[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 nacubo.org.
[Christine] Thanks for joining us for another episode of Career Conversations. I’m Christine Simone, NACUBO’s director of leadership development. I’m here today with Virginia Teachey, who is the associate vice president of budget and finance at Penn State University. Virginia, welcome.
[Virginia] Thank you for having me.
[Christine] Virginia, tell us a little bit about your career path. How did you end up in higher ed? How’d you find your way here?
[Virginia] Well, it was absolutely accidental. So let me say that. I've been in higher education now for about 30 years, so it's been a long time ago, but I was working at a county-owned children's home as a bookkeeper while I was going and pursuing my education, like a bachelor's in business or accounting, I hadn't decided which direction to go.
And I was working for a director who was just an exceptional person. She was happy with the work product, my ethic, all the things I had done to improve the business processes for the operation. And her husband just happened to work for the local university, and it was a department head and he was looking for an administrative support person. Now I'm from Indiana and so that, at the time, that area was very rich with automaker factories. And so, my intent was I'm going to get a business degree or accounting degree and I'll end up in the back office of one of those factories, right?
And so she said, well, he has an administrative position open. It pays a lot more than I can pay you at the county level, and also it has educational benefits. So, I went home and I thought, well, is this really going to derail my path? I had no intention of staying on the administrative support side of the house, but said, why not? Let me go ahead and give it a shot. There's a lot of benefits here, very good benefits package. So, needless to say, I got the position and unbeknownst to me, I was exposed to so many more things than what I imagined.
A department within a university runs as somewhat like a business, being in charge of processing the HR contracts, working with the budget, managing the budget, managing the classroom space, setting up advising appointments. I mean, it was a wonderful environment to be a part of, a lot of fun talking with students every day, talking with parents, talking with amazing faculty. So, I stuck around for a little while and enjoyed it and was pleasantly surprised.
[Christine] That’s great. How selfless of that previous employer to say, ‘this is a position I could really see you in and I’m willing to let you go to be able to go and thrive somewhere else.’ That’s wonderful.
[Christine] So, that got you to higher ed, what were some of the things that have kept you in the higher ed realm over the years?
[Virginia] So, I've been pretty lucky that I started my career in higher education in the mission-focused units. So, you know, the department of X, Y, or Z, or the College of X, Y, and Z. So, working directly with students and I witnessed firsthand the shaping of lives of people, not just young lives, but even all generations. I mean, all kinds of folks come to a university to pursue whatever they want to pursue, whether it's just for research, whether it's just for self-improvement, or is it to pursue a professional career.
So, I think the university as a whole plays such a special role in our society with discovery, problem solving, building new knowledge, innovation, the list really goes on. And so, I think no matter what level you are at a university, you have an opportunity to have a front row seat into that, be a witness to it, contribute to it, and you see that it shapes future generations.
And so, when I think about it, it's always just been very exciting. I had no idea that this ecosystem worked the way it did, so I stuck around because it was so interesting. And then I just progressively moved up through the organization, being able to do all kinds of things and be exposed to so many new opportunities.
[Christine] Tell us about some of those different steps you took along the way as you kind of moved up, laterally, et cetera, as you found your footing.
[Virginia] For me, it was all about also self-investment. So, it wasn't about what opportunities can it offer me, it was also about making sure that I was prepared. So, getting my education was forefront. That's why I ended up in the position that I did. I said, okay, this is a great opportunity for me to get a tuition discount, but it offered so much more. So, I think self-investment was one, and then also not being afraid to take an opportunity to do something new. Understanding that I may not have all the answers and it was okay not to have all the answers, but also that I was prepared and I always had confidence in Virginia. I knew that I could perform. I knew that I was willing to outwork anyone if it took me 80 hours to learn the job a week that I was going to work the 80 hours to learn the week or learn the job.
So, for me, it was taking a risk, but an intentional risk. So, I was never going to over promise and under deliver. That was not something I was ever going to do. But taking a risk, believing in me, investing in me, looking at professional development opportunities that can improve me. If I didn't know a particular or wasn't as familiar with a particular area that I may have been managing, I would attend conferences to learn more about it. I would read books. I would find a mentor that could show me the ropes. So not willing to one, invest in me, but not willing to try and try to succeed in a new opportunity as well.
