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Leading With Love: Darrell Duncan


[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] Welcome to another episode of Career Conversations. I’m Christine Simone, NACUBO’s director of leadership development and I’m joined today by Darrell Duncan of Lipscomb University, where he’s the vice president of finance. Welcome, Darrell!

[Darrell] Thank you so much, Christine. Thanks for having me and also appreciate the listeners to the podcast.

[Christine] Yes, absolutely. So, what we typically like to do is have our guests introduce a little bit about themselves and how they ended up in the path to the career that they’re in now.

[Darrell] I graduated from Lipscomb University in 1992, so I am an alumni, and was working at KraftCPAs, which is a local accounting firm in Nashville, Tennessee. And one of our clients is the city of Brentwood, which is a suburb of Nashville. So I went to that client and was the city treasurer, and then started to go to Ernst and Young accounting firm, but then my accounting professor Charles Frazier called me and said, ‘Hey, Darryl, I didn't know you were in the market looking, we want you to come back to Lipscomb.’ So that was in November of 1998. And 25 years later, I'm still here and loving it.

[Christine] What a phenomenal compliment to get a call from your own alma mater.

[Darrell] Yeah, it was. It was not expected and a prayerful decision. But one that’s been a blessing to my life for sure.

[Christine] So how have both yourself and the university grown during that time?

[Darrell] Well, we’ve completely transformed, the one constant is change. And the university that I went to, it still has its core, it has its heart, it has its value. It has its core mission, but much better dining options, much better amenities, it's evolved with the times, so it's more relevant. So, it's kind of fun, enjoying both of those–keeping the legacy of what makes it special, but also making it current and relevant in today's market. So, I really enjoyed being part of that change and part of the campus expansion and just seeing it flourish.

[Christine] So, what roles have you had in your time there?

[Darrell] Well, it's kind of grown over time. And I started off just pure business office. But right now, my duties include food service, operations, facilities, post office, we have a Lipscomb Racquet Club, we have a recording studio we were gifted, so I enjoy that as well, the bookstore, and then just strategy and just executive leadership. So, a lot of different varieties, a lot of different hats, but just do what it takes to help the cause.

[Christine] So, you mentioned leadership and certainly it sounds like you’re leading a lot of different areas. Tell me a little bit about what leadership means to you?

[Darrell] Well, for me, this may be interesting for a businessperson to say, but it means loving people and earnestly wanting them to be successful. And I think that's a key thing. In other words, if you don't get anything from this podcast... We have to love people to lead people, or at least to truly lead people.

You can have authority, managerial authority over people, but if they don't respect you, and they don't want to follow you, then I don't think you're a true leader. And I think people know if you care about them, hopefully, you will sense that I care about you, hopefully, the listeners to this podcast will sense that. And obviously, my teams, the folks that I work, with my peers, people, employees, whatever the titles are, is basically friends and we're just trying to achieve a common mission.

And you also have to be visible to your team. One of my joys, before I check my emails… and this doesn't happen every day, but at least once a week, I always like to check in on the office. Walk, talk to people, see how their weekend was, see how their holidays were. What's troubling them? What's on their mind? How can we make things just a little better, just brighten their day just a little bit?

We've had really good retention, we've been really blessed, despite a lot of issues, to be blessed with really good retention. And I think it's just when you're connected with people, and they, they love you, you love them in a professional manner and a friendship manner, and good things happen.

Also, I think leaders have to believe in the mission of their institution from the heart. And it's not about collecting a paycheck, you have to be all in. If there's trash on the ground, you need to pick up that trash. It sets a great example for your team. If they see me picking up trash, then I kind of noticed more people start picking up trash, and it's just the right thing to do.

And you also have to listen. And that's one thing that seems to be sometimes overlooked, is the importance of listening in a situation. And really, if you listen, then you can solve problems better, you can help people better. And it's not so top down heavy.

One thing, you also have to be authentic. So, if somebody has a differing opinion of maybe what the company tagline is, then I’m open for them to share that with me. We have to be unified when we go before the customers and the students. But I like people to feel like they can just tell it like it is, unedited. They don't have to have a filter with me. We keep it confidential. But I think it creates trust, and it helps people grow.

