The shelves of Dr. Devin Stephenson’s office are lined with books – but also a menagerie of memorabilia from a career of serving students in Alabama and Florida. Across the parking lot from Raider Central – the nerve center of Northwest Florida State College, where Stephenson spends a reasonable amount of time leading the Raiders in on campus, a fall baseball game wraps up. The sports teams on campus continue to find success – evidenced by state and national championship photos and souvenirs on the office shelves.
They also point to rapid changes that have taken place in the world of education since Dr. Stephenson entered the field. “Who would have thought that welders would have been so essential to the aerospace industry?” Stephenson said, “now some of our alumni are making $130,000, $150,000 per year working for Elon Musk and Space X,” he said with a grin.
Dr. Stephenson wrote about the change-centered leadership philosophy he adopted for Florida Politics earlier in September. He believes the world of education, and the world more generally, has got to pay proper attention to the unknown unknowns that the 21st-century economy has brought to the fore. He says that businesses and schools whose leaders don’t account for change will suffer the negative consequences faster and more acutely than in the past.
“I’m convinced that it’s not really about being a transformational leader, or a transactional leader. But it’s about managing change,” Stephenson said in an interview with Mid Bay News, “Being able to forecast it’s almost like for those of us in a public institution, being a ‘profit in a nonprofit’ organization. We have to be able to look down, take steps to make an organization run efficiently and effectively, and can see those road signs along the way ahead of us, so that we make the right decisions that future proof our organization.”
It’s all well and good to say that a school will plan for change – but the secret sauce for the State College, which has won awards for sports teams to multimillion-dollar grants for programs including Airframe and Powerplant school, a major expansion of the nursing program, and new dormitories for a rapidly growing student population, is to focus on a just a few things in short term bites, so school leadership can keep a heads up for the unexpected in the medium to long term. Stephenson said the college “decided that we would follow through with what Jim Collins called the Big Hairy Audacious Goals, to have wildly important goals and only have three goals. It’s allowed us to focus our work so much better. And so what I encourage leaders to do is not to get overwhelmed with trying to do all things all the time. For all people, you can’t do it, you have to find out where that point of convergence is that you know you can be successful at and do it excellently.”
He added that having just a few big goals allows the State College’s leadership team to decide how to pivot in the medium term.
For example, the NWFSC Cybersecurity program has only been around for a couple of years – but it’s already seen some significant changes to its structure to adapt to the changes we’ve seen in technology in that period. Immediately after the program launched, the staff and administration realized they would need to account for the advent of artificial intelligence in the cybersecurity world to keep the program relevant in the long term. They’ve added an industry-recognized certification that ensures students can use and combat threats from artificial intelligence in their work. “And some people like to live on the cutting edge, I like to live on the bleeding edge, a lot more going on on the bleeding edge and there is on that cutting edge. And that’s where the action has taken place. So I think, for us to have had the success that we’ve had, and for us to continue to be able to marshal the attention of grant funders of others. You know, our goal here is to become an influencer.”
According to Stephenson, the ability to plan while still allowing for inevitable and unexpected change takes availability, adaptability, and flexibility. “Those [attributes] create good leadership, effective leadership, and efficient leadership and help you move forward,” he added.
The ability to perform well on tests or stop computer hackers is lovely. Welding can get you a high-paying job right now. Most of the trades and advanced degrees and certificates Northwest Florida State College offers right now will, too.
He says the key to professional and personal success can get overlooked, especially on an 8.5×11 resume paper (or, since we’re talking about change, a PDF) put in front of a hiring committee. “In my opinion, the most important right now is interpersonal relationships, what I call people skills, and building relationships,” Stephenson said. “Because, everything we do now is team-oriented. There are no Lone Ranger’s in organizations anymore. We’re very, very, very interactive.”