No matter what industry you are in, you still belong in the relationship business. It is through the relationships you created that help you with your goals. With the University of Victoria, they want to have a more prominent public presence. The show’s guest today is Chris Horbachewski, Vice President External Relations at the University of Victoria. In this episode, Christ talks with Douglas Nelson about the key factors an institution needs to move forward with direction, particularly on building more partnerships with their donors and alumni. He has found that the key is to that is by envisioning the culture that people want to exist in the future. Let that same vision be your guiding star. Join in the conversation to gain more valuable leadership insights for external relations from Chris Horbachewski.
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University of Victoria with Chris Horbachewski
On our show, our guest is Chris Horbachewski. He’s the Vice-President External Relations at the University of Victoria, leading a program there to new heights. Chris, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, Doug. It’s nice to be here.
It’s great to have you. Let’s jump right in. Anything big happened to you in the first year and a few months you’ve been at the University of Victoria.
[bctt tweet=”Always have a desire to contribute more to make the institution better, to help it grow. ” via=”no”]
Where to start with that one? Maybe that’s the first place to start is I’ve been at the University of Victoria just over a year now, still wondering what it’s like to have students and faculty on campus because I joined about five weeks before we shipped everybody off because of the current pandemic. For me, it’s a surreal experience for everybody in our profession, at universities, in every sector of our economy. We welcomed a new president in the middle of 2020. We welcomed a significant number of new leaders within our external relations portfolio over the course of 2020. There’s been a lot that has gone on.
Let’s look back in time a little bit. Before you came to the University of Victoria, you had been the Vice–President of Advancement at the University of Lethbridge for many years. That is a tenure that is quite uncommon in these and times. What was it that kept you at the University of Lethbridge for that period of time?
That’s a good question and to be honest with you, Doug, one that I haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting on. I would say that the University of Lethbridge, part of its secret sauce so to speak, when I look at the leadership team that we have at the University of Lethbridge for the time that I was there, our provost was there for many years in a senior leadership position. Our Vice-President of Finance and Admin had several-year tenure in that role. Mike Mann, the president I worked with for a good part of my time, has been in place for many years. Our Vice-President of Research, the one that was there as I left, Erasmus Okine had been there many years but he’s now into his second term. To be honest with you, at the University of Lethbridge, you had a lot of longevity amongst the senior leaders, deans included.
Partly, I think, it is the culture at the university. Partly it was the quality of life. For me personally, the drive was having an idea of what we wanted to accomplish and wanting to be there as we continued to work to accomplish that. The work was never done. I never felt in my time there that we reached a point that, “That’s good enough. I’ve done everything I can do.” It’s always a desire to contribute more, to make the institution better, to help it grow and thankfully, the university saw it fit to keep me around for that amount of time because recognize that sometimes that longevity, you may want to do it but it’s not your choice. In my case, I was very fortunate that I was able to stay and contribute for that amount of time. Lethbridge was a great place to live and raise our family. It was comfortable. Maybe that is a good segue to talk about a move, to be honest with you.
During your time at the University of Lethbridge, the program grew. The institution grew in terms of its prominence and its reputation. The naming of the business school is a fairly significant step in the life of the institution that I know you played an instrumental role in. That growing of an institution and building a program that is very much identified with you as the leader, were you aware of that at the time or is that something that you can see when you look back at it that really Chris Horbachewski’s program that got built over a period of time?
It’s flattering and it’s stroking to the ego to think that it was Chris Horbachewski’s program but I have to say it wasn’t. There was a big team behind it. I mentioned a number of the executive members that I had the opportunity to work with there. They were as instrumental as myself. You would know better than most that fundraising is a team sport, in particular, I would say that’s true of all the advancement functions that I was able to oversee Communications and Marketing and Government Relations. We built a great team there and experienced professionals that were dedicated and are dedicated to the university.
It was a team effort that built that. I was fortunate enough to come in on the ground floor as we were going through that rebuilding and was able to provide some guidance, influence and leadership to that process. It’s something that I take a great deal of pride in but I can’t claim sole ownership of that. It is a team effort. There’s no doubt about that but a great deal of pride when I look back and think about everything that we built together, to be honest with you. The university is very different than it was years ago.
Looking at it, is there one story or one moment in time that jumps out at you?
