As part of our series bout the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Anthony Davidson.
Dr. Anthony Davidson is the Dean of Fordham University’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies (PCS) with campus locations at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Rose Hill in the Bronx and West Harrison in Westchester County, N.Y. PCS offers students a quality education in a personalized atmosphere that promotes individual growth and exploration with classes offered evenings, weekends and online. Courses include Business, Organizational Leadership, Economics, Legal and Policy Studies, and Social Work, and certificates are available in Digital and Social Media Marketing, Human Resource Management, Post-Baccalaureate, Pre-Medical and Pre-Health. Davidson is also the founder of the Fordham Real Estate Institute, which offers graduate degrees, undergraduate degrees and certificate programs in real estate. Davidson has authored and co-authored numerous invited presentations and papers and has been featured in articles and on TV and radio shows in segments on business, e-learning, education and professional development.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve owned a consulting business for 35 years, and always enjoyed teaching. I held various full- and part-time positions at different universities around the New York tri-state area. In 2000, NYU was seeking someone to help build out their graduate programs — that was right up my alley, combining my entrepreneurial and consulting skills with my academic background.
While at NYU-SPS, I founded its division of programs in business. When I left after 11 years, it was the biggest division in the school and accounted for some 40 percent of the school’s revenue, between all the graduate programs and the non-credit professional programs.
I then moved on to Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., after being recruited to build a school of business at the liberal arts college. We did that successfully — in record time. Five years ago, as part of a national search, I was nominated for my current position at Fordham University, to help grow its School of Professional and Continuing Studies. The rest is history, as they say.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am a student of people. There have been many, many people who have helped me learn along my journey — some directly, some indirectly, some wittingly, some unwittingly. For instance, I can be at a meeting and I observe how somebody handles a particular situation and I learn from that interaction, how to address it or how to approach it differently than I might have done previously.
You can, and indeed have to be willing to, learn from everybody. I’ve learned from students, presidents, provosts and business colleagues. Clearly, I’ve also had specific people who have been there in my life who have mentored me, in various capacities, and have contributed significantly to who I am today. In life, we learn from people, not from books. I watch people and I listen. I’m the youngest in my family, and I grew up in an environment where my only option was to look and to listen!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
At Fordham University, the School of Professional and Continuing Studies has gone through many iterations over the 100-plus years since being in existence. It was founded with the Jesuit philosophy of giving people, especially adult learners, the opportunity to get an education. And, despite many of its iterations and name-changes, it still occupied the same ‘space.’
I felt the school needed an expanded vision — a vision that was more applicable to current times, more robust in terms of its role within the University. It wasn’t always a separate school. We’ve changed what the school means internally and the way the school is regarded, from an academic perspective. It is regarded by many as the most entrepreneurial out of all the schools within Fordham. Of course, I would say, casting all humility aside, as perhaps one of the most across academe! We’re also the most diverse school.
We’ve built out, in a short time, the Real Estate Institute, which is immensely successful and is recognized with approbations across the country and even internationally. The programs are developed and taught by leading industry practitioners and are centered on imparting real-world professional skill sets.
My vision for the School of Professional and Continuing Studies was for it to be a school that gives an opportunity to anybody who has had a less-than-traditional path when it comes to their education. We have students whose circumstances and background — financial, academic, religious, military service, overcoming the challenge of being the first in their family to see a degree — either prevented them from going on to a university or forced them to interrupt their studies. As their circumstances changed, or they matured, or achieved successes in their personal and professional lives, they now want to seek a degree or to complete a degree they had started.
We don’t want to limit people — we want to give them the education, tools and skills to build careers and achieve whatever they want to achieve. That’s my vision for the school and I’m happy to say it’s being realized in many different areas.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I’m going to go a little bit off the path here … If you want to be able to lead during a pandemic, say, then you have to be an established leader well before the pandemic begins. You’re not going to suddenly become a leader during a crisis. If you want to get your team to believe in you, to buy into what you’re doing and be asked to go the extra 10 miles for you, that has to be earned ahead of time. It’s not earned while you are putting out the fires.
