, which is about a hundred miles south of Hudson’s Bay in a gold mining and lumbering community right on the Quebec border.
And childhood was difficult. My dad was an alcoholic, and my mom had some really severe emotional and mental and physical problems. So, I ran away from home when I was 13. And a Free Methodist minister and his wife, who were pastoring a little congregation up there in the Great White North took me in off the streets.
I lived with them for the next five years and had come to faith through their witness and ministry when I was about 14. But still had a lot of trouble. I never graduated high school, and don’t have a high school diploma to this day. And one of the most profound experiences I had, other than my conversion experience, under Jim and Marion Tutelage, was my high school guidance counselor calling me in when I was 15 years old and telling me that, these were his words, David, you’re just too stupid to be in school.
You need to drop out and get a job in the gold mines or in the lumber yards, which were the two main industries in northern Canada at that time. And so I talked to Jim and Marion about it and they said, no, persist. The guidance counselor was correct. I flunked out in the 12th grade, never finished.
But Jim and Marion felt strongly that God had a plan for my life. I didn’t know what it would be, but the Free Methodist denomination had a Bible school and residential high school near Toronto, and Jim and Marion talked them into letting me in for one semester. So, I had to take some high school courses, and then started on the Bachelor of Theology degree, the three-year program, to begin preparing for pastoral ministry.
And that’s when I really came alive, not just spiritually, but also intellectually and academically. I really fell in love with the study of scripture and the disciplines of learning. And so those would have been a couple of major turning points for me that shaped me in my childhood.
I had the privilege of leading my dad to the Lord at the Salvation Army drop-in center in Toronto. He was out on the streets. I’d been pastoring in the city for a couple of years and went down to help the Salvation Army at their Harbor Light Mission.
One night when I was preaching, my dad came in off the street, and I didn’t know he was there, he didn’t know I was there, and when they had the altar service at the end, he came forward. And the captain and I led him to the Lord and the Salvation Army took him in. He was a cook, and so he cooked for their officer’s training college there when I was in Toronto.
And with the problem with alcohol, it’s a recidivism situation. And he fell off the wagon two or three times, but I believe he made a genuine commitment to the Lord. And then later I also saw my mom come to faith as well. So I was able to be reconciled to both my parents even though they never reconciled together.
I trust that they’re reconciled now with Jesus in heaven. Those are a couple of major anchor points for me.
[00:05:14] Tommy Thomas: With that kind of backdrop, walk us through your pilgrimage to the PhD.
[00:05:20] David Gyerston: I went to Lorne Park College, which was the Free Methodist School. Completed two years of the Bachelor of Theology degree when the school went bankrupt and closed.
Those of us in that program had the option of either transferring to Roberts Wesleyan College or Spring Arbor College, and I ended up going to Spring Arbor, with about a dozen others from Lorne Park, and while I was there, I came under the tutelage of Dr. David McKenna. He took an interest in me and began to suggest that perhaps my calling, because I wasn’t sure about pastoral ministry, was Christian higher education.
And then when he left and went to be president at Seattle Pacific University Dr. Elwood Voller came from Roberts, interestingly enough, as president, and he picked up that mantle, and so he got me into a master’s degree program at Michigan State, where he had previously been Dean of Student Affairs there, earlier in his career, and I finished up. I did a Master’s in Sociology, Social Work, and Counseling. Then felt I needed to go back to Canada because I owed some service and went back to pastor a church in Toronto and did a second Master’s Degree in Comparative Higher Education at the University of Toronto.
And so I was specializing in comparative higher education, comparing and contrasting the U. S. system of higher education with the Australian system of higher education. And again, not to get in the weeds, but the Australians were the first to really pioneer distance education. And so, they were doing a lot of education over ham radio in the Outback.
It was really interesting to see how they began that distance-distributed education model that was later picked up in the U. S. systems. Then came back to Spring Arbor, working and teaching at the university, and pursued a Ph.D. at Michigan State, which was in administration and management, particularly focused on college and university administration and management.