It was almost in my first month and it’s weird but there is an Advancement Committee of the Board of Governors at the University of Lethbridge, which is it was something that I hadn’t experienced when I was at the University of Manitoba. I remember my first board meeting. In advance of that, I looked at what was provided to the board as far as reporting on advancement activities prior to my arrival and I thought the type of information we’re giving the board is not relevant or important to them. It’s not something that’s going to inspire them nor is it strategic. We changed the reporting structure and the types of information we provided to the board.
The feedback I got from that very small moment, that small piece was unbelievable that it spoke to me or illustrated to me that there was an appetite at the university. There was a need and a desire for something more as it related to advancement and building partnerships and outreach in the community. Something as simple as giving the right information to people so that they can fulfill their role and their obligations. A small minor example but I felt in that moment, this was within the first couple of months of my arrival there that it showed that there’s going to be an environment at the university that would allow us to be successful. We were going to have the support from the senior leaders and from the board of governors to be successful and build what we wanted to build.
A key is pretty insignificant when you hold it in your hand but it can unlock some important things. Let’s use that as a jumping-off point to get to where you are now, the beautiful Victoria, British Columbia. You make the move across the mountains, across the strait and you land at the University of Victoria. You mentioned Lethbridge was an opportunity to get on the ground floor of an institution that was building. At the University of Victoria, there’s such a significant opportunity to build an Advancement Program that delivers value for the campus. Is that part of what attracted you here or were those diamonds and gems that you found once you were on the ground?
It is partly what attracted me to UVic because the president, Jamie Cassels, at the time, as I spoke to him, the process of recruitment, the search consultants I worked with and then the whole rigorous interview process to become a Vice–President at the university.
The University of Victoria has quite a reputation for all of its rigorous interview processes.
It is a process. It’s daunting but anyway, everyone was very forthright and clear about what they were looking for and what the opportunity for the future was. I didn’t feel they sugarcoated it at all. No one suggested that you’re coming into a well-established, just humming along with External Relations program. Nor did they say and I’m not suggesting this is the case at the University of Victoria, that it’s a smoking crater. There’s a great team here. There is a great foundation at the University of Victoria. There’s some wonderful history and great accomplishments that the team has achieved over the years.
It’s an opportunity to build on top of that, which is slightly different than what I experienced at the University of Lethbridge because it was still fledgling its whole Advancement Program. Again, there were all of the functions there but it was trying to bring it together and mature it over time. There is a great program at the University of Victoria. Now it’s around building it for the future and maybe pivoting it a little bit. The other piece in coming here is I knew early on that the president who hired me, Jamie Cassels, was in the final months of his tenure as a president.
That’s risky. How did you feel better about that? Because I would give people advice like, “Be careful.” You didn’t ask me for my advice.
[bctt tweet=”Try to understand the culture, not only the culture that exists but the culture that people want to exist in the future. ” via=”no”]
I should have perhaps but it’s worked out really well because thankfully, Kevin Hall, our new president is fantastic. He is very externally focused, great experience, understands our business and the value of fund development, alumni engagement, strategic communications and marketing, partnerships and government relations. He gets it and he’s committed to it. However, I would say that’s the point that UVic is apt in its development. The institution is very committed to that. When I was going through the process, when I was working with Jamie in his final days here, it was very clear to me that this wasn’t his desire. This was a desire of the university to have that brought to the table and elevate it within the university culture. When they recruited the president, when UVic recruited the president, that was also reinforced with him through his recruitment process.
While it may sound risky to join a university with one president knowing that six months later there’s going to be a new president, the important thing for me was that there was the underlying commitment to the whole portfolio at the university. There’s a need and a desire that’s been expressed through my recruitment. There was that same need and desire expressed through the recruitment of the incoming president as well. That was something that was made clear during my early days at the university.
From everybody within the leadership group, from the teams, from the deans and other senior leaders at the university that the University of Victoria wants to have a more prominent public presence. We want more partnerships. We want to be known as an easy institution to partner with, a go-to university. We want to build that great relationship with our donors and our alumni. It’s pretty exciting and very similar to the University of Lethbridge. I look at this as a ground-floor opportunity to come in when there’s that level of commitment at the institution.
One of the challenges or one of the opportunities of doing the work that you’re doing and we get to see through our work at the discovery group, we see organizations often find creative ways to get in their own way. There are some initial first things you can do that help open up a program, raise people’s sights, ensure that sufficient investments happening in the program so that it can be successful. Were there any at first like, “Why are we doing it this way,” things that you identified when he came through the door at the University of Victoria that you were like, “We can fix this.” Were there quick wins available to you?
