Building Trust Through Leadership 

The San Francisco Business Times recently named Bethami Dobkin, Saint Mary’s provost, to its annual list of the Bay Area’s most influential women. A native of Arcata, Calif., Dobkin came to Saint Mary’s from the University of San Diego, where she was a professor of communication for 17 years and had served in a number of leadership roles. She has achieved national recognition for her research and teaching, and her honors include a fellowship in executive leadership with the American Council on Education.

Why is the recognition from the San Francisco Business Times important?

It’s great for the College. It reminds Bay Area readers that our impact is expansive and that a commitment to diversity can add excellence to an organization. It’s more evidence that we belong among the best universities in the region. Personally, I think it’s also important to acknowledge women in leadership roles in ways that showcase their positive influence, particularly as role models for other women.

Why do you think Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, has struck a chord with today’s young women, reviving the conversation about women in leadership?

They really want to hear stories about women’s success. That was one of the joys of being in the classroom. My students wanted personal stories, not because I was particularly exceptional, but because I was one of those women that many of them saw as having “made it”—professionally, personally and socially. They’re hungry to hear about making that all work.

We had an interesting discussion at a recent executive women’s roundtable for the School of Economics and Business Administration. For so many years, the discussion for women has been about balance. For me, it’s not an issue of balance, because that suggests a trade-off. Instead, it’s about identity management. In this moment in my office right now, I am not acting as a mother. But I don’t cease having an identity as a mother nor do I stop thinking about my kids. And I don’t keep it out of my conversations because it’s always with me. But I have to put that in the background depending on the context. The idea of achieving balance, as if all things should be equal all the time, or I’m “trading” my love for family for my passion for work makes for an impossible situation. It suggests I’m always losing something, when it’s more about managing when and where I need to be fully present.

Where do you find inspiration and an escape from the strains of daily life?

Being on the trail with my horse, where there’s no cellphone access. And that daily walk down to the barn to feed the horses is sometimes a chore, but it’s often also an escape because it’s so disconnected from everything else. Riding and being outdoors has always been my best source of creative thinking, too.

Have you always had horses?

Since I was 12. For about a year, I rode my bike to a barn where horses were boarded, fed the animals and cleaned the stalls in exchange for lessons. My parents couldn’t afford to board and feed a horse, but finally, my mother said, “I will spend $500 on a horse, and when you’re done with this foolishness, I want my $500 back.” That never happened. I kept riding horses. As an undergraduate, I spent a year at the University of Massachusetts riding on their dressage team. In graduate school, I rode as much as I could, and during my first summer as a faculty member, I trained horses. That’s when I met my husband, Randy, who is a farrier. He can watch a horse and its movement and find a way to help it perform to the best of its natural ability. In a sense, we both kind of do the same thing.

How so?

In education, you try to create a learning environment that allows the best of students to come through, so they can discover their potential. And just like with horses, that requires building relationships and trust. In a situation where trust is not assumed, how do you build it? Working with horses has been a way to introduce leadership concepts within my own team; I’ve taken them to a ranch for leadership development. For example, most horses don’t naturally want to be with people, so how do you create an environment where they’d rather work with you than not? How do you show them you understand their perspective? What should they learn to expect from you, and how will clarity and consistency improve your working together? There are plenty of things that working with horses can teach us.

You have a vanity license plate that reads LRN2LVE. What does it mean? Learn to live?

That’s one option. When people ask me about it, I say, “What do you think it means?” Learn to love is one possible interpretation. And a third, which hadn’t occurred to me until someone suggested it—learn to leave. All really important ideas, but the core is learning, about creating a road map for your life. We’re constantly learning. Are we willing to learn how to do all three things? Because they’re all important.

By Jo Shroyer / Photo by Stephan Babuljak

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