[Christine] Would you tell us a little bit more about some of those mentors that you’ve had and the impact they’ve had?
[Virginia] Let me say this, I've been really, really lucky that people have taken me under their wing. I've had presidents as mentors, I've had deans, I've had custodians, I've had administrative support people. I can learn from anyone, and I'm not afraid to learn from it. I always say I'm an equal opportunity mentee. I can learn from anyone.
And if you can train me something or teach me something or show me how to maneuver, I think the most beneficial part of a mentor and mentee relationship is one who can help you maneuver through some of the most difficult times that you might go through. And we all go through those, but our response is what we can control. And I think that's where I have a list of good mentors that I can call and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me. How can I maneuver through this? What should I do?’
And having that space where you trust people and you can share these intimate things of what's going on, it's been critical to my success. It really has. Just having people to bounce ideals off of. Also, people who hold you to the fire. And what I mean by that is, okay, Virginia, you made a mistake, now apologize. Let's fix this. So, they were not, or they were willing to also have the most difficult conversations with me about my growth as a professional. And so, you got to have it that way. They can praise you and they can support you, but they also have to be willing to hold you accountable. That’s what's so beautiful about a mentor and mentee relationship.
[Christine] It sounds like you’ve definitely had some great ones
[Virginia] I did. I have. Still have!
[Christine] Some of the things that people say when they talk about mentors is, well, I'm not really sure where to find one or I'm not sure how to connect. Now, are the mentors that you've had over the years ones that just sort of developed organically or do you have any recommendations for people as they try to establish that type of relationship?
[Virginia] Organically and also intentional. And so, what do I mean by that is a lot of times people believe that to have a mentor, they must be on the same path that I'm on and they've achieved the success that I want, right? That's just not the case. You never know who knows someone. And so, I will say that probably 50% of my mentors I gained organically. They may have seen me on a committee, they may have worked with me doing something and said, ‘Hey, I'm going to invest some time in you. I'm going to take a risk on you’, or ‘let's chat. Let's go to lunch.’ And that's how it starts. And it develops a relationship.
Some of them have been intentional where I reach out to someone that is in a position that I'm interested in and I say, can you share your path? Can you take a look at my resume and tell me what am I missing if you were looking for your replacement? And that has also worked. And then other people have introduced me to folks who have become a mentor. So, I think there's plenty of opportunity. You can't be afraid to ask. You can't be afraid to connect. If someone knows someone, why not ask? Can you introduce me to that person? So, I think intentionality is very important about building your group of mentors, what I call your group of people who hold you accountable.
[Christine] Now, as you mentor others, what does your philosophy and approach look like when you’re the one giving the advice and mentorship?
[Virginia] One of the things that I think maybe a new term that people aren't necessarily as familiar with, it's not a brand new term, but it's mentorship or sponsorship. And so one of the things that I love to ask people who are interested in getting to know me and maybe developing this mentee relationship with me is that, are you looking for someone to give you advice, to work with you on the direction you may need to go as far as investments in yourself to be prepared for where you want to end up, or you're looking for someone to sponsor you and get you into the rooms, get you on the committees, get you the exposure to move to the next level?
I'm willing to do all those things. And so, I think sitting down with a mentee and saying, ‘Hey, what do you want out of this? How can I help you be the best you that you can possibly be? How can you help me be the best me I can be’ because I'm gaining something from that mentor mentee relationship as well.
So that's where I start. And so even we have a program where we are, we have a mentor program, and so I am signed up as a mentor and I get to meet great mentees all the time, and then they expand my mentor group. So, it's just mutual beneficial to everyone who is part of a mentor and mentee relationship.
[Christine] That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you for sharing some of your insights on that. So, I want to go back to part of your career path as you were moving up within higher ed. Did you have anything that surprised, delighted, maybe challenged you as you moved through?
[Virginia] I would say yeah, and so I can talk about challenges quite a bit, but I will tell you about probably one of the most professional disappointing experiences I've had that I've grown from, I learned from, and I believe I am a better person from it.