There were quick wins available to me simply because you’re new. You can take advantage of that. You can ask the naive question that perhaps somebody who’s a little bit more experienced at the institution, can’t get away with asking. You can start to challenge people and ask why a lot. You can say, “Why do we do it this way?” When people start to think through why we do it this way, they are naturally coming to their own conclusion that, “Maybe we don’t have to do it that way. Maybe there’s a different, a more efficient and a better way of doing it.” That’s one piece that I admit that I still use to this day because I’m still feeling like I’m the new guy around the table so I do ask that question a lot.
Another big piece is as so many of the leaders at the university are new. I had mentioned at the outset, Kevin, we have a new president. Jane Potentier is our new Associate Vice-President for Alumni and Development. She started a month after me. Gina Wheatcroft is our new Director of Alumni Relations. We’ve hired a new Director of Faculty Development who’s going to be joining us. Our Vice-President of Research and Innovation is still pretty early on in her time at the university. About half of our deans are new. There’s this sea change going on at the University of Victoria where we’re all asking the same questions and challenging each other and our colleagues at the university about why we do things this way.
Any type of role you come into, you bring your baggage from your last role so we all have a playbook so to speak that, “I did this there. I’d like to try it here.” Quickly, I learned both in my experience at Lethbridge coming in and now at the University of Victoria coming in but that only goes so far. You can’t always say, “We used to do it this way,” because to be frank, that gets annoying and tiring after the first two times you do it. I’m very cognizant about doing that too frequently. I’m also cognizant and aware that what worked in Lethbridge will not work here. This is a different culture. It’s a different school. It’s a lot bigger school, different people, different aspirations, different history, traditions and everything.
You have to work hard in the early days to ask a lot of those questions and really try to understand the culture, not only the culture that exists but the culture that people want to exist in the future that becomes your North Star so to speak. Where does everybody want the university to go? As we start setting our priorities, as we start developing our plans, that’s what our guide is. It’s not so much the culture that exists now and the identity that has existed here for the last many years. It’s trying to understand what do our community wants for the future. That’s where we’re going to focus our efforts.
I’m interested in your thinking on the breadth of the external relations portfolio. We’ve seen a trend and it’s a swing that goes back and forth, the pendulum that you need a Vice-President of Advancement or Development so they are only thinking about fundraising and then you can put University Relations over here and everything else can go in that. In both of the roles that you’ve been in we’ve talked about it, it has been the full breadth of the portfolio. When you come into a role when you’ve got Communications, Alumni, Government Relations and Development, where do you start in terms of the approach?
I would say my approach is I start with the expert that is leading each of those parts of my portfolio. I looked to Jane and she is an outstanding leader in Alumni and Development. I look to Jennifer, who’s our Community and Government Relations person, Denise, who’s our Strategic Communications and Marketing person. I look to them quite a bit and rely on them for their thinking, guidance and counsel on a lot of this stuff. I’m a big fan of that integrated portfolio. I think there are so many synergies and to be frank, there many efficiencies to be had by having us all working collaboratively together. Universities, this may shock you, Doug is known to be a little bit siloed at times. Anything that you can do to break down the silo, I’m a big fan of and having an integrated external relations portfolio is one of those key things.
What it stops is building up a whole bunch of parallel and redundant infrastructure everywhere within those advancement types of functions. It gets people starting to think more strategically and working together to advance some pretty big, common institutional goals. I’m a big fan of that and that’s not because of the two schools I’ve worked at. When you look at what’s happening across the country, you mentioned at the outset, you started to see those integrated portfolios bifurcate into the University Relations and Alumni and Development. What we’re seeing now years later is that they’re coming back together. You’re seeing it happen in Alberta. The University of Washington, a big school, went through this where they brought it all back together. I would suggest that it makes sense to do that.
It’s hard to switch your hat so to speak, all at the time. Jane and I are talking about a very specific donor engagement opportunity then the next conversation I’m trying to review the recent provincial budget that came out and try and have some coherent thoughts about that. I’m talking with the director of our art gallery here about some of their exhibition plans. Professionally, it’s invigorating because there’s so much breadth and diversity, challenging to flip your hats all of the time and make sure that you’re as well-informed as you need to be to provide that coaching, mentorship, counsel and guidance to the leaders of those areas as well.
