NACUBO Takeaways: Higher Education and the Art of Storytelling

Koya took Long Beach by storm at this year’s annual conference of the National Association of College Business Officers (#NACUBO, #NACUBO18), the largest gathering of college business officers in the country. Over three days of volunteering, networking, listening and coaching, the Koya team came home with bellies, heads, and rolodexes full. One theme in particular stood out: storytelling. Though both “college” and “business” engender more associations with “facts” than with “stories,” the importance of storytelling was infused throughout the conference.

Matthew Luhn, one of the original story creators at Pixar Animation Studios, introduced the theme in the first keynote address. Great stories told well have impact, he told us, and the conference sessions illustrated his point. Our takeaways consider the specifics of storytelling for both individuals and institutions across the higher education landscape:

  • Tell your own story or someone will tell it for you. NACUBO’s Washington Update reminded us of the perils of allowing third parties like the media tell our institution’s stories. In an era of increasing costs where the value of higher education is repeatedly questioned, more institutions must tell their own stories about cost, value and impact.
  • Authenticity is key. Stories have the strongest impact when they come from the heart. This was abundantly clear during the LGBTQ Connect and Collaborate Breakfast, where Koya consultants talked about bringing the whole self to the job search process. Being your authentic self as you evaluate and embark upon new professional opportunities—and knowing what that authenticity means in your own life—sets the stage for knowing the right opportunity when it comes along.
  • Women (still) must pay special attention to telling their leadership stories. In a standing-room-only session, women business leaders gave advice to women looking to advance in their careers. Tell people what you want in your next job. Present yourself as the decision maker. Talk like you already have the job you want. The research shows that “leaning in” is particularly important in higher education leadership, where there is still a significant leadership gap for women.
  • We are responsible for changing those stories that are abhorrent to us. In his keynote speech, Emmy-nominated host of the CNN docu-series “United Shades of America”
  • