Episode 228 – Innovation and the Pivot to Excellence

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and I am so excited for the guest that we have today. She is the sixth president of the University of West Florida, and in her 30 plus years in higher education, she has served in academic and leadership roles at universities in Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Mississippi. So, welcome Dr. Martha Saunders! 


Martha Saunders: Thank you! 


Steve ShallenbergerI’ve been looking forward to this visit! I wish that our listeners today could just join us in a room because Dr. Saunders has this great smile and light – and you would fill it instantly! We had the chance to just visit on a video visit beforehand and I can tell it’d be fun to work together with you, Dr. Saunders.  


Martha Saunders: Thank you! 


Steve ShallenbergerAlright, well, let’s just jump right into this today. Martha led the University of West Florida to its status as a top-performing public university, with the third-highest score in the Florida Board of Governors Performance Metrics.  


Martha Saunders: That’s second-highest! 


Steve Shallenberger: Yay! Man, let’s get this baby right, here. That’s moving up! We’re looking up to even better things in the future, right?  


Martha Saunders: Right! 


Steve Shallenberger: Her vision for the University of West Florida is for it to grow beyond its beginnings as a regional comprehensive university, and be seen as a leader in innovation and cutting-edge academic programs. Now, a couple of other things I think that this group would find interesting about you, Martha, is your training and experience in the field of communication led to numerous publications on crisis management and public relations. She has had two Silver Anvil Awards, the Public Relations Society of America’s highest national honor, she is the 2011 National Winner of the Stevie Award for Women in Business. Congratulations! I love the sound of that!  


Martha Saunders: Thank You!  


Steve ShallenbergerAlrighty, well, let’s get right into this. Tell us about yourself, Martha. Tell us about your background and some of the experiences that you’ve had and what are the things that have led you to where you’re at today? 


Martha Saunders: When I think back on my background, my professional background, and changes that I have seen, they all center around being what I call, a woman of my generation. From time to time, students will ask me if I thought about being a university president when I was in college, and my answer is always “No” because they didn’t make women presidents of anything when I was in college. And so, I had these wonderful opportunities from the time I finished school, to today – things have changed a great deal and I think they’ve changed very much for the better. My first job at higher ed – I came to higher ed from the industry. I worked in communication field for some years, but I was an affirmative action hire. The department at the University was looking to get its professional accreditation and they had brought in some consultants and the consultants said, “You’d better get some women on your faculty because you’re probably not likely to get this accreditation if you don’t.” And so, I was rather inauspiciously hired over probably a lot of other people with more experience. But that was right here at the university and it made a huge difference. I think I paid them back for the opportunity but that was my first experience in higher edAnd then, our university has a wonderful culture of professional development. I was encouraged along the way, then moved on to have two other presidencies before coming back. I thought I had retired, but apparently not, and now, I’m in my third presidency. And all of those things happened, I think, just because someone recognized something in me worth cultivating and encouraged me along the way. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, that’s inspirational from lots of points of view – of helping other people, of helping them see and reach their fullest potential. And what a delight that we live today in a culture that’s far different than it might have been 20 or 30 years ago where women play such a significant role in leadership and making a contribution in so many other areas. So, I’m so happy to hear that. Way to go! 


Martha Saunders: Well, I am still the only woman president in the state university system in Florida, so we have a little more ways to go, I think. 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, that is great! I’ll tell you, in the great state of Utah, where I live – I was raised in San Francisco, but I’ve lived here for 50 years – we have some very impressive women presidents of our universities, and so, a great credit; they’re doing an inspirational job. Let’s just talk about leadership for a moment, Martha, if you will. There are so many challenges in education today. Universities are facing many challenges – economic challenges, enrollment challenges – and it’s like any other organization, in any industry, that leadership can be such a defining difference. What are some things that you found have really made a difference, as a university president, to help lead an institution forward with vibrancy and vision? What are some things you would recommend? What’s important? And these are things maybe that could be applied in other places. 


Martha Saunders: I think the universities that are doing it best or any organization that is addressing change – and change is coming at lightspeed these days – these organizations have the ability to adapt. One of the things I’m really happy about, here at West Florida, is that we are not the largest university in the state, we are not the richest and not the oldest, but we are the most agile. We can turn on a dime the leadership up and down, there is a great deal of trust – I can pick up the phone and have the leadership on the phone, at least, in short order. We can talk about our problems, we set a plan, and we go. That comes from being receptive to change, recognizing that it’s going to happen, but also having enough trust in each other that when someone on the campus calls, we take the call and we respond. 