There is some magic to everybody telling the same story. At some point, you can’t switch your hat and tell a completely different narrative in different areas of the portfolio. It’s all got to sound like it’s coming from the same place, which is one of the major advantages of an integrated portfolio. The challenge is coming up with that big story that is going to invigorate, not you who gets to tell it but everybody on campus and in the community that’s going to hear it. How do you approach bringing together all of that expertise, all of those mandates across the portfolio to tell an exciting story about what the University of Victoria can be in the community and beyond?
I think one of the key advantages is that I’ve got such diversity around the leadership table within external relations that they can all help define what that story is. It’s not me saying, “This is who we are and this is who we’re going to be.” I’ve got the good fortune of having a team around the table that represents pretty much all of the external constituent groups of the university and through their lens, they’re bringing what they think is an important series of key messages or positions for the university around that table. As a group of leaders in external relations, we can bring all of those pieces together.
That’s a pretty big advantage as opposed to only looking at it through a donor lens or an alumnus lens. We’re talking about what does the government need to hear? When we say this to the government, how are donors and alumni going to take it? We can make sure we lump it all together within external relations before we start taking it outside to our colleagues in the research portfolio and in the academic programming side. There are huge advantages there.
It is. You have a reputation as a collaborative leader and it’s coming across in how you’re describing the work and talking about the importance of team, diversity of opinion and bringing it all together, putting people around the table. In the year that you’ve been at the University of Victoria, has there been a moment when you had gone into a conversation with a fairly strong opinion and had to stop and go, “Maybe I need to ask more questions,” or, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.” Can you give us an example of when you’ve changed direction or altered your course somewhat based on what you’ve heard around that table?
Pretty much every day, I do that. It’s interesting having you comment on that because with our leadership team within external relations, we went through a process where we developed a leadership chart, which really is a process. It was fairly engaging and it took us quite a while to do this. In essence, what it is, it’s a series of behaviors that we all agreed to as a leadership team about how we want to interact with each other. How do we want to show up for each other? By virtue of that, our goal is to see how this extends to the culture of our entire division.
One of the exercises that the consultant we brought in, was a company called the Roy Group here located in Vancouver Island. They were fantastic. The analogy they use was a lobster. You’ve got a lobster. If you’re familiar with it, you know how delicious they are. You’ve got a big claw and you’ve got a little claw. When you’re in a leadership position, when you’re talking to people about problems they’re bringing forward, our tendency as leaders are to always go to the big claw, which is to be directive and say, “This is what you should do.”
The reason it’s a big claw is that we do that all the time. It’s a well–exercised habit that as leaders we have. What we have to do is start using the little claw a little bit more and asking those probing questions and encouraging somebody to come to their own conclusion, to learn from the experience, to develop their own thoughts and work their way through it. It’s become a bit of a running joke when we’re all interacting with each other. We begin by saying is this a big claw conversation or a little claw conversation? Are you looking for my direction? Do you just want a sounding board here?
Do you want an answer or do you want me to think about it?
Do you want me to ask you questions so that you think more about it as opposed to me telling you what about it? I mentioned that we did this because we want to change the culture. We want this to be a leadership culture within our entire division. We want to empower our teams to start thinking through their problems and solving their own problems as well, giving them that toolkit. Giving them sometimes it’s working with their supervisor and sometimes it’s working with the peer group to work through a problem. Develop a donor strategy as an example. Don’t come to your AVP and say, “What do I do with this person?”
[bctt tweet=”Make sure you’re well-informed to provide that coaching, mentorship, and counsel your recipients need. ” via=”no”]
Start thinking through the development of your own strategy. Use your peer network. Use the other development officers. You need to get the officers to figure it out because I’m sure if you have an idea about how to engage a donor and you go to Jane, Jane is experienced enough that she’s going to tell you pretty much the way where you’re going to end up with this process. It doesn’t necessarily help the Development Officer in that. What we want to do is encourage them to learn and work through the development of their own strategies.
You’ve mentioned changing the culture a couple of times during our conversation and moving to a situation where you’ve got that leadership throughout, as you described. What typically gets in the way of that culture setting in or what barriers are you running into? Because a culture change isn’t like changing the coat of paint on the walls and everything’s fine. You don’t get to snap your fingers. You can turn the draft plan into a PDF. It has a remarkably little effect on changing the behavior of people. What gets in the way and how do you approach removing those barriers to the culture change?