And then did a special cognate in the field of organizational communication theory and innovation theory. And then graduated with a Ph.D. in that area.
[00:07:43] Tommy Thomas: So, I know you taught along the way, but think back to your first management job when you actually had people reporting to you. What do you remember about that?
[00:07:52] David Gyerston: Woody Voller felt that I needed to get a lot of experience across the various administrative operations. And so, I was in student development, I was in admissions recruitment, and enrollment management. I was in fundraising in the area of writing grants and raising money, alumni relations, and church relations.
In most of those, I only had a secretary reporting to me so my first really significant time of leadership came when I was invited to go to Virginia Beach to help start what was originally CBN University. I was one of the founding team members of Regent University and that grew then and we ended up with a significant number of faculty and staff. Later I was President and had those responsibilities and was invited then after that to become President at Asbury University and went there and led the institution for seven years and then was invited to Taylor University as President and led that institution for five years. And so that was the senior leadership journey went into semi-retirement, went back into teaching in the PhD programs and Doctor of Ministry or Doctor of Strategic Leadership Programs at Regent was in an endowed faculty chair.
Then began my consulting and coaching work with the emerging Christian leaders during that time. I went out to California for a couple of years but one of my clients was struggling with an accreditation issue. So I took over the leadership of that institution to help them through that.
And then we decided to retire back here in Kentucky. At Asbury, and with that known, the president at the seminary asked me to come back and be the founding dean of the Beeson School of Practical Theology. When I was here previously with David McKenna, I’d served with him as his vice president and was on the faculty at the seminary earlier on in my career before I went back to Virginia Beach, and that’s too long a story to tell.
But, essentially, we had gotten a $60 million grant from the Beeson family to start the Beeson Center and when Dr. Tennant at the seminary heard I was coming back, he wanted me to come back and revisit that and restructure it. So I was Associate Provost and Dean of the Beeson Center.
And then the school, until just recently, when I finally, I never was going to fully retire, but I finally retired again from getting a paycheck and now I’m working, in the coaching and consulting and doing some teaching on the side.
[00:10:36] Tommy Thomas: You’ve been a part of two maybe two quasi-startups.
So I guess the Beeson Center was a startup, and CBN was pretty much a startup. When you think of a startup, in this case, a university or college, what are some things that are different than when you went to Ashbury and Taylor, where you had something that had been around a long time?
[00:10:59] David Gyerston: Yeah, I sequentially, the startup was moving from Spring Arbor to Virginia Beach.
Throughout my career, I’ve either been involved in start-ups, fix-ups, or ramp-ups and usually, it’s three to five years in those various settings.
And in my career path, essentially, I’ve either been involved in startups, fix-ups, or ramp-ups, have been essentially, and usually it’s three to five years in those various settings. And in going to Regent, of course, it was ground zero and starting everything from scratch.
There were three of us on the initial team, an academic leader, a librarian, and myself, for everything else. And of course, it’s navigating all of the various governmental and accreditation hoops in order to even start a university, which took us a year, and then trying to decide where we would focus in terms of our curriculum.
Initially, we felt we could have the greatest impact by focusing on graduate-level education at the master’s level. Intentionally Christ-centered, we were looking for students who had a call in their life and needed a place to enhance their call. And so, we established what we thought were the six or seven major arenas where if we could find talented, deeply committed Christian men and women and train them well and put them into positions of influence, we perhaps could impact culture the quickest and the fastest.
And so communications, and then education, and then business, and then counseling, then law. All became part of the original plan and within five years, we had all of those programs up and operating with a student body of around seven or eight hundred. Today, Regent has a student body of over ten thousand. It’s 11,500 this past year both with an undergraduate and graduate program up through the Ph.D.
[00:12:49] Tommy Thomas: So you’ve hired a lot of people and you’ve fired one or two probably. But when you’re hiring at the cabinet level, what are you looking for?
