Learn how to have conversations that get results

A Conversation with Dr. Suzi Kalsow of Buena Vista University


Recently I interviewed Dr. Suzi Kalsow, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate & Professional Studies at Buena Vista University.

As a certified trainer in Fierce Conversations, soon after assuming her new position this summer, she took all of her seventy plus employees through the two day training to lay a foundation and clarify the direction for the department over the next several years.

She and Buena Vista University are leading a progressive charge to bring leadership development and training to each student that attends their institution and its impressive 15 career centers. The goal is to equip each graduate with the skills necessary to be a dynamic member of the workforce.

Dr. Kalsow offered insight around how she creates a culture that welcomes feedback and her hopes for the University.


I think my biggest challenge is personal: how do I develop into the kind of leader that can help my staff be the most effective? The people I work with are highly dedicated and so passionate about what they do, and they’ve had tough bumps in the road with leadership in the past.

If we say the challenge is out there we give up control. I’ve done the two day Fierce Conversation training with all my employees now and they're watching to see if I actually walk the talk. If I don’t, I’ve asked them to call me on it. Already I’ve had an employee say to me, “well didn’t you say…?” It’s one thing to do training, but then as a leader you have to live it day-to-day.

For example, when I find myself frustrated with marketing, I don’t talk about the marketing department, I talk with them. Instead of complaining about them to someone else, I picked up the phone and say, “ Can we talk about this?”


It starts with being physically present. I’m on campus three days and at our career center sites the other two. In the past if a leader showed up it meant there was big trouble and somebody was getting fired. Now I want to make it routine like, “I’m just here, get used to it!”

Secondly I ask them to give me feedback. It takes courage, especially since their coming from a past that used fear and intimidation. I have to understand that even though we had those two days of training together, after years of doing things a certain way, you have to be patient when asking for change.

How you handle the feedback is important. If it's critical critique-I swallow, listen to the feedback and don’t get defensive. We’re a small network, even if we are spread out across the state, and word spreads fast. I want them to say, “Oh she handled that well.”

When I ran one of my first meetings around program curriculum, after the meeting was done one of my faculty members came to me and basically said the meeting sucked. People left the meeting feeling like nothing was accomplished, and it wasn’t a great use of their time.  I listened to the feedback.

Later, I went to talk to her and thanked her for caring enough about me, the meetings, and what we’re hoping to accomplish to share the feedback. Instead of thinking she did this to hurt me or she didn’t want me to be successful, I chose to make a positive assumption about her, and I was right.

Afterward I named her my Assistant Dean. I think that sent a powerful message. Great leaders want the truth, weak leaders want compliance. I decided I want to be a great leader and so I chose an assistant who will tell me the truth. The great thing was I got to delegate those meetings to her, and it’s her gift! Now we have a whole new program rolling out under her leadership.


I would love to see every one of our graduates leave with leadership training. We could look at students and say, you won’t get this anywhere else. Not just 15 students or top identified students, but everyone. My hope is to graduate all students with the personal qualities and leadership skills that aren’t normally a priority everywhere else.

The other vision I have for the people at our career sites is to expand and find people who haven’t had educational opportunities and be the ones to offer that to them at the college level. Some of them are first generation high school graduates. I would like to see our career sites grow so that we listen to what people want and we’re nimble enough to offer it to them.


I’m most proud that we are addressing the issues of the culture knowing that it impacts our end game and results. Our first goal when we went through the Fierce Conversations training together was to really clarify for ourselves how we were going to treat people around here. I’m proud that we are dignifying all positions and that everyone knows their perspectives matter. Even if they don’t have the education or salary that some of us do, our administrative assistants are treated with dignity and are asked for their input.

I think that valuing all perspectives at all levels is a source of pride. We’re creating a problem solving culture. Also I like that by offering Fierce Conversations training it can help our staff on a personal level. It's not: do this at work and you’ll be successful. Living like this at home isn’t such a bad idea either.


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