I would say there are a few things that get in the way. Comfort is one. We’ve been doing it this way. We know how to do it so let’s continue to do it this way. That’s inertia in many cases and that’s stagnancy. Another piece is risk aversion, which is it could be such and this goes beyond our external relations portfolio. There’s a way to do things at the university and this is not unique to UVic. This is all universities. This is all large organizations that you default into a comfortable position again. You think, “We’ve tried this before. This was the response so why would we try it again? We are not empowered. We’re not enabled to bring forward ideas. We’re not allowed to fail.”
When I talk about culture change, that’s where we want to go. We have, as I mentioned at the beginning, got a great team here. We’ve got some really experienced people and we want to empower and enable them. Great ideas do not come from the top all of the time. In fact, rarely, great ideas come from the team members within the organization and that’s what we want to draw out. I mentioned our charter. That’s one of those cultural pieces that we really want to shift. We want to empower our team members to bring forward their great ideas, to try those great ideas and not be worried if it doesn’t work. Because if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something different. We’ll adjust. We’ll move on. The consequences of failure are not catastrophic in what we do.
I think you’ve put your thumb right in the middle of the issue. That cost of failure is what holds people back. If I get it wrong, I’ll look like I don’t know what I’m doing, I won’t get promoted or I’ll get fired. How do you as a leader, particularly as a new leader in the organization, lower that cost of making a mistake? What do you do as a leader to say, “It’s okay to get things wrong and maybe don’t get the same thing wrong over and over again?” How do you lower the cost of that risk–taking behavior that you’re trying to encourage?
The first thing is you have to get the other leaders to agree to that as well and to buy into it. When I talk about that I’m talking about the others within our external relations group, our executive directors, our directors, our AVP. They’re all bought into that philosophy as well. They have the message that and they have to live it as well. They have to message that to their team members and managers who have to live it as well. I can set the tone but others have to bring it forward.
Partly, it’s repeated messages and ensuring that people are hearing it from multiple levels within the organization. Part of it is I would say creating proactively opportunities for people to start doing things a little bit differently. Having a conversation with somebody who perhaps wouldn’t normally interact with the Vice–President, not that I’m any more special than anybody else in the organization but I recognize with the title comes to some perceptions but making myself available and having a conversation about encouraging people to think differently and be creative.
It’s okay that if we’re talking about a publication as an example, we’ve done it this way for a number of years and when you start to say, “Why do you do it that way?” Starting to get them to understand that it’s okay to have an opinion and to be creative and share your ideas and encouraging them to do that and enabling them to do that. A simple example is our donor impact report this year. We’re changing it and it’s not because the last version wasn’t good but it’s time to evolve. We want our teams to start thinking that they have greater control of the vision. They have a greater opportunity to see their ideas come to the table and be realized in the final product. We don’t have to change it but we want to let our team members start effecting that change.
A small example but let’s pick the example or pick the project and get people to be more engaged and have a greater sense of ownership of it. When you look at the donor impact report, it’s an important publication for the university without a doubt. If we get it wrong this year, it’s not going to be catastrophic. I wouldn’t suggest and we’re not going to be out there actively trying to offend our donors but if we’re not happy with what the end product was, we’ll adjust next year. The important takeaway is that we’re allowing our team members to take control, learn and adjust as well.
The ability to make decisions and the ability to set direction and projects at a lower level in the organization is a great example and something for readers to think about in their own organizations. How often do you admit that you made a mistake? I know if we were talking the two of us, you would probably say that you’d confess to 1 or 2. In my experience, seeing leaders who are willing to say, “Here was a situation. Here’s the work we did. Here’s the decision we made. It didn’t work out. Here’s why we think it didn’t work out. Here’s what we’re going to do differently.”
When leaders show that they make mistakes and demonstrate how you handle making a mistake. You don’t hide it. You don’t turtle and hope that nobody else notices. You don’t get defensive or you don’t blame advancement services. You don’t point fingers at other people but you take ownership of it. How do you and your leadership team approach that with all of the moving pieces that you have at the university?
You made two good points there. One is blame which I don’t think we should ever do. We should not point to somebody and say, “This person screwed up and there are consequences.” It’s a learning opportunity for us. Another way to look at it is we have to be somewhat dispassionate and not be so committed to a singular point of view. What we can do and this is true when you evaluate a fundraising program when you evaluate the effectiveness of a publication or an event or something. We shouldn’t be able to separate ourselves out from the actual organization and ownership of the event and do that critical analysis.
