Ep. 8 | The Power of Creating Learning Spaces (with Robin Rose)
3:54PM Nov 13, 2023
So I'm so excited for this conversation with Robin Rose of all of the people that have trained me and educated me. I have such clear associations with the moments of Robin rose, as the person that I literally traced down in the hallway, you'll hear me talk about this interview, I said to her, Hey, how can I be you when I grow up? There was just a way that she held space and invited people into learning that for me, it was a little bit magic. I think she's so humble and kind of self effacing that she would be a little uncomfortable with my referring to her as a hero. I probably sit differently with that word. Now we've been colleagues and friends for years. And yet I know that's the right word for when I was an undergraduate, and I was brought probably a foot taller than she was, but I looked up to her big time. I'm so excited for you to meet her. Robert has been a mentor to me and has worked at Brown University for 39 years in senior level administrative positions and other roles. More recently, she has provided engaging instruction in the practice of leadership to executive master students and participants in custom corporate programs at Brown University, and with students in leadership and performance coaching programs. She creates inclusive learning environments that both challenge and support students. She often teaches sessions and coaching, managing difficult conversations, adaptive leadership, diversity, inclusion, and human resilience. She's a certified professional coach with a private practice. In her teaching and coaching, she helps leaders in corporate and nonprofit organizations to be creative, resourceful, and have a positive impact on the world. This is just just a fun conversation. Some of these questions I don't know the answer to and I thought it might be fun to do a little Robin rose history with where were you born? I got start kind of with that kind of context. What did you read the miracle Robin rose began
in upstate New York actually born in Rome, New York was raised and spent most of my childhood and young adulthood in a little place called Lockport, New York, up near Niagara Falls Buffalo area where the sun doesn't shine in the winter, and it smells a lot.
So did you grow up in the country,
no small town of about 30,000 people, mostly Italian and Irish families, because the Italian and the Irish thank God built the Erie Barge Canal across New York. And then when they got to the Lockport area, they were done. And they just stopped and decided to settle.
Okay, I guess I partly asked because one of the ways in which I know us through the brown Outdoor Leadership Program and training bolt, and so I will forever kind of imagine that you with hiking boots in the woods very happily traipsing around, and it wasn't my first experience of kind of outdoor education, because I've gotten to summer camps during the summer. But it you were the person who connected it to formal education in a way that completely transformed my understanding of what learning could look like. And so since I spend so much time now, helping people learn how to learn, you know, I trace a lot of this energy back to my learning how to learn with and from and through initiatives you had set up and directly fruitfully incredible conversation and mentoring with you and from you about how we create learning spaces.
Well, what's interesting about that particular program, which is now you know, over 35 years old, is that I had done a lot of hiking, and I had done some camping but I had never done any backpacking. So I learned a lot, a student came to me and said, Oh, we should have an outdoor program for first year students. And I said, No, let's do something for sophomores the sophomore year, totally terrible for a lot of young people. And let's focus on leadership and learning from the group process. So what I brought to the mix was my understanding of groups and my understanding of leadership and my love for the outdoors. And what the students brought. I surrounded myself that first couple of years with students who had been an outward bound and Nalls novels, and they were so much more skilled than I was with backpacking. And they taught me those things like how to read a map and how not to freeze to death, etc, etc. And I taught them something I guess about leadership and facilitating effective group process. So that was an example of where we all learn from the experience with each other. Some of my greatest teachers have been my students, and that's an example of one of them.
Well, you never know. But I really remember the energy of you learning as you were going. And it was like, it was just such a breath of fresh air, that you could lead something and learn while you were leading it. Oh,
yeah. And that is part of the foundation of how I think about leadership is that we live in a culture that has developed all this mythology around, leaders have to have all the answers, which is such BS, because no one person can be that smart. And secondly, if I'm a highly effective leader, I want to surround myself with people who are in some way smarter than I am, or bring different expertise to the, to the situation. And boat was a great example of that we all brought different sets of understanding and expertise to the situation. And out of those conversations came something very good, which continues to evolve, because it needs to, yeah,
there's so much brilliance in that this idea that leadership, rather than being a kind of formal position that permanently knows the way and like lives in the place of wisdom and knowing, actually, it can be a thing of exploration and discovery, and kind of guide the way by making this exploration and discovery safe enough to begin with. And I was just so lit up, by the way that you created space. First of all, I my initial introduction to you may have been, you know, on the Brown campus, when you were running this group called Risk relationships involve skills and commitment.
