Andy Brantley has served as president and chief executive officer of CUPA-HR since July 2005. With the leadership and guidance of high functioning boards and great national office colleagues, Andy has led the transformation of CUPA-HR.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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How Andy Brantley Leads By Transforming Relationships
Andy Brantley has served as CUPA-HR’s President and Chief Executive Officer since July 2005. Since 2005, the association has grown from 1,500 member institutions to over 2,000, and from 6,600 institutional representatives to over 33,000. The number of chapters have grown from 23 to 41. The association has also made diversity and inclusion a cornerstone of its work and strengthens its position as the source of higher education workforce data and as the voice of higher education human resources professionals on Capitol Hill.
Before coming to CUPA-HR, Andy worked for many years in campus leadership roles, serving as Associate Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at the University of Georgia and the Director of Human Resources at Davidson College. He was also the Director of Human Resources at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He began his career as a labor relations representative for the Chrysler Corporation.
Andy received his Bachelor’s of Business Administration and MBA from the University of Georgia. He is working on his Doctorate in Higher Education Management and will graduate in December 2021. His dissertation is focused on the costs of chief academic officer turnover. Andy is a member of the Steering Committee of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Let’s get to it.
We have Andy Brantley. How are you?
I am doing great. It’s great to see you, Kevin.
I’m so happy to be able to connect with you. I want to hear about toxic leadership from your purview, especially in the industry you work in it with, in higher education. Before we get there, why don’t you share with readers a little bit about yourself, your background and experiences and who you are?
It’s so wonderful to reconnect with you after a couple of years away from each other. It’s great to see you and have this opportunity to chat. A little bit about my background. I’m one of those very interesting people from a human resources perspective that decided as an undergrad that I wanted to work in human resources. My undergrad is in human resources, went straight through my MBA, which is focused on human resources and went right into work.
We’ll talk about what I’m doing now, which is getting my Doctorate at my advanced 50 something age, which is a journey unto itself. Literally within two days of finishing my Master’s degree, I was sitting in union negotiations at the Chrysler Corporation at their plant in Huntsville, Alabama. It was a great first experience. I was there, the first couple of days, deer in headlights in a smoke-filled room with people cursing at each other and that kind of thing. It was the late ‘80s, so they still smoked and made all that stuff.
You follow not just what your brain tells you to do, but what your heart tells you to do too.
It was kind of, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” moment for me, but quickly I was able to have the opportunity to take notes during those negotiations. I quickly became the person that was recording the key information, key outcomes and key next steps. It was a great way to learn in a hurry. After a few years, that fell into a higher education human resources role. I served as the Director of Human Resources at UNC at Asheville. I was the Director of HR at the tender age of 27.
Again, it was a great opportunity to learn a lot in a hurry. I had an incredible mentor and leader there in that role. I went from there to Davidson College, which is a private Liberal Arts College outside of Charlotte. I also had great experiences there. It was one of those circumstances from an HR standpoint where you start and it’s an incredible institution with an incredible academic focus. At that point, there was not a lot of administrative structure. It was a great opportunity to create HR from the ground up.
I went from there to the University of Georgia as the AVP, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer. From a faculty staff population of around 650, 700 at Davidson to 12,000 at the University of Georgia, it was a great experience. One of the threads for me through all of that higher ed work was this connection to CUPA-HR, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. I never imagined through my leadership roles with CUPA-HR, including being Chair of the board, when I rotated off the national board that a few years later, members of the board would call me and say, “We’d really like for you to serve in this role.”
One of the things I tell people frequently about their career path is that we have a tendency to leave undergrad or graduate school and think, “My career path is the straight path that goes here and that is nothing further from the truth.” For me, that opportunity to even consider moving from the University of Georgia, which is my Alma Mater, in that role to managing a nonprofit, that point was not doing very well. Thank God now, it is doing phenomenally well. It was that career-changing moment for me that you follow not just what your brain tells you to do, but what your heart tells you to do too and how those meld together. That creates that sense of passion and that sense of urgency around what you do.
Here I am, many years later. I’ve been in this role now for years, which I would never have imagined when I first started this job. If you’re learning, you’re growing. You’re getting to do new things and work with incredible people. As I tell people, “The grass is not always greener.” That’s a little bit about the background of Andy Brantley and my career path to lead me to where I am.
The thing I mentioned as I started is that a couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to get my Doctorate. I am now almost done. I’ll graduate in December 2021 with a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Georgia Institute of Higher Education. It’s so thrilling to be in the classroom again in this role at my advanced age, but what an honor also that I have the opportunity to do that, to stretch myself and to learn in that way while continuing my full-time plus job during a pandemic but that’s another story for another time.
As you know, this show is focused on toxic leadership. Specifically, I’m curious, what’s your through-line there? What’s your experience? Talk to us about that.