This was one thing that I’m sure my colleagues at Lethbridge absolutely hated about me. It’s that I wouldn’t take a moment to actually sit down and revel and celebrating an accomplishment. I immediately wanted to find out what we could do better and what we could do differently. I recognize we have to give our teams an opportunity to succeed so maybe that’s a mistake that I made that I could admit to. I want that more critical evaluation of what we did and what we are thinking we’ll do differently.
Another thing is it’s okay to change our minds. I am not a big fan of that outdated leadership principle that as the leader, you always have to be decisive and stick to your guns and know what’s the correct way forward. I think you have to have an opinion but you have to be willing to flow, adapt and modify your point of view based on new data that comes in. You may be of the mind that we have to do it this way but when somebody comes in with a great idea or a different set of data that suggests that isn’t the best path forward, it’s okay to change. It’s okay to modify your approach to adapt.
[bctt tweet=”You want to surround yourself with people who can immediately step into your role. ” via=”no”]
That’s a strength.
It absolutely is and to be honest with you, it should be a fundamental assumption of leaders that it’s okay to have one point of view and allow people to convince you of another point of view. You don’t want to be wishy-washy but I think it’s important to adjust to changing circumstances.
One of the things I’ve noticed leaders at large institutions and universities, particularly in advancement, the best leaders are the ones that ask the most questions. Their big claw isn’t the decision or the, “I’m right,” either big claw is the question that they asked. I said, “What have you done in 2020?” You listed off a number of questions you asked, it certainly puts you in that category, too.
I would agree with that. As leaders, I would say our job isn’t necessarily to be decisive. I would say the biggest role for us is to coach, mentor, empower and enable team members. It’s a bit cliché but you want to surround yourself with people who can immediately step into your role, which I think is really important. People who are not just like you and people who are going to challenge you as well along the way, I’m very lucky here at UVic because I’m surrounded by people like that.
You’ve built a team. In the short time you’ve been there, there have been a lot of new leaders come into the role with Kevin Hall, as the new president. I’m interested in how you’re approaching and supporting a leader with that external focus? A president that wants to be out there, wants to be engaging in the community, how does that affect how you build the program?
The way I characterize it is we’re all still learning how we’re dancing with him and he’s learning how to dance with us as well.
Can you give us a flavor of the music? Is it like a Samba tone?
With Kevin, he is a high–energy guy who used to do triathlons. That tells you, it’s like, “Buckle up and hold on.”
Like thrash metal.
He’s a great person to work with and he has hit the ground running. When I think about our own discussions around the table here at UVic about how we work with Kevin, how we support him, we have to put aside our expectations of who we think a president should be and embrace who our president is. In universities, we’ve got this idea about, “This is a university president. They carry a lot of gravitas. They’re very formal.” Presidents, at the end of the day, are people like you and me. You have to work to understand who they are as a person, what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. We have to recognize that they went through a pretty rigorous and intense process to be hired as the president. They have a lifetime before them of training that led them to this moment.
You have to recognize that what they bring to the table, who they are because of the rigor of the hiring process at universities, is suggestive of the direction that the university wants to go and what the board wants the university to do. When I look at Kevin, he’s a very externally focused president with lots of experience, a lot of depth there on innovation, community building on alumni engagement. What that tells me is that our board of governors and the people around the table at the hiring committee have captured the essence of what the university wants in their president, which is they want somebody who’s outside. They want somebody who’s out the door, telling the story of the university, bringing in the resources to support the university.
There’s this balance we have to strike in looking at the president and saying, “You’re new. We need to fit you into all of our priorities and all of our objectives,” as opposed to saying, “What are your priorities and objectives? How are we going to support you in achieving those?” That’s a key part and that’s a key position. When I look at all of the presidents I’ve been able to work with, Bill Cade at the University of Lethbridge hired me. He was a great external president. Mike Mann, who was the last president that I worked with there, very externally focused. He was a great fundraiser, still is and still as President of the University of Lethbridge. Jamie Cassels at the University of Victoria, I only had an opportunity to work with him for a short time and I wish I had more because I know I could have learned a lot from him. He is a very accomplished, well-respected president in Canada. He was incredibly thoughtful and deliberate. You can see that in how the university has grown over the years.
Now with Kevin, he has high energy. He refers to himself as an extroverted thinker and he keeps challenging us saying, “Every day, I’m going to have 50 ideas and only one of them is going to stick. I want you to tell me if my 49 ideas are absolute garbage.” That’s unnatural for people at a university to go to the president and say, “You know what? That idea sucks.” There’s a certain reticence, myself and others around the president to do that. We’re trying to support him. He keeps telling us what we should do but for some reason, nobody’s listening to them about that.
