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How Grad School Made Me a Better Leader

Graduate school was never an option. Between my parents who encouraged me, and an older brother who pursued dentistry at a young age, it was expected I would take on the rigors of grad school.

What I didn’t expect was that grad school would not only help chart a course for my career, it would change the way I think about leadership and how to bring compassion and excellence into the workplace.

Moreover, I learned many issues in the workplace are inextricably linked to issues in one’s personal life. If your life outside the office is turbulent—driven by personal problems, anxieties, frustrations and disappointments—it is likely your ability to succeed at work will be, at best, significantly hampered.

But, at age 26, when I started grad school, I knew none of this.

I had been working at the John H. Harland, Co., now called Harland Clark, which was the nation’s largest check printer. I joined Harland in 1987, after completing an undergraduate degree in business management from the University of Massachusetts. By age 22, I was the youngest manager within the company’s network of 64 check printing plants in the United States.

After losing a large customer, one of my first tasks was to downsize our second shift and lay off 35 people.

That day, I realized these were not just names on a printout from the human resources department. These were men and women with families, who depended on the company for their livelihoods—paying their mortgages, buying groceries, making sure their children had braces. Informing 35 people they were losing their jobs felt like being hit with a sledge hammer, and more than 20 years later, those painful memories still linger.

My inflated ego—a by-product of being a rising star in Harland’s management—was brought in check.

But my rise in the company continued, and I was transferred to Detroit. A few months later, I enrolled in the part-time MBA program at Eastern Michigan University. On a whim, I chose a course called Introduction to Strategic Quality Management. The knowledge and insight I gained from that class—and subsequent classes on management and leadership—transformed my thinking and my actions. About people. About business. About faith. And how all three are connected.

I learned that in many organizations, supervisors see their jobs like “whack-a-mole” games at carnivals. Success is pressuring people to deliver toward the bottom line, regardless of the challenges or hurdles—expected or unexpected—that inhibit success. Employees who don’t deliver get “whacked” through criticism in meetings, emails, performance evaluations, terms of probation and, if necessary, terminations.

I also learned about “business consciousness”: the concept that a leader’s role—as opposed to a supervisor’s—is to identify people’s skills and weaknesses, collaboratively develop goals and intercede to eliminate roadblocks that impede employees from reaching those goals. Success is achieved through collaboration, not intimidation.

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At night, I studied business and management theory. During the day, I incorporated what I learned into my work at Harland. It was an experiment in testing management principles in the plant I was supervising. I sought to make the workplace less stressful by encouraging employees to innovate, to be comfortable with their shortcomings and to be willing to challenge my thinking.

I also learned to dole out helpings of the grace of forgiveness on a regular basis. That concept is a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry, most notably in the verses immediately following the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (6:14-15, NIV).

Upon graduating with an MBA at age 30, I was a better plant manager. More importantly, I was a better leader. As I rose through the ranks, my leadership style evolved and improved. Compassion replaced coercion. Employee satisfaction surveys at the plants I managed showed “our team” (not “my staff”) ranked the happiest—and most productive—in the entire company. People believed their opinions were honored, their complaints addressed. And they were empowered.

I left Harland in September 2006, and in June 2010, the Lord—supported by President Richard Stearns—brought me to World Vision, U.S. After all these years, it is an honor and privilege to bring my skills and education in quality management to an international ministry serving victims of injustice.

Chris Glynn is a senior vice president for World Vision, U.S. He lives and works near Seattle.

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