UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak doesn’t have to tell people how dedicated she is to students at the university. After all, she was hired as a full-time communications instructor in 1980 and plans to retire as its head in February 2017.
At age 72, she’s been leading the institution for 15 years and continues to teach at UCCS, in addition to her other responsibilities.
Throughout her career she’s worked in environments such as television production, print production and advertising. She sees the power of communication more broadly across large-scale organizations, and has written five books on communication and how to communicate better.
A visionary leader at one of the fastest-growing universities in the state, Zalabak spoke with the Business Journal about her passion for higher education, wisdom she’s gained throughout her career and plans for the future.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
When making a decision: Use all of the data and facts but also trust your instincts. When I first started out in my career [before becoming chancellor] I was very driven by the data of a situation and probably for many years, didn’t trust my own sense of the situation.
I think putting your own sense in your experience with what appear to be the facts of the situation really strengthens your approach.
What have you learned from failure?
Sometimes I’ve learned that I was simply wrong, and that I needed to adjust what I was doing. I have learned that you can’t foresee how circumstances change and that you might have made the decision you made in good faith, but it still didn’t work because the world around you or circumstances around the decision changed.
What I’ve learned from failures is to try to understand them. One of the things I do is also look at what works well and try to understand what we did in those circumstances. If you focus only on failure, then you don’t learn from your successes.
For example, some of the strategies that we had prior to the economic downturns of 2002 and 2008, there was no way we were going to be successful. The world around us changed, and so we had to adjust our strategies. I think the greatest failure would have been not to adjust and to keep going. If something isn’t going the way you want it to: Stop, evaluate and change course.
How do you achieve work/life balance?
I teach a workshop called ‘Rejecting Balance.’ Because I don’t think — regardless of the job, or regardless of the personal life — that it’s possible to keep everything in balance. So I talk about passion and priorities. I create a healthy life by getting very clear about what my priorities are at a given point in time, and how I devote my energy.
For example, several years ago I had invalids living in my house, my mother and my grandmother. I couldn’t have been the chancellor at that point in time because my family was my priority. I was a professor and did a lot of what I considered to be very valuable and important work. But I couldn’t devote the time to a leadership career. When [taking care of family] was no longer part of my life, and I had an opportunity to help the university grow and change, then it could become my passion and priority.
I think if people will get clear about their passion and priorities it’s easier to balance. What I think fails is that oftentimes we just try to do everything well versus prioritize, versus think about the timing in your life and what is most important. That’s what I do.
I think you can have a better sense of fulfillment verses running around to do everything.
What’s something about you that might surprise people?
I’m a dedicated introvert. I gain a lot of energy from introspection and quiet time. I love people and public discussions on UCCS and the things we’re trying to accomplish. But I’m more of a quiet person and a lot of people have a hard time believing that.
Who inspires you?
Some of our students at UCCS — what they’re trying to achieve is truly inspirational for me.
When I see what some of them are willing to do in terms of hard work, overcoming barriers, it really inspires me to get out of the box.
What is next for you?
I want to write more. Being chancellor, I haven’t been able to do as much of my research and lecture books that I really like to write.
And I absolutely love big-animal photography, and I want to do more of that.
Years ago I produced television — educational television. I had a crew in Washington, D.C. — the National Geographic crew — that I hired to do a documentary. They excited me with what they did and that’s what I want to do more of: international travel and photography.