So, some years ago, and this was new to me, I had an opportunity at a university. I was working for this person for about three years. They were a great leader, invested in me, supportive, got me in front of higher-level execs at the university. Well, with that gave me a lot of exposure. I was approached by the university to apply for a higher-level position. And let me just say this, I've never worked for anyone that wasn't a cheerleader of mine. So, this was new. And so, I asked all the right question of university leadership, why do you think I would be a good fit for this position? What are you looking for? What are some of the challenges? All those questions you should ask when a new opportunity comes your way.
So, I went back thinking that this leader who I've had a great relationship with for three years was going to be excited about this opportunity. So, I went back and I said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I went to lunch with these folks and they're interested.’ They would like for me to pursue another opportunity here on campus. Got the opposite response from this leader. And that opposite response of not happy about it and actually said, ‘well, then I guess I will fire you.’
[Virginia] ‘You’re leaving anyway. I'll fire you.’ I ended the meeting professionally because we have to control our responses and it was very disappointing. I didn't know how to respond. I can tell you that I was not concerned about the job. I was just hurt… personally unexpected. I had never seen that before. So, I'd never dealt with something like that. I knew that I was going to maintain my composure. Now, that's one thing I did know. That I wasn't going to respond or match the energy in the room. I can I say that. I was going to respond in a professional way, and it was difficult for me. It was very difficult. The last three weeks of my time there was intense. Every day you walked in, you could feel the tension. You could cut it with a knife, as they say, right? You could cut the tension with a knife.
I had never experienced anything like that. Many people would say, ‘well, he just didn't want you to leave’, or ‘they were just so happy with your performance’, yeah, but that's not supporting a person. That's not it. And so, for many years, let me tell you, after this happened, I thought through how could I have handled that better? How could I have controlled the outcome of that? Well, there would've been no way for me to. Even though I did great work there and I thought that he was a great manager at the time, a great leader at the time, he was not interested in me moving on. Now, the most difficult part of this is I was going to have to continue to work with this person after this happened and I did, and we went on with life. But it is still one of those most challenging professionally disappointment experiences I've ever had.
And it wasn't until probably the last five years that I've realized that I'm not the only one who's experienced something like that. I've learned that through quite a few of the mentees that I do have that have shared similar experiences. And so, I've been able to help and say, ‘Hey, I've also been through that. I know what you're going through and let's think about how we can intentionally get you where you need to be, where you can be respected and supported and in a place that you deserve to be, right?’ Toughest part of my life, I think, of my career in higher education. One that made me think maybe this is not the environment for me if this is going to happen, but it can happen to anybody.
[Christine] Well, we're glad you stayed and have seemingly found something that's a better fit with some great mentors along the way.
[Christine] You talked a little bit about this, but if you could go back earlier in your career and give yourself a little bit of wisdom right at the start as you're entering higher ed, what would you tell yourself?
[Virginia] For me, I think it would be not to compare myself to others. My journey has been my journey, and I can tell you that a lot of people that I work for… so, now I'm what people would consider at a central position and I'm not in an academic unit. I can tell you my path is very different than my colleague's path. Many of them have not worked on an academic side of the house, is what I call it. And I also think that I would tell myself too, is to know my worth. Know the difference between what I'm getting and what I deserve. And also, why not me? Don't be afraid. Take the chance. Why not?
[Christine] Virginia, you shared a lot of really wonderful takeaways in such a short amount of time. But as you've reflected, what are some of the most important notes or bits of advice you would want to make sure that a listener takes away from your story?
[Virginia] I will say, so we're talking about future leaders here. We're talking about people who are in leadership roles. I think if there's one thing I've learned is that the people are the most important part of the equation of what we do because a leader can't do it by themselves. And if you want to be a leader, you have to know that, you have to live that, you have to support it, and you have to accept that. A title doesn't make you a leader. I've worked with exceptional leaders. I've worked with people who are only leaders by title. I can tell you that a great leader motivates, inspires, they trust. They will lead an organization to its most exceptional state. The one who leads with a title–they demand, they intimidate, they do not necessarily trust. And I can tell you, they will lead an organization to its most fractured state. So, invest in yourself with leadership, go to leadership training, read leadership books. Leadership is just not defined by a title.
[Christine] I couldn’t agree more. Virginia, thank you so much again for being on Career Conversations.
[Virginia] Thank you, Christine. I enjoyed it.