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Relationships, Authenticity, and Overcoming Obstacles: Shawn Norman



[Kara] Hello and welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the National Association of College and University Business Officers. I’m Kara Freeman, president and CEO of NACUBO, and I’d like to thank you for listening. In each episode, you’ll hear higher education professionals share their personal experiences, career advice, and nuggets of wisdom. You can find resources for today’s episode, as well as a wide variety of research and tools, at

[Christine] Hello and thank you for joining this career conversation. I’m your host, Christine Simone, NAUBO’s Director of Leadership Development.

A note to our listeners—This episode was recorded on location at the NACUBO 2023 Annual Meeting. While we’ve done our best to reduce background noise, the excitement of more than 2,000 members does affect the audio quality.

In today’s episode, I’m joined by Shawn Norman, Senior Vice President of Operations and Finance at Iowa State University. 

Shawn Norman, thank you for being on Career Conversations with us.

[Shawn] Well, thank you, and I sure would like to share with you a little something that I've gone through in my life. And I think it all starts back, you know as my grandmother and my mom have always been the ones that have inspired me to do the best that I can. But I always laugh with my mom 'cause <Laugh> when I graduated high school, she says, go be a teacher. You know, like, you’ll always have a job and everything.

And so, as I tried to pursue my career down the path of being a teacher, I was in a class and one day and we were in, it's like a math class. And this lady who was from The Bahamas, she looks at me and says you know, I don't think you need to go into education. You need to go into finance.

And I'm like, really? And she says, yeah. So that caused me to go into the finance track from there and I pursued accounting. And great thing with accounting is I had great professors, was able to do taxes and found that passion, that I really enjoyed doing finances. And so did that and graduated with an accounting degree.

And on my first job I was an accountant and a staff accountant, and I really learned a lot. The funny thing is, I was on the job for about a week, and then 9/11 happened, and it was kind of, you know, kind of crazy to that point of what was going on. But I really got to learn about those type of things. And as I was there for about two years, then I got laid off at the hospital. I was working at a hospital, and they changed over and did a merger.

I had a friend that was working at the University of Texas Medical Branch, which is the academic medical center. And I really found another kind of passion that I have, and that was truly finance, not accounting. And I got a job as a financial analyst, and I started from, you know, analyst one, and worked my way up all the way up to a director. But I felt that though, one reason why I was able to move up is the people that I had in front of me. I had great mentorship and they helped me understand like, Hey, what do you really want to do with your life? And what do you want to be?

And so, I really started thinking about it. It was like, well, I think I'm ready for management. Like, I had a hard time with delegating. So, I found somebody who was a great delegator, and they, they really drove me to say, you don't have to do everything. You gotta bring people along and they'll help. And I really learned about motivating people and getting them involved and understanding the process and helping out. And at the end of the day, it worked out for me that <laugh> somebody that now knows how to delegate like crazy, you know, and, and keeping things close to heart when they need to. But really getting that vibe and stuff. So being at UTMB 15 years was kind of in this point where new leadership was coming in. And one thing is, is that I was always getting overlooked, right? People would tell me, Hey, you're not ready. Oh, fine. Well, tell me what, what I'm, what do I need to improve on? But they never gave me that feedback to say what I really need to work on. It was just, you're not ready.

But after getting overlooked by two or three times for positions and stuff, training my boss all the time that came in, being the one that was kind of doing it all always, kind of loyal person. It was kind of hard for me to leave, but I was like, okay, I need to start looking. And I came across the University of Nevada Reno, which was kind of an excellent type of way for me to learn different styles going from a medical center to higher ed. So, you know trying to <laugh> understand why the medical field moves faster than higher ed. And as I was there for four years, I had great people to talk to and learn from as far as how you move within higher ed. And I would have to say that the difference within leadership styles of the great people that I got to work with in leadership to kind of help out.

Like I never had to deal with a shared governance, right? How you get those faculty senate involved, how you get the staff counselors involved. By that, I really then knew what my niche was– it's collaboration. I'm a relationship person, right? So it's like I can talk with the best of ‘em, we can have fun. You know, it's always something that it was able to kind of communicate and get people on the same page even when people were mad.