I forgot about that.
It was it was it was kind of a simple set of conversations of how do you how do you kind of listen how you can be? How can you be curious about others? And how can you create connection and it wasn't a formal course, I think is so much of as, as as an offering on campus, but we all know where it comes from, you know, everywhere. And so you know, my experience with Abram with you is not inside of the classroom, it was outside of the classroom. And so, you know, this idea that you have this program, you call it risk, and it was so compelling every single time I was like, that was such a cool idea. And it just felt aliveness and engagement and possibility, and you held it so spaciously, with so much curiosity about, you know, what this kind of material could could do and offer up to the students. And just I've always appreciated your spirit and your and your knowledge, and
but I think it comes from appreciate your generous comments about that. Heidi, I think it comes from a place of deep respect for students, I think the key thing is creating an atmosphere that is not safe in the sense of no risk, but comfortable enough that allows for risk and learning because without taking some risks. It's really hard, I think to learn.
It's such a great point. And I think for me, we are part of the reason to go back to this point of view called risk right away, as you just put it right out there. It's not about avoiding risk, it's about actually being able to sit with the feeling of risk and vulnerabilities. were way ahead of the zeitgeist of conversation of vulnerability that's been more recent than that program and the energy of that, of that whole were you in the the office of psychological services or whatever was called at the time you're a psychologist by training and give me a sense of it was was that an offering of the office for psychology, it
was it was so so my first job it was in the counseling center. It was called psychological services in a different name now, but they hired me into a brand new position, which started out, you know, Outreach Director of Outreach or outreach coordinator, something like that. And the mandate for that job was developed programs that help students to develop psychologically healthy lives. That's pretty darn broad. And I worked for a guy for Jones who I adored, who, who defined that and the biggest, widest terms possible. And so the program I developed included, you know, short term workshops, like the risk program that you're talking about, it included bowls, which is, you know, this Outdoor Leadership thing, we're out, tromping around in the woods and learning about ourselves in the natural environment and leadership in the process, to support groups for students who had been sexually assaulted or students who had eating disorders of various sorts. So the mandate was very broad, and that that's the kind of learning and working environment that really appeals to me. One of the biggest joys of my life is creating new things with other people who I respect and have fun with. And so those first time years, gave me lots of opportunities to do that. And I'm forever grateful for that. Yeah, well, I
did risk and bolt. And you know, as a, as a student, I remember catching you in the hallway. So excited, saying Robin rose robber, how can I be you when I grow up? What are you doing? Who are you, I'm just so taken. And you just said, well watch out for what you wish for it.
And now look at you. While you're doing. It's been so exciting to watch your trajectory or growth over over the years from undergrad to grad school students to professor I mean, it's just, I'm so inspired by what you've done, and, and by what others from Brown have done. And so often, young people asked me, Well, how did you know what to do? You know, like, how did you choose what you do? And I tell him a couple of things. One is that, you know, pretty much change jobs every 10 years, so, so there isn't one thing we do for the rest of your life. And secondly, I never decided even on the first job, what I wanted to do, by sitting in a dark room thinking about it. All those, especially those early career decisions, were based on experience, you know, so as an undergrad, I had three areas of interest. One was higher ed, one was working with people who had developmental disabilities, and one was to do more the clinical route to work in a psychiatric hospital. And the way I finally sorted that all out was I did internships twice, and psychiatric hospitals, I did a lot of volunteer work with people of all ages with developmental disabilities. And I worked in a counseling center and in higher ed in graduate school, and I had an internship in my undergrad institution as well. It was through those experiences of trying things out. And then paying attention to how I felt what I thought, what my energy was, was I excited with a passionate was I overwhelmed was I depressed what was going on for me, it was through those experiences, and then reflecting on those that I finally got real clarity that higher ed, some role in Higher Ed was what I was what I wanted. And I don't know that I would have figured that out, or how I would have figured that out. If I just locked myself in a room and thought about it all day long. I think I would have driven myself nuts. But, you know,
though, that is our mass produced figuring out technology, lock yourself in a room think really hard answers will come from you, or from the readings that you that you can solve,
will fall out of the sky and hit you on the head like, apple or something bizarre? No, of course,
I believe in the power of that kind of learning, you know, like intellectual and conceptual. Right? Exactly. Well, so this energy of like, Where does learning come from? I mean, your answer is just so powerful to actually do some stuff and see what is exciting for you look in the mirror and see if you seem like happy or depressed. It's it's such a, it's such a simple guide.