One of the things that I think is part of our journey as individuals and as professionals are that there are some places where we don’t get to pick the individuals that we spend time with. There are some certain things that are obviously where we do. Part of that journey for us is the intentionality behind where we can choose who we spend time with and who we don’t spend time with. For example, in our personal lives, there are these individuals that they live defined the negative in everything.
We have an opportunity as individuals to change that, to say, “That is not how I want to engage. That is not the person that I want to be spending time with, so I’m going to find ways to lessen the time with that.” In the workplace, we don’t always have that luxury, but we do have the opportunity to think about how we engage with those toxic people. Even in the workplace, sometimes the ability to say how much time we spend with those toxic people.
As you can imagine through my career at Chrysler and at different higher education institutions, first, I have been very fortunate and blessed to have as direct supervisors, incredible leaders and mentors in every single circumstance. I know not everyone has that opportunity, but as it relates to those toxic people, there are several things that I find myself doing when I’m placed into situations with those individuals.
One that I think is so important for all of us is that we think about what is making that person toxic, to begin with. What are the pressure points? What are the pain points? What are the things that set that person off that we need to be aware of? How do we structure our conversation with that person and how does their worldview shape our work? For example, when I’m working with higher education HR leaders from around the country, it’s not just their sense of urgency around a particular topic. It’s how they convince other people that is also a sense of urgency for them. Part of that is understanding the language and the framing of that other individual or those individuals.
The same is true for toxic leaders. What are those pain points, those pressure points that you either work to try to avoid or that if you know, what are two or three other things you could do to prepare to try to mitigate some of that as you’re interacting with those individuals? That could be everything from how we are prepared for a meeting in terms of our credibility and in terms of our preparedness for issues X, Y, and Z or being aware enough to avoid particular topics that we know set that person off. It’s how we go through life and how we go through our work to frame our conversations with everyone.
As you know, how we approach every important conversation is not a cookie-cutter. There’s no cookie-cutter. It’s like, “I’m working with Kevin. I know Kevin. He is a great guy. I’ve known him for years.” There’s framing to that for me. Others will compare and contrast that to, “I’m going into a conversation with someone who just had something traumatic happen in their lives, they’ve just lost their job, or they just had to fire for other people for whatever.” How am I framing that conversation to anticipate how that person is going to react?
One of the nuggets that I heard that resonated with me was the notion of the way you were operating was regardless of how they are, you still want to treat them like a person. You want to know about the person as a person. It reminds me of this quote, “I want to respond intelligently even to an unintelligible treatment.” I want to make sure I’m on my game when I walked in there because sometimes toxic leaders if you look at the research, we call it toxic because it spreads.
Your mitigation is a way to prevent that from spreading. Basically, don’t let them topple you over. Don’t let them turn you toxic as a mitigator as a response. I want to dive into higher education. I’ve understood that you’ve had some experiences with toxic faculty leaders. In my history in higher education, I’ve experienced and witnessed similar toxicity. Tell us a little bit about your experiences and how you’ve dealt with them.
Again, thinking about the framing that I provided. The most toxic experience I ever had with a faculty member was because this faculty member felt excluded. The situation we had made a big decision about something HR-related on campus. It was going to affect the entire campus. It was very positive, but this person was not invited into the discussion. It doesn’t mean the decision was made in a vacuum because nothing could be further from the truth.
While compromise doesn’t mean everybody wins, it’s all about voice and trying to understand that person’s perspective.
One of the things that I did to mitigate that into the future is I intentionally started asking him his feedback on things. He was not involved in the conversation related to that particular area. What I tried to do, instead of pushing back against him is I tried to, embrace is probably not the right word, but engage him in his thoughts and his perspective on a regular basis.
I said that to him is that, “My pledge to you is that I appreciate that you’re concerned about this and I want to make sure that I’m hearing you. I want to make sure that you are a part of what’s going on campus and these things affect the entire campus. I always need lots of perspectives and I’m more than happy for yours to be one of those perspectives.” Again, it’s not saying, “We’ll make a decision based on what you think we should do or what you think we shouldn’t do, but making sure that you have the opportunity to have a voice on a regular basis.”
What happened over time and even within about a year, that person changed from my toxic counterpart to a partner. So much of what I’ve found over the years is that people want to be heard. They want to be seen, they want to be heard and how you shape that is also really important. You’re not giving away the store and you’re not giving that person the opportunity to make the decision because that decision is ultimately yours are wherever it belongs. It’s having that opportunity for people to feel included or connected to the broader community. It creates the opportunity to lessen that toxic interaction one-on-one and in groups.
