Leadership Series: Dr. Melanie Corn

Category: News

About this Series

Good leadership is easy to spot, but hard to define. Popular idioms point to leadership as influence, or hope, or the ability to translate vision to reality. Some leaders are characterized by charisma, others by quiet acts of service. And the debate continues over the origin of leaders: are they born, made, or something in between?

Benefactor Group is proud to counsel effective leaders of all styles and backgrounds. Through this interview series, we have asked a number of our partners, past and present, to share their leadership philosophies and career journeys. We found each conversation illuminating—and have shared their varied accomplishments, trials, and lessons learned below.

About Dr. Melanie Corn

Dr. Melanie Corn is the fifth president of Columbus College of Art & Design. Since joining the college in 2016, Dr. Corn has made significant progress on the dual goals of building a national reputation for the college and strengthening CCAD’s role as a leading cultural institution in the region. She has overseen the implementation of a three-year strategic plan, the construction of the new state-of-the-art Cloyd Family Animation Center, and an increase in new applicants and overall enrollment at the college.

Before joining CCAD, Dr. Corn spent 13 years in academic administration at California College of the Arts. She received her bachelor’s degree in art history from Stanford University, a master’s degree in art history from the University of California Santa Barbara, and a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

After working in art and design education for more than a decade and a half, Dr. Corn is a fervent believer in the power of creativity. She loves her job because, as she frequently says, “No one’s mom ever made them go to art school,” meaning, of course, that CCAD students are intentional, hardworking, and passionate about their education.

As part of CCAD’s strategic plan, Dr. Corn helped to define the college’s institutional values—accountability, inspiration, positivity, and respect. Her vision for the future of the college includes adding new degree offerings and facilities to meet the needs of tomorrow’s creative workforce and building on CCAD’s long history of youth programming and community education with more professional development offerings for the thriving workplaces of central Ohio.

Dr. Corn was a 2017 and 2018 finalist for the CEO of the Year award from Columbus CEO and a 2018 recipient of the Progressive Woman award from Smart Business.

Interview

Tell me about your history. What led you to where you are today?

In college, I had your typical liberal arts experience. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be. I enjoyed art and history, so I became an art history major at Stanford; I thought that would lead me to academia or the museum world.

While finishing my graduate degree, I moved to the Bay Area and stumbled into a job at California College of the Arts. I ended up working in the Dean’s office, in addition to the academic work I was doing: teaching, research, and so on. I realized I liked teaching but preferred the collaborative work of administration to the solitary life of an academic researcher. So I continued to teach, and also continued to advance in the Dean’s office, ultimately becoming Provost. Along the way, I pursued a doctorate in education, focused on higher education management.

Then, the opportunity arose for the presidency here at Columbus College of the Arts. It was the right job, the right time, the right move for me. I’ve been here for about five years now!

Was there a point in your progression where you said, “I’m a leader now?”

I like being in control of my destiny. Even with my early hobbies and friendships, I often stepped into leadership roles. But professionally, that realization occurred probably ten to 15 years ago, in the middle of my journey at California College of the Arts. There wasn’t one “light bulb moment.” It was a combination of many small moments—people coming to me, looking to me for advice, seeking guidance beyond my position title. That helped me realize I had an aptitude for, and enjoyed, leadership work.

Are leaders born? Made? Somewhere in between?

Somewhere in between. Anyone can be a leader, but some people have natural talents for certain aspects of leadership. At the same time, I know very few people who can just, to use a metaphor, suddenly master the piano without hard work and practice. So it’s a combination: of talent, aptitude, and training. Particularly for higher ed. Personally, while I have some natural leadership inclinations, I’ve also worked to nurture those skills. My doctorate, for example, was really all about leadership.

I believe in responsible candor. You don’t have to tell all things to all people all the time, but the information you wield as a leader has power—you have to be responsible in how you share information.

Did you ever experience a moment, sitting at the metaphorical head of the table, where you thought: “this is a big deal?” Or, “am I ready for this?”

Absolutely. I’ve felt the sense of “imposter syndrome” many times, especially as a young woman. The first time was perhaps as Associate Dean, managing department chairs and others much more senior than I was. People would come to me, looking for direction, and it gave me pause—that feeling of, “who am I to be leading this group?” Even in my presidency, there have been challenging decisions—many of them in the past 18 months, with the pandemic. Those moments are important. They force you to pause and reflect and question. No one should get overly comfortable in their position as a leader.

Being uncomfortable can be tiring. How do you recharge your batteries?

Having different circles of people—who you can be honest with, have confidential conversations with, who give great advice and support—has been key for me. I’m a member of Vistage, a leadership group, for example. Once a month, we gather to talk through questions with like-minded peers. My doctorate program also provided a cohort of peer leaders. We’ve all stayed quite close. Recently, I spent the weekend in Maine with four other graduates, who are now leaders of higher ed institutions. We’ll get together once a year, along with a few other presidents and executives. It’s a “kitchen cabinet” of people you can be honest and transparent with. They help remind you of your strengths, and things like that.

Would you call yourself an introvert? An extrovert?