And that, you know, there's some risk involved in that, you know, it's like putting yourself out there a little bit and trying something and getting away from thinking about, okay, that means that I'm going to do XYZ for the rest of my career is just silly. I mean, some people do that, but very few. And within Brown, I probably had five different jobs because like me bored easily and want to do something else.
Also, you have gotten to the place where you're learning by experience, which I think probably gives you a lot of energy, a kind of has run its course, you had a kind of important run as dean of students at Jupiter very different job than the psychological services office, there was still very much you with this energy of, you know, creating spaces where students can develop healthy lives. I love the language of that. And of course, I'm a big brown fan. So like I love that brown even made space for that and that they have the brilliance to bring you into to fill that has has huge, huge impact on the campus and huge impact on my life and the lives of many people I know who were involved with bolt in particular.
I feel very grateful. I mean, it's it says something about the institution that that literally you know, I went from the counseling center to the Chief Student Affairs Officer to designing summer programs for for high school students to supervising our summer programs to in the last five years or so, teaching in the Executive Master's programs and to work in an institution that, that has allowed me to flex and grow and change in those ways. Just I am enormous ly grateful. I mean, there are now over 40 years, so I still haven't gotten a degree from Brown, I'm still waiting for that, but but they haven't kicked me out yet. So the good thing, I'm very grateful. And, and, you know, I just have the attitude of, of it's never too late to learn. So that's six, seven years ago, six years ago, I guess. I took a course on leadership coaching. Yeah, and was really nervous about it. Because it was like I was in my 60s, I didn't want to look like an idiot. You know, I mean, our tolerance for risk taking, I think it's a little lower as we get older, because we, we've got more ego things that we have to take care of, I guess. And I found that, okay, here's a slightly different slant on what I've done in the past. And I love it. And now I teach coaching, and work as a coach. So I don't know, I guess I'll just keep evolving. I think I'm afraid to stop learning, and teaching, because I'm afraid my brain will go to sleep. And I don't want that to happen. So
but you were doing leadership work for many years before you did the executive coaching leadership started teaching in this domain? How did you wind up doing leadership work and framing it in that way?
Well, I think I've always been fascinated by groups. Even as a practicing therapist years ago, I I was actually more fascinated with how to groups work. How do people work in a group? What makes a group function really effectively and what can take it? And so I was intellectually curious about that, and wanted to read and learn and study that academically, but also wanted to study that experientially. And I learned more about leadership. In the nine years that I worked as the Chief Student Affairs Officer, then I probably did the rest of my life, because there were things happening every day. I mean, we used to joke about it, but there was a crisis does your I mean, every day, there were either students who were in significant difficulty or other administrators, and my job was to guide my staff, and sometimes more broadly than my staff to navigate some really, really difficult issues. So that was like a learning laboratory on steroids. Yeah, yeah.
Yeah, we'll talk about learning through experience. Are you not just responsible for learning but also for resolving responding, holding an environment? You were in that role during some pretty demanding times? Yeah.
And again, that goes back to the issue of if your expectation is that as a leader or as a person in a position of authority, you always have the answers. That's, that's a crazy expectation in a world that is as complex as ours. And that's where the collaboration with other really smart people to try to come up with responses that are compassionate, effective, to challenging situations. So, you know,
did you have group experiences that inspired you in this direction?