And one thing I've learned more recently, is when you're a manager, it's very heavy in the people business. You're dealing with relationships with your boss, your employees, the institution, you're really connecting these… people skills are very critical. And then when you become an executive, you don't want to lose that. But there's also kind of a shift where you really have to make sure you're hitting the results in a big way. So, while I've talked a lot about people and encouragement, we also have to get the work done, we also have to hit results, because you get paid for results. And so, results are very important. And just like a parent loves their children, that doesn't mean you're always going to be easy on them. Love can be tough love at times, but learning the power of results, especially at the executive level, is somewhat enlightening.

And then last thing, leaders have vision. They have to be able to look forward and see what's coming ahead, not just the immediate, but what's coming down the read.

[Christine] Thank you so much for that. I love the phrase that you put in there… ‘love people to lead people.’

[Darrell] Yeah, that's exactly right. And people sense that. And also, this is not a customer service podcast, but whenever somebody comes with a customer service issue, whatever the issue is, to me, it really comes down to, they're asking you a question. And that question is ‘Do you love me’ in a friendship kind of way. An agape kind of way. They do, we can better say it, ‘do you care about me.’ And if the customer has an issue, and they come away thinking this person cares about me, then that means the university cares about me and that puts it in the right frame of mind. Uou can actually solve the issue, but if you don't exhibit care for the person, then you miss the whole point.

[Christine] Another topic I’ve heard you talk about is perseverance and grit in professional career. Can you share the importance of that? Any maybe any examples you have?

[Darrell] Yeah. So, I've been at Lipscomb, 25 years, and you can't be anywhere for a long period of time without perseverance and grit. And your career will have highs and lows. And so, one thing is if you are in a good mood, show up to work. If you're in a bad mood, show up to work. Just show up. And some days, it's easier to do that than others. If you get knocked down, which you will get knocked down in your career, always get backed up. Think about Rocky Balboa movies, or whatever, how Rocky always got back up. So. whenever you get knocked down, get back up.

Also, there's a book called “Scare Your Soul” by Scott Simon, where it talks about racing after things that scare you. The book is “Scare Your Soul’ by Scott Simon, and basically in life we generally avoid things that scare us. I don't want to do that. I don't want to speak in public. I don't want to be visible. I don't want to try something different. I don't want to make that change. Well, in this book, “Scare Your Soul”, Scott Simon encourages the reader to go after those moments to do things that scare you.

And Billie Jean King said “Pressure is a privilege” when talking about the US Open. So, it's a similar concept. But it's a blessing when you're in a situation that may be uncomfortable.

And then Mark Twain said, “do the thing you fear the most and the death of fear is certain.”

Someone else at an Orangetheory exercise class, I was telling him I was having trouble with push-ups. And they said, “Well, the best way to get better at push-ups is to do push-ups.”

[Christine] *laughs*

[Darrell] The best way to get better push-ups is to do push-ups. So, that really stuck with me about getting out there. And actually, I'm blessed to be the VP of Finance at Lipscomb. I don't think that would have been the case without perseverance. As a matter of fact, when they were hiring the next CFO, they wanted somebody from the outside and I’m the inside candidate. And as NACUBO would say, you're normally better off leaving your institution. You have a better shot at becoming the CFO if you leave the institution. Well, long story short, I was referred the job, the Lipscomb job, by a peer, a SACUBO peer who would also be a NACUBO peer, applied for the job even though I was not being pursued by Lipscomb, which did hurt my feelings. I'll be very transparent on this podcast. That did hurt my feelings. I least wanted the courtesy interview.

So going back to your question about perseverance, it would have been very easy, knowing Lipscomb was basically going to hire a CFO from the outside… Which they did, and he's an excellent person, we get along very well. He's my boss. He's the senior vice president of finance, doing a great job. I'm the vice president of finance. But when I was interviewing for the role, there was no vice president of finance position, per se. And so, what happened is through my perseverance and grit, and not giving up, even though I knew the odds were stacked against me, they really honored me and promoted me to this position and gave me more responsibility.

