College leaders: Embrace your mistakes

Five lessons that have shaped my communications career in higher education

We are in the business of teaching and learning. So why not expand our learning and explore our mistakes—and the lessons we absorb from them?

With almost 20 years on the communications side of higher education, I’ve learned a great deal from key stakeholders and my brilliant teams. But I’ve learned from my mistakes, too. It’s amazing what can grow from a few blunders.

Following are five of the biggest lessons I learned from my own failures:

Delegate, delegate, delegate

During my first job out of college, I tried to do it all. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I was capable and effective. So I took on more work than I should have and, eventually, I started missing details—and I was not being very effective. While I had good intentions, I missed deadlines, made mistakes and felt overwhelmed.

Delegation is important to a successful outcome. Delegating empowers all teammates to have a role and to feel involved in project success. When the right mix is involved, work gets done more efficiently and successfully. Delegation is a great way to coach and mentor, as well.  

Model and mentor

In my early years, I wanted to show my bosses and leaders that I could figure it out by myself. While sometimes I could, I also found that I could have benefited from some extra guidance.

Eventually, I started working with a mentor who taught me new leadership skills. In return, I now mentor students and professionals to help them grow in their careers and foster new partnerships.

Higher education is about teaching others, and it’s important to mentor and model throughout your career.


We’re familiar with the expression, “Life is what happens while we are busy planning it.” The same holds true with our careers. I wrote a plan for a previous president, and then I got so focused on sticking to the communications plan that I missed a few opportunities.

While it’s important to have a plan, I also learned that it’s helpful to step back, evaluate, adjust and course-correct when new opportunities develop and challenges occur.

I now accept that plans often need to be adjusted, and that’s a good thing.  

Listen to all stakeholders

It’s easy to isolate yourself and your team in your work. I’ve done that many times, and learned the hard way about isolated thinking. It has always been a big mistake.

Learn from stakeholders on all sides—from students to donors to staff members to the community—as they all have something to teach you. They can collaborate and add perspective to university outreach and strategies.

Give and receive

Prior to getting involved in higher education, I was in a rut. I was frustrated and not learning very much in my job. I was craving professional development and new challenges, and I made a mistake by waiting too long to satisfy this craving.

Then I got involved with the American Cancer Society as a volunteer. With the sole intention of giving back to the community, I actually “got back” so much more from this experience. Volunteering gave me the professional development I needed, while enhancing my communication and leadership skills.

Most importantly, I met a board member from Metropolitan State University of Denver, an introduction that led me to higher education and my current role.

Expand your community, and more opportunities will come. As professionals who sustain our university’s business, we are both teachers and students—and that includes learning from ourselves and our mistakes. So embrace the blunders, and celebrate the lessons. 

As chief of staff and vice president of strategy for Metropolitan State University of Denver, Catherine B. Lucas redefined the school’s brand in the higher education marketplace, spearheaded the legislative approval process to offer master’s degrees, and led the name-change transition from “college” to “university.”

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