Steve Shallenberger: Oh great! There’s some key things that you mentioned there, as well, that are so key in highly successful organizations. One is understanding what some of your strengths are, and your vision – you’ve talked about that – your agility, and the ability to pivot. And the other thing that you mentioned that’s so impressive is your team – the confidence you have in the team, having the right players, having the trust that together you can adapt to change. Any other tips on leadership you want to give before we shift to some other areas here in the discussion? 


Martha Saunders: I wish I had more to give. 


Steve ShallenbergerYou’ve got a lot, I know!  


Martha Saunders: I know what works, I’ve seen what doesn’t work, and I think you underscored teamwork, and I think that matters. I have watched a lot of people – maybe sometimes out of insecurity – struggle against their own teams, and that’s a real mistake. You do have to rely on each other. I remind my cabinet that if any one of them fails, the rest of us fail, and so, we have to not let that happen. But I think sometimes new leaders, in particular, out of their own insecurity, will try to have all the answers. I learned a long time ago I’m almost never the smartest person in the room. I may be the boss, but other people know a whole lot more than I do, and I need to listen. 


Steve Shallenberger: I love that mindset! That is so important. That opens up so many avenues of possibilities! Tell us about the University of West Florida. We’d love to hear more about that. 


Martha Saunders: Oh, I can talk about it all day long! UWF is in Pensacola, Florida. Pensacola is the westernmost city in Florida, so if you think of the panhandle, we are the westernmost city. We’re right on the Gulf of Mexico, with the most beautiful beaches in the world – we think – and lots of people agree. Our mayor says we are the western gate to the sunshine state. So, the university is 52 years old. We are one of the 12 universities, we were the sixth university to be established in the system and we are one of 12 very diverse universities. We all have very distinct missions. So, we are, by Florida standards, a sparsely rural populated part of the state. And let me put that in context: the eight counties that we call Northwest Florida constitute only 4% of the population of the state, so that sort of tells you a little bit about where we are, which makes it even more important that we linked arms with our local communities and stick together. We have a strong, strong military influence in this part of Florida – Eglin Air Force Base is here. I know that you, I think, have a flight background, but the Cradle of Naval Aviation is here in Pensacola. So, that’s where the Navy pilots are trained, and that spills over onto our campus. About one out of five students at UWF is military-affiliated. They’re either active duty or veterans – we have a strong Veterans’ Center – and are usually ranked in the top five or 10 support for veterans rankings. And then, we also have a lot of dependents here, too, and that influences the culture a bit. We have people who have lived in lots of places – it has added a cosmopolitan aspect to the area because you have people who’ve lived all over the world and then they come here and their children go to school with children here whose parents may not have ever traveled. So, it does color the area as well. 


Steve Shallenberger: Oh, that’s a terrific overview! What an impressive place! I mean, not only the geography but also the demographics. Way to go! That’s very cool! Tell us about how West Florida is becoming Florida’s Innovation University. 


Martha Saunders: I’d have to go back to our agility. But, as we have grown as a university, we have developed – as we should – very strong academic programs. We are a comprehensive university, so we teach the humanities and social sciences and science and technology, and all of those things, and we do them well. But, as we were looking at our 50th anniversary, we said, “You know, we need to pick a few things and do them better than anybody.” And one of the ways that we have done that is by leveraging Regional resources. We started about five years ago with a center for cybersecurity that has taken off like crazy! We were within a couple of years named as The Regional Hub for cybersecurity education by the NSA, for the entire southeast.  


Steve Shallenberger: Oh my! Good!  


Martha Saunders: And so, they picked us over a whole lot of other schools that they could have picked, and part of that is because of where we are. With the military influence, we call ourselves the cyber coast, and it is really, really called on. We also have a very important research institution here, called The Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. They won the DARPA Award a couple of years ago. We have partnered with them for Florida’s first Ph.D. in intelligent systems and robotics. Again, we wouldn’t be able to do that if we weren’t leveraging the resources of the region. And so, we really see that as our way of making our mark and being better than anybody because we can and because of where we are. 