And I wasn't just the first off no, but let's think about it. Let's see how we can do this. And I learned a lot from our president at that time, Mark Johnson, and then also Brian Sandoval, who was the former governor. You have to listen, hear people out, try to see if you can help, and if you can't help, let them know why you can't help versus just saying no, which it usually comes from the accountant side. We're always just saying no, but as we have to protect the institutions with compliance and all that stuff.

So, I really had a great time with that and understanding that, hey, this is a relationship thing. And that's what I built my career on then at that point. It was collaborating, communicating, and building those relationships. And as my time at U and R things would come up where people would ask me, you know openings and I would apply for 'em and, you know, I would get to the last step or the final stage and everything else. And so I kind of found myself like, all right, what do I need to do? You know, I didn't have a master's at that time. I kind of like put it off and everything.

And so my boss Vic Redding at that time kind of says, Hey, what do you want to do? And I said, well, I want your job. And he says, well, if you want my job, you probably need to go back and get your MBA. And that's what I did. And once I got my MBA, I got it October 7th and actually had an interview at Iowa State on October 20th or something like that.

[Christine] Oh, wow.

[Shawn] Yeah. I was very excited for the opportunity and I was like, wow, look at this, what's happening? And everything else. And so one thing when I did the interview at Iowa State, they kept asking me more about my relationship building and how did I go about it? When I was meeting with the president, she was like, you know, explain more about collaboration. And I kind of told her how the process would be and how you go on a listening tour. Listen to hear what people have to say and how do you take those things in and kind of be grateful for the things that they're trying to say and see how you can help with the solution. 

And so with that, it was just a fresh breath of air that somebody was asking more about the collaboration part, more than the technical part of, you know, debits and credits or budget model and those type of things. So, I really felt comfortable. Push came to shove and I got the job and I'm here today at Iowa State learning a lot, been on the job for six months, We have great people and we have a great future in Iowa State, and I hope to help lead that in a positive way.

[Christine] Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing so much of that journey, and congratulations on the new role!

 [Shawn] Thank you, <laugh>.

[Christine] A couple things that really stood out to me as you were talking– So, you saw more of the importance of collaboration and relationship building as your career progressed is what is seems.

[Shawn] Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>

[Christine] How does somebody go about, you know, beginning to build that and instill that in who they are as a leader? 

[Shawn] Well, I think one thing you have to do… 'cause I noticed some people are <laugh>, you know, I met people that are like, Hey, let me be in my office, let me work, let do my thing. And I think are fine with that. But I think in this role when you're kind of in the CFO role, you have to be involved in almost everything just because it's numbers involved with it. And I felt that sometimes if you really want to know how somebody's doing their business, you have to build that relationship or that collaboration where they get that trust to say, Hey, I need you to help me, or I want to pass something by you. What do you think? And that's what I get today now, is that people will say, Hey, I wanna run something by you. Or, Hey, do you have a sec to talk about something? And nine times outta 10, most times when people say CFO and they come in the room, it's like, whoa, don't take my money <laugh>. And that's what you try to break down. And you only can break that down with building relationships and having that collaboration. 

[Christine] Absolutely. Absolutely. Very, very important skill to develop at all levels of your career. Yeah. But, but definitely this is a great example of that at work.

[Shawn] Yeah.

[Christine] But definitely this is a great example of that at work.

[Shawn] Correct.

[Christine] I think another one of the things I heard you say a couple times is that you had a couple roadblocks along the way. You know, you talked about being laid off. You talked about not getting a job that you thought was a dream job a couple of time.

[Shawn] Yeah. 

[Christine] How'd you work through that? Or, or what advice might you have for somebody who might be, you know, faced with something similar? 