Like what was your experience
your own learning through experience that sent you in this direction?
That's a great question. Um, my first professional mentor, was the dean of students at the College of Wooster where I went to school, his name was Ken plus squalor. And I adored him. And he hired a group of about five or six interns graduating seniors every year and we worked in the Dean's office, and we had to deal with all kinds of challenging situations. And Ken was brilliant at putting things back in your lap to work on to quote or so my quote a guy named Ron Heifetz from from Harvard to put the problems back in our laps without abandoning them, abandoning us and there were situations that we were in his residence hall directors are interns to the dean's office, where we definitely felt it over our heads. But can never left us completely alone. He would push us to try new things and learn new things. But it's almost like you know, the image height comes to mind is when you do your teaching people do a trustful when you start out teaching spotting, and you start out and you're only like inches, maybe you're even touching the person's back in front of you and Then you step back a little bit more, and they fall again, and it's few more inches a few more inches. That's the image that comes to mind with good leadership. And effective mentoring is like, knowing where the person is, and how much support they need, and always sort of encouraging them to take a little more risk, but only the risks that they're capable of taking. And as leaders, and as mentors, our job is to be there to spot but not make it too easy, but not make it too hard. And Ken was a master of that.
Beautiful, it's nice phrasing for this kind of like keeping people a kind of scaffolded kind of attention, it just the level at which helps them stretch and form. And it's so it's so great. So you know, we listen to a YouTube video that you that you have called the senior leadership skill that has no shelf life. And you said, the most traditional form of leadership is where we are telling, whereas advising and mentoring is a little less directive, since you're talking about like somewhat different form a little less conventional form of of leadership. But those kind of scaffolding. What's the challenge of this kind of traditional or conventional form of leadership? And where are you pointing?
Well, the challenge is, you're grounded in telling and directing all the time, then don't be surprised when people don't take initiative that don't make their own decisions, and don't develop, because what you're creating, intentionally and unintentionally is as a dependency between the employee and their supervisor. But I think for most of us in leadership positions, in our better moments, what we want are other people in the group on the team in the organization, who are capable, capable and confident to take initiative and solve problems, more or less on their own. And most people can't get there. If, let's say if every time they come to me, I'm giving them the answer. And that doesn't mean that direction and giving answers is wrong. It just means it and leadership, the bigger your toolbox, the better off. And then the trick is to figure out okay, Heidi comes to me with a problem. First, I need to ask you, what do you need from me? I have opinions I always have, I almost always have an opinion. And sometimes I might say, hey, I need you to do XYZ. And here's why. And that's a very short term, a very efficient way of of leading. But then what happens when we hit a really complex problem? If my goal is to develop your confidence and competence, then I need to use a scaffold our relationship and such. When I look back on leadership positions that I've had in the past, I sometimes wish that I had asked this question more frequently. And that is very simple one, what do you think? Because as your supervisor or as your leader, I'm interested in your thinking process, like how do you come to a decision yourself? We don't always have time for that. But sometimes that can be a fairly short coaching conversation, like several minutes and the person has figured it out and in the process, then they develop more confidence. And they know that, you know, I'm behind them spotting them, but not telling them always what to do. It's not a science. It's an art form, I think, yeah.
Coaching is such a nice match for your energy. I'm so glad you found your way in that direction. I imagine it was like a different version of coming home to yourself. How did you become interested in coaching? Like where did that? You know, I
had hired a couple of folks at team to do some teaching and one of the Executive Masters Programs. And Mike Hutchins and his wife, Erin Hutchins and created Oh, I don't know how many years ago now maybe 10 years ago now, a company called act a CT. And it stands for awareness, choice and transformation. And they had been in the business of training people, a lot of people in the federal government. Anyway, I was so impressed by what they did that I decided, I'd like to take a course from them, which I did and the rest is history. I work very closely with them now as one of their faculty. And it does it did feel like coming home. So a combination of psychological skills and and therapeutic skills, but with a different focus. Yeah, yeah.