Our team was unbelievable during the pandemic. People had to work harder, under their own steam, and they were just absolutely magnificent. The key to that is not leadership, per se, it’s ‘authentic’ leadership. It means that you, as a leader, have invested in your ‘followers’ ahead of time. And you have invested in them to the extent that they say, ‘OK, whatever you need, we will do.’ That is the key to why we accomplished so much in such difficult circumstances with reduced resources. Fordham, to its credit, did not lay off anybody or furlough anybody but there were retirements, relocations, changes in family circumstances and the usual things that life throws at you.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
That’s easy. Fordham University as an organization, the leadership of our President, Father Joseph McShane, of Provost Dennis Jacobs and of the CFO, Operations, Student Affairs, Safety and the Physical Plant — all handled the organization with great aplomb. The organizational culture that they set. The fact that Fordham has this mantra — cura personalis (total care for the person) and that they live it. That’s how they treat everybody who is a member of the Fordham community. Father McShane’s mantra during the pandemic was, ‘We have to do what we have to do to make sure that the people who are most vulnerable don’t suffer.’ And they did an amazing job, fiscally and with a commitment to everybody in the community. You build a community around your school — nobody wants to let that community down and nobody wants to let Fordham down.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership is just a bridging of reality with the possibilities that you can accomplish, achieve. You have to be authentic. You have to be clear in what you want from your employees and understand your employees. I know my colleagues and I know what they need. They know I would do anything to help them and I know I can ask them to go that extra mile — extra 20 miles, sometimes — to make what really needs to happen, happen.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be direct, be honest and have the confidence that your team members are stronger than you might be willing to think. No kid gloves. No cover-ups. I don’t ever want anybody to say to me, ‘Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?’
You have to be compassionate and careful the way you phrase things, of course. In our weekly meetings, staff members know where there’s praise to be had, it flows freely. And where there’s something that needs to be said, I don’t beat around the bush. Put it on the table, deal with it and move on.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
It all goes back to what I said earlier, that the investment has to take place well before a crisis: Our president, Father McShane, has set a culture, for the way you treat people. We were prepared. The University leadership was prepared, we ran efficiently, everybody was a team — an incredibly good team of wonderful human beings. So, despite all the adversity, financial pressures, the health situation, physical location challenges, we didn’t miss a beat.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be a trusted, authentic, dedicated leader before the crisis hits.
Then you can weather anything.
2. Invest in relationships.
My job with new employees is to make them feel secure enough in the relationship that if I need to be critical of something, or if I need to demand extra of them, that they’re not going to question the relationship. With some people that happens rapidly, with others it takes three months and with some people, it takes a year, or two years.
Invest time in your people — all of the people in the organization — and treat everyone the same way. You have to care, genuinely care. I care about our employees, our students, about the ground crew, about all people.
3. Observe and listen.
It’s dedication, it’s patience, it’s recognition, it’s listening. It’s all part of the same approach to everything: How you learn is how you get better and how you get better is how you learn. And you learn by looking and listening and hearing and being honest. I tell our staff all the time, ‘I am never interested in who is right. I am only interested in what is right.’
Be surrounded by good people. I subscribe to the adage that a person needs to learn from everyone. Everybody can teach you something. Maybe they can teach you how ‘not’ to do something, but they certainly can teach you something you didn’t know. If you are willing to be attentive enough and willing to learn, you can learn from everyone.
4. Accept feedback and criticism.
I recently asked my staff, at a retreat, ‘Write the things you liked about the way I led during the pandemic and the things you felt we could have done better.’ One of the things that came through from that — and thank God they were all very positive — was ‘You always go to bat for us and fight for us, no matter what.’
5. Be ever present but not overwhelming.
Empower people to do what they need to do. Make them accountable for their performance. Show that you trust them. Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, even if you take a personal risk when doing so.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is a business quote from a Toyota executive, more than a “life lesson” quote: “We get brilliant results from average people managing and improving brilliant processes. Our competitors get mediocre results from brilliant people managing around broken processes. They try to hire even more brilliant people. We’re going to win.”
I’m a process guy. I believe in the process. If you get people in the process and they can do what they need to do, you get great results. It’s probably not a coincidence that my favorite slogan is also from Toyota, actually, Lexus — The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. It’s not about getting there (nobody and nothing is perfect), it’s about constantly pursuing it!
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