Steve ShallenbergerI’m so glad you pointed that out! It’s very similar to people as they’re trying to pick their way through, to do what’s best in their life, of finding what their strengths are and building upon those strengths. You’re doing that in the community and making a difference.  


Martha Saunders: We think so, and I think Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” I would advise leaders, especially new leaders – we’ve all been to the conferences and we’ve all read the books, but plant yourself firmly where you are, and you will most likely be successful.  


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, well, that’s a great comment by President Roosevelt. Now, tell us about the University of West Florida’s Sea3D Lab. What’s that about? 


Martha Saunders: Our Sea3D Lab has gotten very, very important in the last couple of weeks. This is a lab that we’ve set up downtown, and actually, our Museum of Commerce provides 3D printing resources for both the university and the community. Now, up until a few weeks ago, we did lots of things. We did maker space for many of our faculty, we would work with industry for machine parts and things that they can’t duplicate any other place. But now, we are making protective face shields for healthcare workers. In the current Coronavirus epidemic, these kinds of safety protective gear are very, very rare. We produced about 400 this week; supplies are getting a little low, but as soon as we get more, we’ll make more and we have more demand than we can meet right now. We’re also working with the other universities. We all have some similar labs and we’re looking at what we can produce at a time of great need of our communities – and that’s exactly what we should be doing. 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, that just kind of serves up this next question. I was thinking about universities, and as I’ve traveled around the world, where there are university centers, it just seems to totally energize not only the local area, but the state, and it’s just infectious, and it helps build a whole economic vitality. So, where do you see education going in the future and why is it such a critical element for future generations? 


Martha Saunders: Education is changing. Higher ed is changing. There are a lot of demands – many of them are just economic demands. It costs money to educate people, the pot is dwindling, states in particular have a lot of needs. And so, there is more and more demand on higher ed, but I firmly believe that an educated, energized population can solve every problem. Smart people who are given the right tools to solve problems, will do so. And so, clearly, I have a bit of a bias, but education should be front and center as to things that we are supporting. I think we will see changes – we’re already seeing more demand for very specific credentialing. We’re seeing students come to us and say, “I want to package my own education. I appreciate what you all have put together here, but I want to put myself together in a different way.” And I think that’s awesome! I think for a young person today to come in and say, “I know where I’m going”, or “I think I know what I need, and I need for you to give me that.” And I think universities have a responsibility to be responsive. It will not come as a surprise that we don’t move real fast, in the university world, but we’re going to have to learn to move a lot faster. I think we will see a deeper appreciation of what we call core disciplines. It will always be important to be able to communicate – the more words you know, the more people you can reach. I think it will always be important to do math. It will always be important to be able to connect with people in fundamental ways. So, those things will never stop being important. I think how we package them will change. 


Steve Shallenberger: Right. And one of the things that I’ve heard you saying is this total partnership with your community, where you’re going with your faculty and leaders, and to really keep pivoting and staying ahead – and I think those organizations that do that best will thrive, and those that don’t, are probably going to have a hard time. Time just flies; we’re at the end of our interview. It’s been so interesting hearing the things that you’re doing and the impact that you’re having. That’s fabulous! Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today? Any encouragement and any thoughts? 


Martha Saunders: I would really want to emphasize the importance of a team and team building. Some of us are learning how to be non-essential these days and as I sit here at my breakfast bar instead of in my studio on the campus, talking to you, I am so very grateful that I have a team out there. We have depth on the bench so that if one is not available, the other one is ready to step in and that’s what’s good for the institution or any institution. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Dr. Saunders, how can people find out about what you’re doing?  


Martha Saunders: Well, I am on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. And I also have a blog that I’m very active on, at’s blog. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Well, that’s got to be terrific! Martha is so interesting. She has so much experience and that would be fun to go on to. So, thank you so much for being part of this show today. It’s been an absolute delight!  


Martha Saunders: My pleasure!  


Steve ShallenbergerAlright! We wish you the best as you’re touching so many lives! To all of our listeners, never forget that as you’re working on becoming your best, learning all the things that you can and applying them, and being good, you’re literally not only becoming your best, but you’re influencing others to improve, to grow. We started off this interview today and President Saunders talked about the people that helped her realize, really, some of the things that she could do. This is exactly the influence we can have on other people as well. So, this is Steve Shallenberger, with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day! 

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