Adam Weinberg

President, Denison University, Granville, OH, 2013-present[1]

Career Trajectory

World Learning, Brattleboro, VT President and CEO, 2009-13 Provost/Executive Vice President, 2006-9

Colgate University, Hamilton, NY Dean of the College, 2002-5

Associate Professor, 1995-2005

Academic Background

Northwestern University, PhD (Sociology), 1994 Cambridge University, PhD, 1994 Bowdoin College, BA, 1983

How do you define your cause?

In some ways, I'm a good, old-fashioned populist. I grew up in a family that believed that you worked for your community and neighbors as part of your everyday life. So my cause has always been citizenship. How do we create communities and countries where people can come together, learn to work with people they like, sometimes learn to work with people they don't like, often learn to work with people they don't know, to identify and solve their common problems?

My cause is to build a stronger global civil society. Because it's more and more clear to me, the older I get, the problems we face are not because we don't have the answers—it's because we can't seem to get organized to do what needs to be done. Nation-states won't get it done; private industry doesn't have the incentive to get it done. It's going to have to be people coming together to get it done.

What drew you to this cause and your field?

Like everybody's biography, it's not one thing but how multiple things came together. One clearly was the influence of my family: my grandfather and my father. Both of them would define themselves as nonpolitical people, and yet they were probably the two most political people I've ever met. But they were political in a nonparty sense. They were people who got up and went to work every day, did different things for the underdog, and contributed to their community. They were both people who were never too busy to do something for a neighbor or a friend.

I often tell people that I've spent the last twenty-five years trying to finish two classes I took at Bowdoin College my junior year: one with William Whiteside, who introduced me to John Dewey and American Pragmatism, and the second with Craig McEwen, who introduced me to a new way of thinking about the law—the law wasn't about punishing or power, but about repairing relationships. It was the influence of my education, the places I went, my family, and my early experiences as a young professional. I saw up close the power of what happens when people come together, even when they don't like each other, and are willing to put their differences aside to identify and solve common problems.

How would you describe your field?

I'm an educator at heart. That's what I believe in and care about. I do not believe there are panaceas in life. There are many things that need to happen for the world to move forward. Education is one of the most necessary and is the area in which I have the most to contribute. I'm an educator, and that's how I define my field.

You understand your career better in retrospect, and the common thread for me has really been civic education. How do we retool academic institutions to help young people develop both the capacity and commitment to engage in public work as part of their everyday life? That's what gets me up and keeps me intellectually and personally motivated.

How would you describe you career path?

My close friends have said that watching my career path can give one whiplash (laughs) because in each phase I was going in a certain direction and then took a sharp turn. I was ready to go to law school. Then one night, sitting around with a group of friends, someone asked a really silly question: "If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?" I said, "I'd like to become a professor." So I woke up the next morning thinking, "If that's what I want to do, then why am I headed to law school?"

When we think about careers, we often ask the wrong questions. The answers are the easy part; it's getting the questions right that's difficult. The question isn't, "What do I want to do with my life"— because that begs you to identify a profession. The question should be: "What kind of life do I want to live?" I've always been willing to take advantage of exciting opportunities to follow my passions. If you make decisions that way, there tends to be a good match between your skills and interests and a given job.

How have you maintained a healthy balance between your work and personal life?

I made the decision when our first child was born that I wanted to do three things. First, I wanted to be successful professionally. I cared about my passion. Second, I wanted to be a very active and engaged father. I actually spent the first year of our first child's life at home with her. And third, I wanted to have an egalitarian marriage as defined by our generation. That didn't leave time for anything else. So in a way I'd say, yes, I managed to blend work and family really well. But all my hobbies went out the window.

In my early forties, I had a major health scare that came out of nowhere. I made some radical lifestyle changes for which I will forever be grateful. I took up yoga, took up meditation—what people now call mindfulness—which I've loved. It's become another passion in life, and I've had time to explore it.

I took my first VP-level position early in my life. I would not have survived this long in VP roles, or presidency roles, if I had not found balance because these jobs will eat you up. Unlike when you're in more junior roles, where your job is to get work done, in a senior role your job is to make good decisions, or reasonable decisions in unreasonable circumstances. Being centered and balanced is crucial to doing a good job.