Both. I have to be an extrovert for my job, which I enjoy, but it takes a lot out of me. Spending hours at a cocktail party—or something like that—definitely drains my battery. I don’t dread it—it just takes a different part of my brain. A bit of quiet time to myself helps balance that out.

Do you subscribe to a particular leadership philosophy?

My philosophy is one that I think has become almost a bit cliché: transparency and collaboration. Transparency is key. I believe in responsible candor. You don’t have to tell all things to all people all the time, but the information you wield as a leader has power—you have to be responsible in how you share information. Collaboration is also crucial. It creates a stronger leadership team when everyone feels that they’re part of the decision-making process.

What is the leader’s role in setting a vision? Is it setting a North Star? Or, turn-by-turn, here is what we’re doing for the next 90 days?

The “North Star” and the “next 90 days” have to be linked. At CCAD, before the pandemic, we were in the early stages of developing our next strategic plan. Then, all hell broke loose, and we put planning on hold while we managed our response to COVID-19. By the summer of 2020, I decided we needed to conclude our strategic planning work. There were definitely folks who weren’t ready to switch their brains back in that direction. And we considered delaying. But I’m glad we moved forward. Because if we didn’t have that vision, then sure—we could have managed through the moment. But toward what end? The planning process actually gave us an opportunity to think differently about how to manage the COVID-19 crisis. It allowed us to consider: how can we use the work we need to do over the next 90 days to move forward toward a vision, rather than simply stay afloat?

Create your network of connectors early in your life. It took me a while to realize that every person I met could be a future connection.

As a leader, how do you get that larger vision to permeate everything, to guide day-to-day decisions?

You have to start that process before the vision is complete. The plan won’t be as effective if the first time you share it widely is when it’s complete. When we were creating our plan, we held a half-day retreat and invited faculty, staff, trustees, students, alumni, community partners, and others to join us. Our students led us through breakout sessions; we brainstormed themes together—it was a wide-open process, so everyone felt they had a stake in the plan. Then, before the plan was approved by the board, we opened it back up to the community. We shared the draft plan and invited comments and reflection. We got some good feedback.

Once the plan was officially approved, there was still the question: how do you make it a living, working document? Among other things, we made sure that—for each of the 29 strategies—there was a small pool of people responsible for keeping it on track. And every six months, they give a quick update.

What is the most rewarding part of being a college president?

First, I am a huge believer in the importance of higher education. I don’t believe every person has to go get a four-year bachelor’s degree. But I do think it’s a powerful opportunity to change lives in meaningful, long-term ways. One of the most fulfilling parts of my job is commencement—seeing students graduate, hearing about their plans, knowing CCAD helped change their life forever. Second: developing other leaders. I really enjoy mentoring others on their leadership paths.

What are the hardest parts of leadership?

I just got back from a lovely vacation, a great road trip. I was mostly able to unplug—I didn’t check my email every day—but the job never truly goes away; you can’t put it aside. And that can be wearing after a while. Also: feeling that somebody is always going to be disappointed, because you can’t give everyone everything they want. It can be difficult to manage expectations, particularly with constrained resources.

Do you think it’s different, leading nonprofit organizations versus corporations?

I do. One, a nonprofit organization is, first and foremost, mission-driven. Not to say a for-profit company can’t be mission-driven. But by and large, it’s the nature of the nonprofit. And in the nonprofit world, every person is there because they want to be. At CCAD, even if our people are not artists and designers, they love being part of an educational institution. They love being around the vibrancy and energy of young minds. They love being around art and design. Our employees choose to be here. Our students, of course, choose to be here. This is their passion. And that can’t help but rub off on faculty and staff. It lends itself to the leadership I enjoy: collaborative, united, a sense of “we’re all in this together.”

Are there individuals—authors, noted leaders, people in your life—who have informed your model of leadership?

My answer is less about leadership philosophies, and more about a topic that has been on many minds for the last year—or the last several years, or the last several decades—which is diversity, equity, and inclusion. Of the books I’ve read recently, the most impactful is The Conversation by Dr. Robert Livingston. It’s about how seeking and speaking the truth about racism can radically transform individuals and organizations. The book is, in part, about the history and social science that influence why things are the way they are. And, in part, it is a how-to manual: what organizational leaders need to do to create more equitable organizations, that are truly focused on inclusion.

Another recent, impactful book was Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. It’s a broader book. There are lessons about organizational change and leadership. Lessons about education. Lessons about work, and what the future of work could be.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Create your network of connectors early in your life. It took me a while to realize that every person I met could be a future connection. Which is more than just, “this person could someday give advice or offer support.” It’s about creating that network of advisors, peers, and friends.

Here’s an example: in my career at California College of the Arts, I met a College president. She, on occasion, would bring together a small group of women leaders: experienced College presidents, aspiring leaders, and so on. I was invited to one of these, hosted at her house. I still think about it often. I was in the room with at least three now-famous College presidents. I didn’t keep in touch with them that well after that—I just wasn’t thinking about it in that way. But what great women they would have been to my circles, if I had been more strategic about that.

It’s something I say to students all the time. Your classmates and your professors will be your future collaborators, colleagues, bosses, and employees, so make those connections as soon as possible!

Thanks, Dr. Corn.

Thank you—it was nice to chat!