Strayer University CEO, Karl McDonnell

Karl McDonnell has been President and Chief Executive Officer of Strayer Education, Inc. since 2013. We chatted with him about his role, background, and advice to young students and leaders.

Tell me about your role here at Strayer Education, Inc. What does a typical day look like?

Well, to begin, there’s no typical day! My role here is all about navigating change. I work with all of our stakeholders: students, employees, regulators, and fellow leaders in the company to move our strategy forward.

I travel a lot and spent a fair amount of time in meetings. I prefer short meetings where you’re actually going to make a decision. Even a five to ten minute chat helps me know where projects stand.

I think it’s really important for CEOs to do the things that only CEOs can do: bust through bureaucracy, confront a difficult challenge, approve something that someone doesn’t have money for in their budget, and so on.

Consequentially, I spend most of my time focused on big issues. I think, “What are the 5 things we need to be doing to move our strategy?” I try to focus on those and remove needless barriers.

You’ve had a long and successful career in management, holding leadership roles in companies such as Walt Disney World, Goldman Sachs, InteliStaf Healthcare, and Strayer Education, Inc. How did you get started?

Well, I worked my way all through college. I went to college full time and worked as a truck driver at FedEx about 30-40 hours a week when I wasn’t in class or studying.

There were a lot of fellow students who were heavily into college sports or their frat, but I’m grateful that I got into the economy and workforce at a young age. I think that’s important.

Did you always expect to get into management?

No. I entered college at a small liberal arts school called Virginia Wesleyan where I majored in political science and American history. When I was younger I was very interested in government and politics and initially, I thought I’d become a lawyer. But, as is often the case when young people start out, my career evolved into something different than what I’d expected at 17 or 18 years old.

I got into management at a young age, around the age of 22 or 23. I enjoyed working with teams and managing groups and I loved the challenge that business brought.

What qualities do you think are the key to your success?

I always had a little bit of a self-image that I was not always the smartest person in the room. That’s how I felt at least. I quickly decided that the key to my success was working really hard. When I was a truck driver at Fed Ex I would stay several hours after my shift ended, working on projects in on my own time, which I would then share with my managers.

I think they saw someone with a lot of tenacity and a lot of work ethic- two traits that are critical for success. On top of working hard, I also had a knack for engaging people. Those two things gelled into what became my leadership style: connect with people and get them to commit to something great.

I also didn’t change jobs very frequently. I think it’s important to put in work and learn a business, which is something I have done in all my roles, though I have changed industries. For instance, after working as a Flight Coordinator at FedEx for three years after college, I moved into the General Manager role at Walt Disney World… I was a political science major running a theme park! But, I realized that if you’re able to work hard and connect with people you can have a pretty amazing career.

Jobs right out of college can be competitive, what is the best way for a student to stand out from the pack?

You should be able to point to something that you’ve accomplished or been a part of while still in school. You need to be able to approach an employer and say, “Hey I just graduated from college and here are three things I have accomplished this past year,” not “Hey I just graduated from college.” Accomplishments can be as simple as a Kickstarter you founded, having an essay you wrote published, or something you achieved at a part time job.

People today also have so many tools. When I graduated there was no LinkedIn or Twitter. Don’t wait until after graduation to grow your network. Reach out to your community and people you admire and don’t be shy about asking for favors or advice. I never did that and I wish I had.

What would you say to students who are trying to figure out what direction to take in their careers?

Well, I don’t think anyone should ever go into a particular field just for a well paying job if they hate it (with a few exceptions). And I don’t think what you study in college or your degree matters as much as personal intrinsics. Charisma, listening skills, problem solving, these are things that employers screen for that can matter so much more than what your degree says.

Think about how you would articulate yourself in 30 seconds. Hone your ability to simplify complex issues. Work on your people skills. A degree is important, but in the end it’s just a ticket to play.

For more insights from Karl follow him on Twitter @Karl_McDonnell.

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