What are the major day-to-day activities of your current position?

They fall into a couple buckets. One is the crisis of the day. World Learning operates with more than 1,000 employees in seventy countries. Universities have their own complexity. The nonprofit world in general—whether it's the academic world, or NGO world, or the exchange world if you're running an organization of size and any history—you're not running a business, you're almost the mayor of a town. A mayor is probably a better analogy than anything else. But it's inevitably dealing with the crisis of the moment.

The second is what I call good management, which is doing the blocking and tackling for your team. You hire good people; you make sure they have good plans that are aligned with what is good for the organization. Part of my job is coaching the team, keeping them aligned and successful.

The third is most important because if you don't do it, then nobody else will do it. And that's the long-range visioning that's connected to resource development. Where is your sector going over the next three to five years, so that you can position your organization to be healthy and thrive in that environment?

Are you involved in community service?

We all have an obligation to make sure our fields stay healthy, so I serve on the boards of the Alliance for International Educational and

Cultural Exchange and InterAction (see chapter 6 for both), and the board of Vermont Campus Compact. We have to see ourselves as a community of organizations and as working collectively to shape the world in ways that promote our missions.

What is your best advice for developing effective networking skills?

I have some close friends who are just masterful at going to a cocktail party and walking away with fifty business cards and then following up. Their LinkedIn is going all the time. But that's not me.

You build your networks by doing good work with people. I've tried to develop deep relationships with trust and respect, as opposed to a lot of thin relationships. There's not a right or wrong here, but I think matching the style of networking to your personality is important.

My view on networking has really been to work with people I admire and trust and to develop projects that move the needle forward to make the world a better place. And you'll find over time, while you may not know as many people, your reputation flourishes. The people you do know will move mountains to open doors for you.

As an example, when Denison University recruited me and we got to the final stages, it was interesting to me how many Denison board members knew Colgate or World Learning board members. The network was very small. And I was equally surprised with how many Colgate board members, whom I hadn't seen in eight years, dropped what they were doing to give me a positive reference. That's not because we were connected on LinkedIn; it was because we had gone through some difficult times together at Colgate and really moved the institution forward. We developed respect and relationships by working together. Those relationships paid off.

Do you have a mentor? How has he or she affected your life and career?

I have multiple mentors. Rebecca Chopp, the president of Swarth-more College, has been and continues to be a great mentor for me. Harry Boyte, one of the most important voices in the civic education movement, continues to be a mentor. And there have been many, many other people along the way. Coaches, board chairs, friends.

One of the first things I did when I became the president of World Learning was to seek out two or three people who would serve as mentors and coaches. I called them almost weekly in that first year. The reason they were good mentors and coaches is because they didn't tell me what I wanted to hear, and they didn't give me praise. They were really willing to tell me what I wasn't doing right and what I wasn't hearing. They were willing to pay attention and be authentic and real. It was crucial for me.

Do you consider yourself a mentor to others?

I try. But you'll have to ask them if I'm successful at it (laughs). Yes, it's clearly something I enjoy. I consider management to be coaching, which is really a different word for mentoring.

What lessons have you learned as your career has evolved?

Don't let the baby ducks peck you to death. One of the mistakes people make is letting little issues eat them up emotionally. We spend lots of time thinking about how we're going to respond to an e-mail, when we should be thinking about how to stay focused on the big issues.

Be authentic; be real; stick with your passions.

Don't be afraid to take some risks. I've made career moves that other people thought were unwise. But I was focused on following my passions and living the kind of life that I wanted to live.

Any final advice?

Stay focused. There is such temptation to reinvent strategy every other day.

Find good mentors and make sure you always have people in your daily orbit who will tell you what you need to hear and what other people are saying. I love the Wayne Gretzky line: "Skate where the puck is going, not where it's been."

Lastly, and for me this is crucial, in a world that increasingly tries to reduce everything to transaction, remember that it's really the relationships that matter.

  • [1] The interview for this profile took place when Adam Weinberg was president and CEO of World Learning.
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