COS CEO: Lance Bolton

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The son of two educators, Pikes Peak Community College President Lance Bolton didn’t initially follow in his parents’ footsteps.

The Georgia native began his career in food safety, eventually taking roles such as North American sales manager and then global director of research and development at DuPont’s headquarters in Delaware. He left DuPont and moved to Colorado Springs 11 years ago.

“I was on the road all the time,” Bolton said. “I was home Friday late, I’d reload the suitcase and be back out the door Sunday. I was traveling all over the world but it was exhausting and really hard on my family.

“I knew I wanted to do something different.”

Why did you switch from food safety to education?

I never once met a person I knew didn’t get sick because of my work. I didn’t know who my customers were. I didn’t see the people who benefited from my work; I didn’t feel them. I wanted to feel them.

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Where did that come from?

I grew up with a background where education was a topic around the dinner table most nights. My dad was a community college math professor and my mom was a high school math teacher. I learned a lot in that time about college administration.

How did you end up in Colorado?

I came to Colorado as an applicant for president at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling.

Some things are just meant to be. There were four finalists for the presidency and three were vice presidents of community colleges. All three were exceptionally well qualified. I was not. They literally asked me things about college like, ‘What do you know about accreditations?’

I didn’t know anything, but they hired me anyway.

Why do you think you were hired?

I think I came with a lot of fresh ideas. They had a very experienced team there who knew about all the things they asked about that I couldn’t answer. …

They knew how the institution ran. What they didn’t have was sort of an interest in challenging the status quo. How can we do this better? How can we raise more money to support our students? How do we grow the college? How do we jump in and think about workforce needs?

They were running well, but they weren’t really doing anything innovative.

How long were you there?

I was president for five years. There was tremendous opportunity for growing enrollment and programs and scholarships for college. At the five-year mark, this opportunity [at PPCC] came open and I applied, went through the whole process again and was selected to come here.

What are your strengths?

One thing that’s always been a strength for me is vision — recognizing patterns or trends and developing a vision around where we want to go. I’m good at being able to take complex and disparate ideas and bring them together to create vision and strategy.

What are your weaknesses?

Things like the accreditation stuff — the details of documenting everything we do … so we can show accreditors meeting minutes from a meeting three years ago. I’m terrible at that stuff. I’m not a micromanager. But I have significant vision and ability to see what’s coming and prepare for it.

What’s your vision for the college?

We had one of the lowest retention rates in the state among community colleges. That’s measured by students who enroll in the fall coming back the next fall. We were near the bottom.

We have, for seven years in a row, increased fall-to-fall retention rates. … That’s been the focus for me over the last seven years. How do we improve student outcomes? How do we make sure the students stay in college and finish what they started? The worst thing I could do is recruit someone to PPCC, say we have all these opportunities, they take on student debt and get frustrated and quit. That leaves them with no increased earning power and student debt on top.

So I’m very committed to getting students through to the finish line. This past year we were up almost 1,000 grads versus the year before.

What’s your favorite thing about your position?

I’m in the zone working with teams. We have staff meetings every Thursday morning and it’s the highlight of my week. … I think a lot of my staff would agree it’s a highlight. There’s a lot of laughter around the table, there are high levels of trust, people feel empowered to push back on things happening at the college.

How do you foster that environment?

Here’s an example: I started my staff meeting today by telling a funny story where the joke was on me. I was at an art opening at our downtown studio campus and there was this beautiful pottery.

I was in the very back of the gallery thinking I was by myself and I really just wanted to touch it. I reached out and was this close when [a staff member] pipes up. ‘Don’t touch the artwork!’

I almost jumped out of my skin, like a third-grader with his hand in the cookie jar. … The joke was at my expense and it was safe for [the staff member] to do this to me. Everybody laughed. So I demonstrate there’s a safety with me.

I had bosses at DuPont who didn’t always foster that kind of environment and things didn’t get said at the table that needed to be. So they were unaware and operating in the dark about areas of significant concern for the company because people were afraid to speak up.

Join the Leadership Lessons with Lance Bolton on Feb. 8, 2018 at the Mining Exchange.