By: Jennifer Fink
I first noticed LaChaun in 2011. When I climbed the staircase of Kenan-Flagler Business School each morning, to my office, she was the first person I saw front and center in the Dean's Suite. No matter what time of day, I was always in awe of how put together she was. I thought, "this lady really has her $#!& together!"
After we officially met, I realized that her presence was the real deal. She was confident about the unique contributions she was bringing to the table and an advocate for her own career. I've watched over the years, as LaChaun climbed the ranks in Higher-Ed taking on larger, more challenging, and more impactful roles, all while maintaining that same authenticity along the way.
This week, LaChaun kindly spared time out of her hectic schedule, at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, to answer some of my questions about her Authentic Career path in higher-ed, check out her answers below.
JF: You know that we define an Authentic Career as one that taps into your strengths, values, and interests. How does higher-education create an authentic career path for you?
LaChaun Anderson: I actually never imagined that higher-education was a career path for me, and in fact, I fought it for a few years. When I realized the importance of true education and academia, and how the intersection of practitioner work and academics is a very powerful place to be, I realized you couldn't have one without the other. Academic research and theory give you the tools you need to solve problems on the ground and in the real world. Actually doing the work, learning, and constantly reiterating validates the academic theory and helps to create the future for new learnings.
"My dad told me since I was a little girl that no matter what you do in life, you dress up and you show up "
JF: We first met in 2011. First, because I quickly noticed that you were the most stylish person roaming the halls at Kenan-Flagler Business School, but second because I was in awe of the presence that you carried in your role there. In all sincerity, though, what does presence and style mean to you in your career?
LA: My dad told me since I was a little girl that no matter what you do in life, "you dress up and you show up," and if you do that, then you can feel good about whatever you do. He instilled in me that it would give me the confidence to have tough conversations and be present even when I didn't want to be. That, if I dressed up and showed up, it would change my perspective and give me the courage to take on anything! He said, most people don't do them both, so I had to – I had to show up when I didn't want to and I had to dress up when I didn't feel like it. He said it would gain me respect and it has. (and thank you for the kind words!)
JF: In your work, you tackle some really important topics like diversity, inclusion, economic development, and immigration, to name a few. How do you prepare to speak about such challenging topics?
LA: Well, as the saying goes, "Are you going to boss up and handle it, or are you going to cry about it? Both…. I'm going to do both" I have been bumped and bruised and learned some really hard lessons of how NOT to do things. I've had to stand there and take it and learn from those lessons. There were times I was disparaged, belittled, and straight-up criticized in front of crowds of people, to the point where I would cry in a bathroom stall afterward. But slowly, I began to realize that it was the other person's views of life and their expectations about how they thought things should go that was the driver, not me. I learned to manage expectations (or at least set clear expectations) in my work from the very beginning of any project or research I take on. I've also learned to check and double-check my research, as well as fully understand what I will be talking about. This way, I can explain things in a way that if the audience I'm speaking to doesn't understand something, they feel comfortable asking for clarification, rather than me being the end all/be all of what I'm presenting.
"Are you going to boss up and handle it, or are you going to cry about it? Both…. I'm going to do both "
JF: Out of all the topics that you speak about, which talks would you love to share with more audiences?
LA: I give a lecture on community engagement and public and private partnerships, but the real crux of that lecture is the lessons I've learned from working in the world of economic development and marrying it with the academic teachings I've been a part of. What I love about that lecture is being able to talk openly and honestly about the mistakes and bumps I've made, and how to recover in the long run. Pivoting, or being flexible and fluid, is one of the most important skills you can have (in my opinion).
JF: You’ve built a solid career in the field of higher-education, how would you advise someone who wants to get into this industry and is just starting out?
LA: I would say, first find an institution that matches your values and your core beliefs, and then try to get into that institution anyway you can. It's much better to be where your values are aligned than a job title. Most everyone knows I started at Kenan-Flagler Business School as an assistant, and I left as the Associate Director of a program I helped build from the ground up. While coming in as an assistant had challenges on the way folks viewed me (even later in my career), it allowed me to scope out the entire school and see where I wanted to be, to understand what excited me most at Kenan-Flagler, and then to go after that. I fell in love with the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise because it married business with government and education to make the state a better place, and that was right up my alley. Now, while I wouldn't suggest everyone go in as an administrative assistant in an institution they want to be in, I would say that there's value in starting in a lower position in an institution that aligns with your beliefs and values, and that would be better than starting in a higher position at an institution that is a mismatch of your values.
JF: As you settle into your second year at the Harvard Kennedy School, who would you most love to connect with, in the upcoming year?
LA: That's such an interesting question! I've been fortunate to connect with so many great minds here at Harvard. Being at the Harvard Kennedy School, it's quite amazing how many folks are in reach. So I guess I would say, I would love to venture out and start meeting more great minds from other schools like the business school, school of education or public health, and the law school.