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Good leaders listen: CSULB president shares insight during female panel

Published December 18, 2020

President Jane Close Conoley is all about embracing new opportunities. 

"If a door opens and it looks interesting, just walk on through to see what's on the other side," she said at the "When Women Lead and the Transformation of the CSU Presidency" virtual workshop presented by Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Conoley, who in 2014 became the first woman to be appointed permanent president of Cal State Long Beach, shared her leadership insight alongside Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya M. Coley and Stanislaus State President Ellen Junn.

Stanislaus president Ellen Junn
Stanislaus State President Ellen Junn

“I didn’t know I’d be the first woman, that caught me by surprise, but I had been the first woman or only woman in my role as deans at three different universities,” Conoley said. “I came to the idea pretty late that I wanted to be president, and fortunately, pretty soon after, I was offered the position at Cal State Long Beach. It was the best decision of my professional life.” 

Conoley credited her background in attending all-women schools (until graduate school) for much of her success but acknowledged that it kept her unaware of the hurdles on her way to becoming a CSU president. 

“I eventually experienced (sexism) or discovered it in places I’ve worked,” she said. “When you’re at a women’s school, you are the editor of the paper and you are the class president – you’re not the vice president or assistant editor.” 

What she keeps in mind is a bumper sticker she once saw that said, “learn how to grow where you’re planted.” Her top priority as a leader is to create an environment where people can flourish and have the best chance to be their best self. An environment that is open, nonpunitive and celebratory, she said. 

But one of the most important skills a leader should cultivate is being a good listener.

“People often engage in serial monologues, they don’t really listen to what is said,” she said. “Being a good listener is a big part of my leadership style.” 

Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya Coley
Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya M. Coley

President Coley, who is the first woman and first African American person to take the helm at Cal Poly Pomona, said she leads while focusing on the welfare of others, and how their goals can be achieved or hindered based on institutional culture and climate, systemic biases of race and gender and economics, and bureaucracy. 

“I always pose these questions to others: Is the institution better off because you’re a part of it? And if so, how does that show up? What’s discernable about the impact that you’re making? What did you learn and how did you grow, and how can I support you in that growth?” she said. 

President Junn, the first Korean American woman in the U.S. to be appointed president at a four-year public institution, said she’s most consistent with the “servant” leadership style, in which one serves for the greater good and to improve conditions for underserved populations.

“In general, many women take a more collaborative approach in communication and are a little less vested in the authoritarian hierarchical structures that are typical in past generations of leadership, especially at the corporate level,” she said. “I definitely gravitate more toward an open-door policy, having dialogue and am more open to consideration of viewpoints and feedback from multiple audiences."