Karla Hughes, PhD, brings a wealth of experience to her current role as chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello – the first female to lead a four-year university in that state’s system. Her successes are noteworthy for someone who at a young age was not destined for higher education. What shaped Karla as a leader?
Below is an abbreviated version of our conversation with Dr. Hughes.
How did you become a leader?
Hughes: No one expected or encouraged me to go to college, and quite frankly, I did not have the self-confidence to believe that I would be successful. However, three women changed my life. First was my high school home economics teacher. She decided that all of her students should at least experience being on a campus and had a required field trip to the Kansas State University Open House. That day changed everything for me and my parents agreed that I could start summer school following my graduation from high school. Once at KSU, I was selected for a pilot project for first generation students. The Dean of Women headed up the project that was designed to help us navigate campus, establish a network, and encourage us to believe in ourselves. And, finally, the Dean of the College of Home Economics was the kind of leader who was visible, involved with students, and motivated those around her to do their best.
I still remember the day that I decided that I wanted to be a dean, and I went to work learning everything I could about higher education and leadership. Of course, I did the traditional things like get involved and volunteer for projects that put me in leadership roles. However, I think that I began the process of being a leader as I watched other leaders – good and bad – impact organizations and people.
How then would you describe your recipe for professional success?
Hughes: My recipe for professional success is to understand that leadership is a process and learning is continuous. Success comes from never being satisfied with the status quo and always looking within to become better than I am today.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten? Share a story or anecdote as to how you’ve used this advice to advance professionally.
Hughes: How a leader reacts in a crisis sets the tone for the rest of the organization; therefore, you need to develop a sense of calm while addressing the issue.
This advice has served me well as I have advanced in higher education leadership because I have been involved in reorganization and institutional change that tends to upset everyone. As long as I could set the tone, over-reaction and anxiety were minimized.
However, the situation that comes to mind was the day that a power generator in the largest building on campus blew up. The only real damage to the building was smoke on the first floor and loss of electricity throughout the building. It required the implementation of an emergency plan to relocate not only academic offices but the registrar, testing center, and institutional research.
Chaos happened all at once; however, I was able to approach the situation with clear, matter-of-fact strategies – appearing un-rattled by the challenges before us. This allowed my assistant to help people focus on what had to be done and to facilitate the relocation of all offices over the weekend. With everything up and running on Monday morning, everything seemed “normal” and campus operations appeared uninterrupted during the six weeks that it took to get the building on-line again.
Finally, please complete the following phrase: “Good leadership requires . . . “
Hughes: Personal integrity, perseverance, and passion.