I haven't spent as much time I think in the coaching field, but I used the logics and the relationships within coaching. spend a good amount of time so I find it kind of interesting and compelling that my early start with you that we've both spent so much time kind of gaining in and you contributing to that field. I think that's really beautiful. You also talked about that I wanted to come back to about complexity with the kind of complex challenges that we're facing. And EDA, since we've been trying to follow and learn what you what you think I have another quote of yours to give you. So as leaders, we're facing challenges that are so complex and so new to us, that it's really hard to figure out the response. Can you talk a little bit about that in the context of what we're really facing, and in the way that we're thinking about leadership and complexity? Well, it's a big question, I just kind of want
a very specific example that we've all experienced now, that was the COVID. That I shouldn't say was because the 500 people a day are still dying from from disease. But that's a great example of an adaptive challenge, because, you know, there was so much that we didn't know, we didn't know how we didn't know as much as we want needed to know about its transmission. With there was a lot that we didn't know about the impact. The tools that we had for treatment were rudimentary. Okay, for the person on their stomach, you know, I mean, there were things that could be done, but we didn't have vaccine. And we certainly didn't have the, the antivirals that we have now, whatever. And, and the impact that that had on on the workplace was enormous. From my own experience with teaching, it was those, when we realized we had to send all of our students home, then the question was, well, how the hell do we continue providing an educational experience for undergrads, graduate students, Executive Master students, and of course, the people who had been working in online education, then became like, revered experts, which they were not before all that happened, unfortunately. And then everybody was thrown into a situation where, okay, we have to learn, life goes on, organizations have to produce things, they have to work, they have to provide services, how are we going to do that in this context? And, boy, I mean, you've talked about a complex situation where now the old rules did not, did not apply anymore. So there had to be a lot of collaboration, a lot of creativity in some, some has led to some, some really great outcomes and, and other ways, you know, there's certainly some challenges. I mean, our kids are kids, I think, really suffered. And we're seeing that, you know, in children that were not in school or not consistently in school for two years. And behaviorally, they're, they're way behind where they, they ought to be with their social emotional development. Hopefully, they'll catch up. But that's a great example of as a whole world, we had to face a pretty complex situation for sure. Yeah.
Now, I think, you know, I guess I have hopes that we've learned something about learning together. If we have a default back to problem solving by just kind of knowing things, as the only pathway to kind of excellence and to taking on some of the complex challenges. I think adults feel heartbroken. So I take it up as part of my role, to see if we can extend the capacity to remember that we can we can learn new things we can find our way. It's part of the reason I'm doing this podcast now, to lean on and expand that energy.
Yeah, that's right. And for me, the two, two of the foundational building blocks that allow us to be effective learners are curiosity, and respect for ourselves and for others, because a lot of the learning we do is from other people who have different perspectives and experiences than we do. One of the things that scares me about how polarized we are, to pivot to the positive here is that it's so easy to just shut our ears off from people that we don't agree with. And, wow, we're missing an awful lot when we do that. As hard as that is. And I do too, you know, so something comes out in the news that I don't really want to hear. It's easy to shut it off. But it's important that I learned about other people's perspectives, even the ones that I just very much disagree with.
Yeah, what's your take on how the things that you've been talking about lead us to wiser interactions across difference? I don't know if we've ever really talked about this explicitly, but it feels like it's everywhere and nowhere in our in our in our conversations.
I don't mean to overuse the two words curiosity. Respect, but, but those have been extraordinarily helpful to me in my own growth. Now, I grew up in a community that was predominantly white, middle class. And there wasn't that much diversity racially, ethnically, in all kinds of ways. And I think the most powerful learning experiences that I've had, in terms of gaining an understanding of a perspective that was different from my own, was by listening by asking compassionate questions. And, and being patient. And also acknowledging that people who, who have a different set of life experiences or perspectives, you know, we're not put on this earth to be my teacher, if they choose to be if they want to be because they sense that somehow, it's safe enough to talk to me about their experiences, then let's go at it. Let's share what we have experienced and what we've learned. And, and that learning from my point of view, should never stop should never stop, you know, just and what needs to stop. And I need to stop myself on that, when I realized it's happening is making assumptions, that my experience is the same as somebody else's. I think those assumptions just get us in all kinds of difficulty.
