Kim Estep | Crain's Nashville

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kim Estep


In 1995, 19 U.S. governors got together to create Western Governors University, an innovative higher education institution. Western Governors University Tennessee launched in 2013 with one goal: to make higher education accessible for working adults in Tennessee. The state-endorsed, nonprofit university offers more than 50 accredited degrees.

The Mistake:

My first 10 years as a higher education administrator, I was in a situation at two different colleges where there was a lot of presidential turnover. I worked for eight different presidents during those 10 years, and had to figure out how to work in an environment where the boss was not the person who hired me, but someone new coming in.

I made a mistake early on in my administrative career: I made up my mind too quickly about whether someone was going to be a good boss or a bad boss. In some cases, I dug my heels in and decided it wasn't going to work if we weren't clicking right away. A lot of times my initial response to a person was way off.

Early on in my career, I was hired to be vice president at a little college in Georgia. After about a year and a half, there was a new president hired on. My initial reaction to this new president was not good. He came in and restructured everything, and part of my functional area got moved to someone else he brought in, and I took that as a huge personal insult. It came out of the blue because I hadn't had any conversations with him where he said I wasn't doing well. My initial reaction to this was very angry and very public. Everybody on that little campus knew I was mad. They say never let them see you sweat, but also you should never let them see you get mad!

I was looking for other jobs and had my resume out, but there were a lot of things at the institution that needed to be taken care of and I was good at many of those things. So I worked really hard and put my head down and this president figured out that I could do it. Slowly, over six months or so, we developed a rapport. I figured out that this guy had a totally different personality style than mine.

I had to learn to be patient, which is not my strong suit.

The Lesson:

I found that if I took a deep breath and thought through communication styles and tried to get to know that new boss as a person, nine times out of 10 it was going to work out and become a productive relationship.

I think if you're in a career and there's high turnover rate, you need to give it a little time to think through how you can work with the person, what you need to change and how you can communicate with them effectively. Every boss is different in terms of communication style, and I found that working with eight bosses in 10 years, the way I functioned in communication was hugely different. Even though I was always the same person, they definitely weren't, and I really had to learn to flex with that.

I really started planning and being much more careful about sending him stuff ahead of time for upcoming meetings. All of a sudden, things just started clicking better. We worked together for about three years before we both left for different opportunities, but we still are friends to this day.

I had to learn to be patient, which is not my strong suit. I wish I had known at the time that I needed to approach these new boss transitions with more patience. I would say it takes a good year, maybe two, for a relationship with a new boss to really gel, and it takes a lot of work.

Now, I come into new leadership changes expecting that they will have a different personality than mine. I think that's a good way to approach any change. I now have empathy for new leaders having been one myself in many cases. When you're new, you're drinking from a fire hose. You feel shell-shocked by all the new things you have to learn quickly and all the people you're trying to meet, and it's very hard for you to be the one to come in and figure everyone out all at once. It’s very helpful to them if you take charge and flex your communication style for them.

Follow Western Government University Tennessee on Twitter at @WGUTennessee.

​Photo courtesy of Kim Estep.

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