[00:12:57] David Gyerston: So much of this begins with the reality that these presidential roles are too big for any single person to manage.
I’ve been doing a lot of work the last decade or more helping universities in transition, and particularly working with them as they try to figure out who they’re going to need to lead them next. And particularly the last three to five years, the complexities have been so intense that it’s become clear that there’s no single person who can possibly do all that a president’s office is responsible for.
So I’ve stopped thinking about finding presidents and thinking about teams that can make up the office of the president, which is a different perspective. And so you begin with, obviously, the institutional needs. And there are some generalized needs that all institutions have, but there are some immediately pressing needs.
When I am working with a Board on the on-boarding of a new president, one of the questions I am asking is “What are the essential big rocks that the President needs to move in the first 90-120 days on the job?”
That are distinctive and unique to that institution. And so the president needs to be equipped to address those. Often when I’m onboarding new presidents, one of the things I’m working with the Board of Trustees on and the search committee on, are what are the essential big rocks the president needs to move in the first 90 to 120 days.
Or there isn’t going to be any institution left. And you’ve got to deal with the crises at hand. And that then determines, the nature of the president’s ability to handle those. And in building a team now, in terms of the office of the president, the C-Suite that will support the President, you begin with what are the institutional needs, the most pressing needs at this moment, what are the skill sets needed to address those pressing needs.
Do they exist in the president, or does the president need to bring around her or him, the team members that can bring the multiple different skill sets needed to address and resolve the Immediate crises and then the long-term needs of the institution? One of the things that we’re finding, Tommy, is that the old model, which was the command and control, top-down, the person that went to the mountain and got the direction and came back and said, here’s where we’re going, that model isn’t working anymore.
In most institutions, let alone higher education institutions. And so in the faith-based community, of course, we’re always looking for, the next Moses or David. And the reality is, there is no Moses or David anymore that can possibly handle everything that needs to be done. And so, one of the most important skill sets in a new executive leader is can that person understand their strengths and weaknesses, and do they have an orientation toward collaborative decision making and are they able to identify build and support a team then that can bring the various pieces to bear and that means a person that’s not threatened by people smarter than them, and more equipped and talented than them.
Usually in the C suite when I’ve been asked to help presidents identify direct reports, that’s the strategy I follow. What are your needs? What are your skill sets, Mr. President, Mrs. President, meeting those needs? And what kind of team members do you need in order to complement and supplement yourself?
And that collaborative model with a person who’s very, and this is another dimension, very secure in their sense of calling to the position becomes really important, particularly for faith-based institutions.
[00:16:32] Tommy Thomas: So, let’s flip that over then, I know every now and then you’ve had to release somebody. How is that best done?
[00:16:40] David Gyerston: I don’t think there’s any off-the-rack suit, and plan to do this. I think, obviously, it begins with a very honest, open and thorough assessment of where the individual is not performing effectively. Not everybody would agree with me on this.
I tend to view a subordinate’s dysfunction as my dysfunction. And it’s my problem. What is it that I haven’t done to ensure that this person is equipped, is empowered, enabled, and is supported to get the job done? It’s the old biblical idea. Let’s look at the spec – beam in my own eye here before I start looking at the spec in somebody else’s.
And then it’s a process of being sure that we’ve thoroughly communicated to the employee, the dysfunctioning employee, what the expectations are a lot of times people are surprised when they’re fired because they had no idea what the supervisor was expecting of them because the supervisor had not communicated effectively, and there is now a lot of legal realities around due process and paper trails.
And that’s helped us, I think, as leaders, to be more thorough in communicating and documenting areas that need improvement and usually, I like to start with here’s where some dysfunctions need to be corrected. Let’s work together to figure out how to correct them.
Here are the objectives and the performance measurements we’re going to use and then give three to five to six months if that’s possible. Sometimes you’ve got to let somebody go very quickly. If it’s a moral failure or a complete incompetence failure, you may have to act more quickly.