Even just the, “Help me understand,” rather than, “That idea sucks.”
We’re treading lightly.
As exams are over so even if students had been on campus the last term, they’d be off campus now. Many universities across Canada are spending lots and lots of time planning on the return to campus sometime early in the fall, hopefully at the start of classes in September. As the leader of external relations at the University of Victoria, what are you most excited about when you look ahead to the academic year that’s coming at the university?
What I’m excited about is I see this as one of those unique opportunities to reintroduce ourselves to the community. We can reintroduce the university to students, faculty, staff, community and donors. I won’t say we’ve been dormant because we haven’t. We’ve been like all in and all out for the last months. As the campus, community and economy come back to life, we’ve got this very unique moment to reintroduce the university to the community. We have an opportunity, even though everyone is tired and at the end of their wits so to speak, to start the fall with a lot of new energy, to take it as an opportunity to reintroduce students to the university. They’ve been away for months. What’s the experience going to be like?
We have to start it off with a bit of a bang. There has to be energy similar to the community. We haven’t been going to all of the big community dinners for the last months which, on one side, is quite nice. On the other side, our ability to build those informal connections has been greatly reduced. We have to take full advantage of the opportunity that the fall is going to bring to us. It’s not about back to business as usual. Let’s kick off with something different. Let’s kick off with something better.
That’s something we can all look forward to. I like that new energy for the fall because a lot of our readers and myself included could certainly use a boost at this part of the pandemic. The final question I have for you is you have demonstrated what you’re known for, which is that graceful urgency of your work, that you have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. You mentioned the team every time I’ve asked you about you in particular.
I hope our readers will note that you have pivoted to talking about other people and the team that it takes to make you successful or help achieve the goals that you set for your organization. What advice would you give to a new leader going into an organization sometime over the next months, end of the pandemic and they’re starting a new job? We’re going to see a lot of that turnover in the sector in the next few months. What advice would you give to a new leader starting a senior role?
It characterizes this. You need loose hips. What I mean by that is don’t go in assuming that your playbook, the expectation, all of your thinking about your 30–, 60– and 90–day plans are going to come to fruition. The year 2020 has taught us you’ve got to be resilient, adaptable and get to know people because people are the foundation of your success. Another piece that I think is really important is if you’re starting in as a new leader, you’ve got the job and the title. You don’t have to tell people that you have that title. You have to bring people along with you. We spent so much time as leaders and this is also cliché but letting people know, “I’m the leader. I’m the boss.” Everybody knows that. You don’t have to say that. It’s not about your ego. This is about you are one part, one cog in a very big machine and your job is to make sure that all of the pieces are fitting and working together.
I always default to the team because I truly believe that I am one part of the team. I joined the team at the University of Victoria. There are a lot of us in external relations. There’s a small number of us that are new because a lot of people have been here quite a while. I joined them, I want to be part of them and I want to contribute as I can to help us all do more, do better, to create a better University of Victoria.
I love that. Chris, thank you so much for sharing that perspective. That’s something leaders can take into new jobs or something they could grab onto in their existing roles. Thank you for sharing that and thank you for being on the show.
Thank you very much, Doug. I appreciated the invitation and I loved the conversation.
About Chris Horbachewski
Chris Horbachewski joined the University of Victoria as Vice-President External Relations on February 1, 2020. The external relations portfolio includes alumni relations, fundraising, community and government relations, university communications and marketing, ceremonies and events, the Farquhar Auditorium and the Legacy Art Galleries.Before joining UVic, Chris served as Vice-President, Advancement at the University of Lethbridge since August 2005.
In that role, Chris provided leadership and direction to Alumni Relations, Development, Strategic Marketing and Communications, and Public Affairs and Government Relations. He was also Chair of the Art Gallery Advisory Committee. Prior to that, he held a variety of fundraising and advancement leadership positions at the University of Manitoba between 1997 and 2005 including Campaign Director and Director of Advancement Services.
Chris has held a variety of professional and community engagement roles over the course of his career such as: Chair; and Treasurer, with the Council for Support and Advancement of Education (CASE), District VIII. He has also served as a member of the Board for the Alberta Science and Technology Foundation as well as the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce.
In 1996, Chris received a Bachelor of Arts in history and political science from the University of Calgary.