Diversity, leadership, and the impact of covid-19

Dean Balaji Rajagopalan was interviewed by Jorge Ferraez, co-founder of Latino Leaders, for a September 1st Zoom webcast. Latino Leaders is a multi-platform organization whose mission is connecting leaders and inspiring the future. During the webcast, their conversation ranged from developing the next generation of Latino leaders, to the importance of diversity and COVID-19’s impact on higher education. The following write-up represents key take-aways between Dean Rajagopalan and Jorge Ferraez, with the Q&A paraphrased from notes taken during the interview.

Q. Perhaps we can begin with a little bit of background about you and your vision for the College of Business at Northern Illinois University.

BR: I came from humble beginnings in India and arrived in the United States in 1989 for higher education. I have the great privilege, since mid-2016, to serve as the Dean of this outstanding college and institution. My humble beginnings help me relate to our students, many of whom also come from humble backgrounds with a strong ethic and the grit to overcome obstacles. It is an honor to be working with our outstanding faculty and staff who have devoted many, many years to this college and to the success of our students. Our new vision builds upon their outstanding work and creates an enhanced focus on developing a culture of innovation to nurture leaders who are ready to shape the future and contribute to a better world. Our efforts are particularly crafted to make sure our initiatives are impactful for every student who joins the NIU College of Business.

Q. Please share your view on the significance of diversity.

BR: Certainly, and it might also be helpful to reflect on the mission of public education in general. That mission is primarily preparing citizens to contribute to the betterment of society. Diversity plays a central role in this — in order for the institution to live into this mission, it must also reflect society. Overall, NIU serves a very diverse student body. Over 20 percent of students are Latino and about 25 percent are African Americans. In order to prepare leaders of tomorrow, we must prepare students to understand individuals from different backgrounds. A vital component to this is also having conversations around social justice.

A diverse group provides different perspectives and that leads to new and better ideas. Better ideas, when executed, in turn create substantial business value. Research has shown this to be the case — that the more diversity of people you have in your firm, the better the outcomes.

Diversity also means listening to voices that have been silenced or marginalized, and uplifting the lives of everyone in society. A central tenet of diversity is to ensure that our actions support every student to be successful regardless of their background.

Q. How has COVID-19 impacted higher education? We’ve learned from our industry partners that COVID-19 has impacted firms generally in three overarching ways: 1) There are industries/companies that must change completely. 2) There are those that are moderately impacted, and; 3) Those that are not that impacted but need to find new ways to contribute.

BR: The pandemic has given our faculty an opportunity to research and study how individuals and organizations adapt to the virus, how they cope with it, and how they go about innovating in a business setting in the face of it. While COVID-19 has provided very real challenges, it has also created real opportunities to do things in a different way.

For example, the use of technology allows us to engage with our partnering universities in Colombia and in China, among other countries, in a different way – sometimes even more frequently than with what we could do in a face-to-face environment previously.

Another example is the launch of ongoing virtual seminars and outstanding webcasts, such as this one, to engage students, alumni, faculty and the community. We use virtual seminars now far more than we ever have in the past. The power of technology shows just how very much we can do and possibly may have overlooked before the virus situation.

Without question, COVID-19 has caused us to think even more deeply about the importance of engagement and how impactful it can be. It has compelled us to think about how to create the same type of face-to-face energy that characterizes Barsema Hall, the academic home of the college on campus, but now to create that same energy and vibrancy enabled by a digital platform.

Q. Describe the future of education going forward.

BR: Even before the pandemic, we know that technology has been slowly and, in some cases, rapidly changing business models. The pandemic accelerated some of those changes. In order to describe what is yet to come, a little bit of reflection on what has happened is instructive. The Industrial Revolution brought about many changes that focused heavily on structure and processes. Fast forward to the Information Age, which is changing the way we perform tasks and the way we approach business models. It has completely transformed industries and is creating new opportunities precisely because it is eliminating the structures of the past and introducing robotics and artificial intelligence into the equation as standard practice. Humans now, and going forward, will be increasingly challenged to solve unstructured problems. Unstructured problems are more complex, more abstract, and completely unlike the focus of the Industrial Age. In most instances, unstructured problems are also interdisciplinary. They require teams of people. They require diverse perspectives, different cultures and languages. Every conversation around addressing these types of problems must at the onset include a conversation about technology. Because now technology isn’t an add-on. Instead it is integral part of solution sets to the problem that we are trying to solve. Creating that digital mindset in students is important. Just as importantly, they will need to have emotional intelligence to work with groups of individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures. And to learn how to be comfortable in unstructured, uncomfortable types of problem-solving.

Q: Business is one of those forces that has been driving the world, really, throughout civilization. Please describe the relevant points and values sets that go into being a leader.

BR: The idea that learning begins and ends is no longer the case. We are lifelong learners. Always looking at opportunities for learning is the only way to continue to lead organizations in the future. Challenges are going to come at different points in time and from everywhere. Leaders must have a mindset of being solution-oriented and optimistic. Their approach/orientation to solving problems is key. Leaders will also be challenged to make very difficult decisions and it is important that they maintain the highest level of integrity when making these decisions. Having a transformative mindset is more important now than at any time in history. Such a transformative mindset requires challenging the status quo, and asking the question “why?” will lead them to answers or solutions that they may not have thought of before. As importantly, leaders need to genuinely care about people. They have to be authentic and truly care. They must demonstrate this every day. They must be role models and truly care about people. And then there’s my favorite value, humility. Leaders need to have humility. Nobody is perfect. Leaders will make mistakes. They will fail and fall down. They will not have answers to some questions.

Having the humility to say you were wrong and to learn from it – to learn from everyone who can provide you with the knowledge so you can get better every day is the cornerstone of leadership. When you acknowledge and learn from the mistakes you make, you will rise – not fall – in the eyes of others.

Q. And a related and final question, what do you think a student needs to do or have in order to be successful in an outstanding school like NIU and its College of Business? A common factor of leaders is they have a special drive that maybe not others have. It could be initiative, hard work, determination, many many factors. What does a student need to do to get the most out of the NIU College of Business experience and also be successful after graduation?

BR: Some attributes are universal across institutions. Work ethic comes up every time from employers, organizations, and our alumni. One of my favorite alumni stories is when a student asked one of our alumni what they did when they failed at something. Without hesitating, the alumnus said, “I worked twice as hard.” It seems so simple, but it’s what I’m emphasizing about work ethic. “Huskies never quit” – a saying that’s become the motto of the institution – also speaks to work ethic. Resilience is going to be increasingly important, as we can all see from all the changes happening in the world. Students will have to be resilient. They will have to be open to change and stay open to it because the pace of change in the world is accelerating. We have a long history, from the inception of the NIU College of Business, of building partnerships. My advice to students in our programs is to take advantage of every opportunity to learn outside the boundaries of the classroom – whether it’s with an incubator downtown that we partner with or area businesses or partnerships with our global friends. Leverage every opportunity that we provide because some of them will literally change your life. Take it from our alumni. We have so many alumni – Ralph De La Vega, at the top of that list – who came from humble backgrounds and achieved success at the pinnacle of their profession. Mr. De La Vega is former Vice Chairman of AT&T Inc.,CEO of AT&T Business Solutions and AT&T International. We are very proud of our alumni – and we’re delighted that our students have innumerable opportunities to look up to these incredible individuals and to hear from them and learn from them.

by M. De Jean, Director of Marketing, NIU Business

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