But I want to be sure before I fired anyone, that I had thoroughly communicated my expectations, and had laid out a thorough plan for them to be successful. And then after feedback over several weeks, a couple of months, three months, if that still wasn’t making them successful, then to work with them to find a respectable and honorable departure and wherever that was possible and we had the financial resources, we always wanted to give people, a landing pad so that they could be assisted in finding their next place of employment.
If a person is just completely incompetent, so much of this is attitude, I think, in bringing up children, often it isn’t the behavior that we want to discipline, it’s the attitude behind the behavior that we want to focus on and so for me, I’m always looking for is, does this person have a teachable spirit? Is there a sense of humility?
The other thing to take into account is, and I’ve failed here a couple of times badly, where I left a person in a position too long in terms of hoping that they would course correct and I did damage to their team and their team members were hurt, frustrated several of them in a couple of situations end up just quitting because they felt like nothing was going to change.
And I realized then that I’ve got to find a balance between giving time for people to perform effectively and recognizing when it’s time. I think if there’s any mistake I’ve made in my career, it’s that I’ve not fired fast enough. Because so much grace was given to me, I think I tend to allow that to color my approach to people.
And sometimes there’s too much grace when more deliberate immediate action is going to be needed.
[00:20:33] Tommy Thomas: I’ll move over to team leadership for a minute. I want you to think of maybe your best team and then tell me about the most ambitious project you’ve ever undertaken and how you got the team to come behind you.
[00:20:48] David Gyerston: Again, various opportunities present themselves at various times, some of those are unique opportunities that are positive in nature. We have the opportunity to receive a 50 million grant and we need to figure out how we’re going to use that effectively.
There are times when essentially, we’re in crisis. And we’ve got to figure out collaboratively and in unity how we’re going to deal with those crises. The one for me, which was most significant, is when I became the president of an institution, I won’t name specifically, and walked into a very large building project that had failed miserably and they’d been trying to raise money for two or three years, it was a $25 or $30 million project, which in that institution’s case was the largest they’d ever taken on, and they had only raised a couple of million. And so, we had to pull a team together to figure out why wasn’t the money coming in? Because I tend to operate on the principle that if God ordered it, then God’s going to provide for it.
And if God isn’t providing for it, then possibly he didn’t order it. And so we went right back to square one on this particular facility. And again, without getting too far in the weeds, went back to a complete reassessment of the actual needs and what the facilities were going to be used for, pulled a massive team together of end users, as well as key people, including prospective donors alumni in that institution. And then relaunched we had to eat about a million dollars of costs on the old plan. But we launched it and within three years or less than three years, we had raised all of the money necessary to build the building debt-free. And so much of that was again, basically getting the right people, involved in the opportunity at the right time and place.
And then giving them the freedom to bring their creativity and inviting them to make it happen. And that institution tended to look to its CEO for all of the decision-making. So, we had a culture change that needed to be made. And initially, people were uncomfortable being invited into a collaborative process.
They were used to being good soldiers. The general issued the orders. And we marched on the hill and took it or didn’t take it. This idea of participating in the design and decision-making and process was something that from a cultural vantage point had to be addressed before we could actually be successful.
So I don’t know if that gets at what you’re thinking about Tommy, but that’s just a process I’ve used.
[00:23:39] Tommy Thomas: Going over to maybe back to general leadership, and we see I guess probably if you’ve been around as long as you and I have, you’ve probably seen a lot of leaders fail.
What do you think is the most dangerous behavior or trait that contributes to a leader’s derailing her or his career?
[00:24:01] David Gyerston: There are lots of ways to describe this, but I think basically a core sense of humility and understanding what your limitations are. I think most of the triage work I’ve done with leaders in crisis really comes back to their own understanding of their, or lack of understanding of their weaknesses and limitations.