It’s still very visual to me. Even now, I can see myself standing in front of that faculty senate meeting and him calling me out. The room was even slanted. It was a huge lecture hall. I was down in the well and they were all scattered up above me. I can still very visually see him standing up from the rafters and calling me out in front of the entire faculty that was gathered there. That is very visible to me, but it was a great learning experience for me in how I engage and how I interact with everyone to give everyone who wants to have voice and commitment an opportunity to do so.
One thing I liked about your approach, this could have been a potentially toxic interaction. Even in the way you answered the question, you started with his point of view, his perspective. I have a follow-up on that. Was this always your approach to these types of behaviors? A lot of people I know will reciprocate, “They wrote me a long email, so I’m going to write them a longer one. They used some caps. I’m going to use some capital locks too.” We’ve been in HR and we’ve seen these kinds of things. Has that always been your response or how did you build this reaction?
Part of this is you do learn over time, but part of it is that sense of self that if I’m feeling very upset or very confronted myself, particularly in the email example, as you said. We see all the time. You and I give it to other people. If you’re feeling that overwhelmed or that frustrated by what you’re experiencing, you need to walk away. You need to give it some space. “I need to go for a run and clear my head,” or whatever those kinds of things are because it serves no purpose to try to one-up that other person in any circumstance.
Take that example. If I had as my goal to confront that person, who wins in that? Nobody wins. The institution doesn’t win. I don’t win. He doesn’t win. While compromise doesn’t mean everybody wins, it’s all about voice and trying to understand that perspective of that person. Sometimes that person that is angry like that wants nothing more than you to respond to anger with just as much anger. That is not the solution, instead of trying to diffuse it.
There was this quote, “You can’t fight fire with fire with fire.” You sometimes got to use water. It’s how do you find your water. You also mentioned something that I hope every leader has and employs are those centering activities. You said running and I know you’re an avid runner. What are those activities that are going to take you out of that mind space for a little bit so that you can let your mind defrag a little bit and do its thing?
Another important part of that we have to consider too is that typically problems don’t just go away. Some people might take the tactic of, “I’m going to ignore that.” That person’s going to be angry for a little while and that anger might be diffused, but if it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, typically, avoiding it doesn’t make it better. It makes it worse. How we choose to confront the toxic person or the anger in the circumstance is important. Avoiding it is typically not going to be the solution that works long term.
To add to that, yielding doesn’t either. Some people yield against destructive behaviors sometimes that are toxic in the workplace and they’re sitting there resenting themselves for years. You took action even after the meeting by partnering with this person on a regular basis.
Another piece of that too is the willingness to step back and evaluate yourself. For example, I had a colleague at a former institution who was struggling with their VP that this person reported. What I knew on the back story was, this person, based on my experience, working with this person over a number of years, had a tendency to wing it and on things. That’s good for some people but what I perceived as part of the reaction of that supervisor was that the supervisor wanted that person to be more competent, more aware, more prepared and those kinds of things.
Part of my coaching to that person was, “Could this VP be responding to what you’re bringing to? Is there something else you can do to better prepare for your meetings with this person so that?” It’s conveying that we are confident and to your point about standing up for ourselves as like, “I’m confident, not just to stay in my lane but I am confident in this role that I’ve been hired to serve in.” That means that I can speak with some high level of confidence about these topics, fill in the blank, whatever those.
Because at the end of the day, a lot of times we get slighted. It’s standing up for ourselves, but it’s also being assertive. A lot of times, the people that don’t do that become toxic people over something we didn’t do as soon as we spread it. You talked about coaching and I know you’ve had plenty of opportunities to coach leaders in higher education and other industries as well. Imagine you’re coaching a leader who seems to be the proverbial bull in a China shop. What are some of those things that you’ve done to help these types of leaders?
As we think about the proverbial bull in the China shop, you can picture it in whatever and pick the industry, there are these individuals that either lack self-awareness. They may have the best of intentions. It’s like, “I’m going in. This is my agenda. These are the things we’re going to do.” Sometimes, people like you and me need to help them remove the blinders, “Did you see how Kevin responded to you in the meeting. Those are great ideas, but you’re sharing those brand new things for the first time and no one’s ever heard them but you, so they might need a little time to process.”
There are lots of examples like that throughout our careers where it’s helping people. Again, it’s the lenses through which they view their work. It’s not just viewing it through their lens, but to stop and view it through the lens of others. How are others seeing this topic? How you presented this or how you’re interacting with them? Because that framing and how you might perceive something and I might perceive something’s very different and being aware of that as you walk into a room, as you’re doing a presentation or as you’re having a conversation.
One specific example that comes to mind for me is a new leader who came in with a new agenda and had no perspective, no appreciation for how the higher education governance structure works. How the governance structure works in higher education is how it works and that’s neither good, bad, indifferent, but it’s part of the culture. It doesn’t mean that it always moves at a snail’s pace, which people tend to think that it does. It’s definitely never going to function at lightning speed, although the last few years have definitely proven that we can.