[Shawn] Yep. One thing my grandmother always told me you know, you're gonna make mistakes in life. But the way you respond to 'em, it shows your character, right? So, you might fall down, but you get back up and you try it again. And that's what I did. I just kept going, and one day it will come. And you never, you never sit there and weep saying, I didn't get it. Right. So how you be successful, I think we heard this morning's session speaker talk about. You know, life is not gonna be easy, right? So, you have to make sure that you kind of learn from it. And that's the one thing is you have to learn from your mistakes and figure out is there another way to do it? Is there a better way?

Getting feedback. You know? As I was asking for feedback, when they told me I wasn't ready and I didn't get the feedback, I never knew what I needed to work on. Right. But once I saw okay, and people gave me that true feedback that I was yearning for, it helped me, right? And it was more of like… 'cause sometimes you're getting to a point, you might know something, right? But you don't communicate it in detail with somebody who needs to know the whole thing. So, I always go into it and say, how much do they know about it? And how much detail do I need to give? Depending on the person, because most time when you deal with people, some people want summary level, some people want details. So, you have to figure that in between out, but learning from your mistakes is a great thing because I think that helps you with your success and that you, you know, you've failed, but you know how to overcome that.

[Christine] <Affirmative> I think that speaks back to some of the relationship building you were talking about. Finding those people who can give you that real feedback and provide the mentorship that you need, and being willing to ask for it too. If you're not getting it, you know, where can you find some of those mentors?

[Shawn] Yes.

[Christine] And that's, I think, a really great point that you made. You also talked about some of the really great mentors and educators that you had along your journey and impact that they had. Are those people that you found, that found you?

[Shawn] Both. Some of 'em found me, some of 'em I found them. I kind of reached out to 'em and kind of asked questions or how did they make it, right? And what things, the challenges that they have. And a lot of them are people. I actually met a guy here and he says, be yourself. And that's what I do every day is be myself. I'm always like to have fun, you know, I've had people tell me, you're being, you know, too playful. And I'm like, well, I'm not being playful. This is my personality. The good, the bad, or the whatever. This is me. I like to have fun. I like to, you know, like.. I'm not gonna cuss on here <laugh>, but I have a strong work ethic, so I like to get things done. And I'm open and honest, right? So, I'm not gonna lie to anybody 'cause if you lying to somebody, you gotta, you know, keep that lie going on. And that's not me, you know, I really like to just be straightforward. As I told my team, I'm not gonna please everybody, but I try to make sure that that's the one thing, is I have an open, honest relationship with my employees, too.

[Christine] Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> Being inauthentic is more or less a lie to yourself if nothing else. And so that's definitely, I think a really great takeaway from what you just said. What are, for our listeners, what are some things that you want to just make sure, some words of wisdom or advice that, you know, as you, you've now spent some time reflecting on your career and, and what are, what are the things you wanna make sure that they know?

[Shawn] One, be honest with yourself, right. Because you, if you're not honest with yourself, you can't be honest to others and share the things you need. Ask for feedback, ask for somebody that's doing something different than you are. I actually <laugh> talk to my wife sometimes about stuff 'cause she'll say, I don't understand what you do and I don't care sometimes <laugh>, right? <Laugh> and I try to use her as a person, like my sounding board and hey, what's really right, because at the end of the day, it's about people, right? And it's human nature of people. And that's why I wanna make sure that people, you care about your people regardless if they're reporting to you, they're not reporting to you. And it goes a long way because once people can see that you are original or genuine, they'll open up and they'll talk to you more or they'll put you in connection with people. Since being here at NACUBO, and this is my first time being here as the chief business officer, I've been connected with so many people in the last couple of days that I thought was amazing. Either it was at lunch, <laugh>, it was at the sessions, I've been in contact with people and hearing how they did stuff to help me out as far as my journey going in this path as CFO for Iowa State.

[Christine] Wonderful. Well thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.

[Shawn] Thank you.

[Christine] Career Conversations is a production of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Audio engineering by Andy Nelson and TruStory FM. Music by Alon Peretz. Post-production support by Jenelle Dembsey. And I'm your host, Christine Simone. Thanks for joining this conversation. We'll see you next time.





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