And so often the failure is the direct result of a blindness to those aspects of their leadership style, their decision-making that essentially, they weren’t aware of. And some of this we define broadly in psychological terms as EQ, the ability to read the room accurately, to discern how we’re coming across.
A lot of times one of the manifestations of a lack of EQ is a talker rather than the listener kind of orientation, somebody asks a question and answers it for themself. I see that a lot, particularly in Western leadership. I’ve taught in Singapore, I’ve taught in South Africa, and there’s a very different modality of leadership in those settings.
We in the Western world have this great man, great woman approach. So, the leader of the belief that they have to have the answer for everything and they can never admit that they’re not capable of bringing the answer or that they need help in finding the answer. And so that all boils down to a lack of self-awareness which often is manifested in a lack of humility to admit where a leader needs assistance and help.
Sometimes that gets shown particularly in a relationship between a CEO and their board, where the CEO is not completely forthcoming, particularly with difficult news or bad news. And we say in college university administration that the boards of trustees only have one employee, that’s the president, right?
And they rely then on the president to provide them with all of the accurate and transparent information they need to make good decisions, and I would say about 75% of the time when I’m invited to help with a leadership crisis, it’s been a breakdown in communication between the CEO and the board, and I have a situation where I helped with a senior executive level search where the top three senior executives were fired, and they were shocked they were fired, and the board of trustees was shocked they were shocked.
Because they thought they were communicating effectively to the leadership team and vice versa, and they were just missing each other, so one of the first things we had to do before even beginning the search process for new leadership was to figure out how to help the board become more effective in communicating, but also in asking for the strategic information that was essential to the viability and fidelity of the institution’s mission.
A lot of presidents in higher education, basically their reports to the board are designed to prove to the board they’ve hired the right guy as president. And in reality, the board needs to see some of the difficulties and be presented with reporting that is actionable, that allows them to make their fiduciary decisions with wisdom, etc.
[00:27:36] Tommy Thomas: Yes, it’s been said that we learn most from our failures If that’s the case, why are most of us so afraid to fail?
[00:27:44] David Gyerston: Again, I think it’s a cultural expectation, particularly for leaders, that they have to be seen as competent and capable and successful. And I remember when I was pastoring in Toronto, pastoring one of our larger congregations in my denomination, and I was a young buck and a little bit too much full of myself.
And I realized that, and one Sunday ended up having to apologize to the congregation for a couple of things that I had said and done. And they weren’t moral failures or ethical failures, they were just, unwise things. As I stood at the door and shook hands with the folk as they were leaving, one of my more faithful members said to me, looked at me and she said, Pastor Gyerston, don’t you ever do that again.
And I said, what do you mean? And she says, don’t you ever get up in front and tell us that you failed. She said, I don’t want a pastor who is a failure. And so you’ve got this incredible sense of pressure that’s on leaders that I think so often mitigates against us being transparent enough to admit that we are in need of help. You think of Moses, but he had to have Aaron stand on either side of him to hold up his hands. Aaron was the spiritual support. We think he was more of the operational administrative support person. And so, Moses could not have been successful in praying in that successful battle, had it not been for the fact that he admitted he couldn’t hold his hands up until the sun went down.
Unless a leader is willing to admit that he can’t do everything and needs help, the tyranny of failure will be a part of that leader’s administrative style.
And then he needed people on either side of him to be holding up his hands. And so unless a leader is willing to admit they’re in need then there’s going to be this how is this tyranny of the fear of failure that’s going to be a part of that leader’s administrative style.
As David shared, he has been the President of three different universities. You can only imagine the lessons on board governance, both best practices and some not-so-good that he has observed in working with different board chairs and reporting to different boards. Join us next week as we continue this conversation with David Gyerston. Our focus will be Board Governance.
[00:30:13] Tommy Thomas: Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes on our website: www.jobfitmatters.com/podcast.
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“Unless a leader is willing to admit that he can’t do everything and needs help, the tyranny of failure will be a part of that leader’s administrative style.” -David Gyerston
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