It’s understanding that if you come from a culture that is outside of higher education, there are incredible ideas and ways of doing things that higher education needs to more fully embrace. I use that because that’s my primary lens through which I view the world. There is this culture that is part of higher education that has to be integrated into that and brought into that. It doesn’t mean that higher education leaders are resistant to that.
Don’t wait to be anointed or appointed. You need to figure out where those spaces are and how you connect them.
It means to not come in and say, “This is how we did it in the private sector and I know it’s going to work here.” It’s like, “These are some things that I learned over here. How might we integrate some of that into what we’re doing here?” I think the other thing to that too that proverbial bull in the China shop is and this is so important for not just toxic leadership, but leadership overall. Sometimes if you come in with a grandiose plan for the way in the future, people become frightened because it’s not just change, but it’s that potential sense of loss.
While you might have some of these larger changes and sometimes the full sail change is absolutely essential. We have to make a change. The toxic culture has to change. These people have to go. Sometimes, these incremental changes that you can continue to build over time are so important because it’s also bringing the people along with you. They are a part of making that change.
These toxic leaders or those toxic individuals that are brought into the conversation, like the person that I was referring to earlier, hopefully over time, help you move the organizations that have you feeling like you have to move it yourself. Bull in a China shop is about how people perceive themselves within this ecosystem or whatever that might be.
It’s how can you reframe and how you see yourself or how can you reframe and how you see others in a situation just like you did with that professor. Thank you for sharing that. I have a lot of people that I work within the higher education industry from my time there and that is a common thing. You got people that come in from the outside and I don’t think they’re not welcome. No, but many don’t stay maybe because of the example you gave.
As we think about whether it be toxic people or those kinds of things, right now is a bizarre time for our world. So much of what we might perceive as someone being toxic is related to a whole bunch of other things that could be going on outside of work and in work. The uncertainty of work, laid off, are they going to cut the workforce? Am I going to be slashed tomorrow? Is the president going to leave?
There are all these things that are swirling around and it is so important that we do stop, as I was saying. It’s like, “Where’s that coming from?” We’re not psychologists. We’re not trying to be psychologists or anything like that, but it’s that stop and assess all the things that are going on. I say this to people around the country too is that, if there’s ever a moment that we decided, we need to give people a little grace.
How can we maintain a level of curiosity and not immediate judgment as well? Thank you for sharing those words. I want to transition and see if there are any other words of wisdom you want to share with the readers before we wrap?
This relates to some of the things that I was sharing. There are three things. One is that for us to be effective as leaders, whether we’re dealing with toxic individuals or not, is that we have to genuinely want to engage with others. Not just to get this T crossed or this I dotted, but to truly engage with others. To get their input, to understand more about them as individuals, their motivations and the things that energize them as it relates to their role.
The second thing is being relevant and credible in our profession or whatever that might be. Being diligent enough to continue to learn, grow and push ourselves as individuals, as leaders and as professionals because it ultimately helps create that environment around us where not only are we viewed as relevant, but we’re viewed as someone that other people want to be around. Someone that other people want to engage with and learn from.
As I mentioned, having those mentors and guides throughout my career did help shape who I am now, part of that was grounded in this sense of urgency that I created for myself based on being relevant, credible, connected and engaged to others. The last thing I would share is that as leaders, whether we’re dealing with a toxic person or whether we’re dealing with leadership overall, is that we have to be willing to connect the dots. That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me first, as someone said to me years ago, “Don’t wait to be anointed or appointed.” You need to figure out where those spaces are and how you connect them.
Whether we’re talking about connecting them as individuals to things that motivate them or connecting them to the larger perspective of the organization and a sense of urgency, is that we have to be willing to take the time and to think more holistically about how everything we do fits into this larger perspective for the organization, the people, our families, our friends, etc. We got to be willing to connect the dots and we don’t always connect them correctly. That’s part of this wonderful, quirky, unique life journey that we’re all on. Isn’t it a fun thing to be a part of?
Thank you very much. I appreciate your time. Before we go, I want to give you the opportunity to share how people can reach you.
As we mentioned earlier, I have been at CUPA-HR, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. People can reach me either through our website, CUPAHR.org or they can also reach me on Twitter @AndyBrantley. I’m also on LinkedIn. People can look me up on LinkedIn and I’m happy to connect. There are lots of incredible ways we can connect across our organization. Search me. You can google me and I’m one of the first things that pop up.
Thank you, Andy. I appreciate being able to touch base with you.
It’s great to reconnect and thank you for doing this. I’m happy to support you in any way, shape or form.
Thank you all for reading.