And I think if I had just rolled over and sat in the corner and eatten bonbons and cried that they have a bias for outside, which is fine organizations can have a bias for inside or outside. And I would think there's pros and cons. So, here they got the best of both worlds.

And also another thought is when I didn't get the senior vice president job, I could have become bitter and mad and quit and found a pout or whatever. But I actually talked to a mentor of mine, and they quickly got me thinking correctly, which is I want to make my new boss look as good as I can. I want to help my school. And there's been numerous blessings from that not only my relationship with my boss, but my relationship with the school. So sometimes when life hands you lemons, you always hear make lemonade. And sometimes if it's something is a challenge to you, instead of letting it get to you, let it motivate you, but not in a vengeful way, but in an energizing way.

[Christine] That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that story.

[Darrell] Sure.

[Christine] Now that you’ve been in your current role for a little while, what are some critical skills that you think people would need to have to be successful in that type of job?

[Darrell] I think you need to like people. It also helps to understand people in kind of a deeper… emotional intelligence, I think is the phrase they coined with that. Read the room, know when to talk, know when not to talk, know what motivates. I lead different people differently. Some people enjoy more high touch, more connection. Some people like to be left alone, crank out the work, maximize efficiency, but they're very happy in that role. So, one thing that's critical is just to know what makes people tick, what gets them excited, how they like to be led, and or the freedom.

And also, as a leader, as you go up the ranks so to speak, you have to let go of things. Like you can't do everything you did when you first started. You basically build systems that produce results. And the systems include technology, processes, and people just like you would hear about in Lean Six Sigma.

But the key is, when those things function, you can actually step away and focus more on the vision, see where the trends are going, spend time in these great NACUBO conversation articles or podcasts, see what are the trends in DC. And so, you can kind of really get your head up and see what's the landscape of higher education and also how your company, or I should say university. You can tell I view it with a bit of a business focus, but how your university is in the competitive marketplace and landscape. So, it's very helpful.

And also, one other skill that's pretty critical I want to mention is, and this is credited to a quote by Alvin Toffler, who made this apparently more than 50 years ago, he said “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I'll just read it one more time. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

But as your career continues, I think the hard part is the unlearn. And I could apply this to lots of things. I can apply it to political differences, I can apply it to religious differences. So many differences in life, it's like, hey, I have this thought, okay, am I willing to listen? What does the other person have to say? Can I unlearn some things by learning new things instead of just clinging to the past.

We are a religious institution. So, we at Lipscomb University, we believe in the Bible. So, to use a Bible example, I might read one passage one day, and then come back another day and read it and get it completely different insight. So, it's just that fresh perspective on life. And sometimes we have to admit, maybe we had it wrong. Maybe we weren't perfect. And we're not. So, I think it’s that humble attitude.

Oh, and also, you have to be willing to pivot. And not only pivot, but pivot quickly. So, a lot of times what happens is organizational change will occur and people are slow to pivot to the new target. I just call it a new target. So, you built an organization around an old target, a new leader comes in with a new target. Well, I think new leaders, in general, don't do a great job of moving the organization from the old target to the new target. They do a great job of the new target and hiring new people to hit the new target, but I guess what I'm saying is the opportunity to pivot is very quick.

So, the employee has to be a quick pivoter when the target is changed. Because what I've seen happen is the target changes, the employee is geared towards the old target. And I won’t assign any fault to the employee, could be the leader, could be both, for whatever reason, there's no quick pivoting to the target. So, by the time let's say the employee does figure out, oh, I need to pivot to the new target, it's too late. They have been branded as non-willing to change. And I would caveat it may be not realizing the need to change so quickly. So, my advice to people is, be willing to pivot quickly because you want to support your leaders. You want to support the vision and you wanted to be unified. So that's what I would tell the employees. Pivot quickly.

What I tell the leaders is, you don't have to give them a lot of time but give your employees some time to pivot quickly and make sure you're very clear about the new targets. So, there's no question about the new targets. So, there's no unspoken targets. It's all spoken targets.