Speaking of making assumptions, let me not assume that you have you've named a number of people who have influenced you impacted you, mentored you, in the spirit of learning through experiences, this is the mentor season like this is my idea of the you know, trying to gather as many of the precious few people who guided me to talk with on this, who are the people who come to mind that you haven't had a chance to mention who mentored or guided to you?
Well, see, I've mentioned Ken was grow up out in Ohio, and then for John's, here at Brown, and well, I learned so much from him, you know, he was older, he passed away this fall, an older black man who grew up since he died when he was 90, he grew up in a time very different than than what I grew up. And so what I learned from him, he was a psychologist, what I learned from him in terms of therapy, but also what I learned from him dealing with racial differences and in different perspective was enormous. What was his name again, for for Nam Jones? Yeah.
He's the head of psychological services. He was
the director, and he was a faculty member in the psych department of brown. There was a guy named Howard Boyd, who directed a summer camp that I worked out for many, many years, who he would say I mentored him, and I did in many ways. And otherwise, he threw me into a leadership position at age 24, where I was supervising like 50 counselors, camp counselors from all over the world. I mean, I was in way over my head, I had no idea what I was doing. But again, he did not abandon me, you know, he was, he was right there when I needed them. But boy, did he give me a lot of responsibility. You know, one of the things that I feel kind of sad about is that I, I never had a female mentor. In my career. I've mentored a lot of a lot of women, but I never had a female mentor. I think that would have been cool. But quite frankly, I mean, when I took the ADINA student rifle, I think there were only three or four women out of 25, on the senior leadership team. So it was an interesting place to work. One of the things I noticed pretty early on it sitting at that table, was that the guys, many who I adored, but because we're always talking about, I did this, and I did that. And I did the other thing. And I went in there, and I was talking about our staff, and I would say, Well, we did this, and we did that, and we could deal with it. And at some point, I realized that was undercutting my credibility, you know, because I was giving all this credit to everybody else, which is where it deserved to be, quite frankly. But so I kind of learned that I had to be a little more bilingual. In order to establish my credibility with that group of predominantly group of men. I needed to take more credit for what I was doing as a leader, but I never lost sight of the fact that it really was we, you know, might have been undermined leadership but, but it was weak. But language is language is really important. Yeah, yeah.
And then but the way that it interfaces with some of the other questions that we've taken up, like, you know, kind of assumptions and questions of of difference and how we see each other and perceive each other, somewhere much in there. Well, this is a great, this is a great conversation I did, we've got plenty of like brilliant, wonderful things to put into a podcast episode. But is there anything that I actually haven't asked you that you were hoping we might talk and talk about?
Gosh, it really covered the waterfront. I think the only other thought I had about leadership is the balance between humility and confidence. You know, humility is important, because there's so much we don't know. But, you know, confidence is also important, because the people around you are counting on you to have confidence and not the math be afraid of what you're facing. And that was, that was something that I think I worked on a lot was, I had the humility part. Because inside I thought, I have no clue what I'm doing. If they don't, it's only a matter of time before they figure out that they've made a terrible mistake. So the imposter thing, but the balance between confidence and humility is, is one that I think a lot of leaders need to keep working on. Yeah. Well, this has been delightful.
I'm so grateful to Robin, for your for your ways of being and that kind of wisdom that you continue to offer into the world had a huge impact on me at Brown and way beyond. I felt so guided by learning from and with you just so appreciate legacy as well alive in if simply in the naming of this podcast.
I think sometimes students assume that it's not reciprocal, oh, this mentor that's had a huge impact. And that's true. And what students don't always appreciate is that my students have shaped my life in so many ways. And, and I deeply appreciate that learning. The learning that I've done from students and students, so goes both ways.
This has been an episode of learning through experience. I'm your host, Heidi Brooks. This podcast is produced through the Yale School of Management. The editor is Miranda Schaefer. Please like and subscribe to learn more through this experience with me and the wisdom of the guests who join me to talk about our learning our way through the experience of life.