And then I've gotten… sorry, I have all these quotes today. Another one is from Julie Zhuo. “Focus foremost on making the company successful and the rest will follow.” From Julie Z-H-U-O, “focus foremost on making the company successful and the rest will follow.” I think that's, I think that's good advice.

[Christine] So, now that you’ve offered some advice to others, what advice would you give to your own younger self when you were newer in your career?

[Darrell] I would say to my younger self never stopped growing or learning. You always want to continue to grow. You always want to continue to learn. Don't be so hard on yourself. Enjoy the journey. More, enjoy the process, enjoy the relationships.

And Tony Robbins, one of my favorite motivational persons. He says, “it's not about the goal. It's about growing to become the person that can accomplish that goal.”

Miley Cyrus is right. It's the climb. *laughs* If I can quote Miley Cyrus in the NACUBO podcast, that's what's exciting. You got to figure out what gets your juices going. And it could be higher ed gets your juices going, sustain it as long as it does. If it doesn't get your juices going, figure out what does and pursue that. But life is too short to not enjoy and get motivated.

Show up on time dressed to play. I started off this podcast talking about a professor of mine, Charles Fraser, an accounting professor, who was the one that called me to come back to Lipscomb University when I was about to go to Ernst and Young. And he also had a phrase that said, “show up on time dressed to play.” So, think about that in football and athletics, but it's great for higher education careers.

And also, if you work hard and are positive, I would say you're 80% of most people. If you consistently work hard and are positive. Cause those are hard things to do on a consistent basis. Also, you need to be present. This goes back to listening.

Spencer Johnson, MD, he wrote “Who Moved My Cheese”, the precious present. He talks about being present. Earlier we talked about if you have a good day, show up bad day show up. You want to push through the quit.

And Shayla Rivera with Texas A&M gets credit for that comment, push through the quit. You don't feel like it, push through it. Count your blessings. That's a big one. Again, Lipscomb's comes a Christian school. So, I have some references to the Bible sometimes, and one of them is look for your burning bush like Moses did, even though ironically, he was trying to get away from the burning bush if you read the story, but what is your one thing we talked about?

City Slickers, the movie with Billy Crystal, Jack Palance was a cowboy. And he took Billy Crystal in the movie out to the wilderness or to the frontier. And Jack Palance was an old gentleman, old cowboy, he put his finger up. And he said, “This is what's most important.” And he had his finger in the air like the number one. And Billy Crystal said, “what your finger?” And Jack Palance, the cowboy, said, “No, it's the one thing.” Like that's what's most important, find your one thing.

Also, I would say, you can do it. You just started in higher education. And, you don’t know what fund accounting is and you're learning that, or you don't know what net assets release from restrictions are, trying to figure that out, or what an endowment is, depending on what level you are a quasi-endowment, you will get there. So just have confidence. Enjoy the journey.

And there's a Greek word called perissos, P-E-R-I-S-S-O-S, perissos, and it means exceedingly, abundantly above. So, my wish for you, Christine, and all the listeners in this podcast is your life and career is exceedingly abundantly above or perissos.

[Christine] Darrell, thank you so much for being on Career Conversations with us today. You left us with so much to think about. Is there anything else you'd want to definitely leave our listeners with that you'd be remiss if you didn't add before we wrap up?

[Darrell] I'm blessed to be with great folks. The people that surround me are awesome. I know you’re more new, but I can tell you’re that kind of person as well. I just want to send out a blessing to all the listeners. And a thank you to all the folks at Lipscomb for blessing me and my family. And NACUBO and Kara Freeman, the new president of NACUBO, and Russ Hannah, our chairman, in their influence. And last thing, you can do it! And as Ronald Reagan said… I'm gonna hold the sign even though the listeners can't see the sign, but I'll describe it. Ronald Reagan, he was president of the United States from 1980 to 1988, had a sign on his desk and it said “it can be done.” It can be done. And so that's the charge I leave with y'all today. Thank you.

[Christine] Darrell, thank you so much for being on the show.

[Darrell] Thank you, Christine.


[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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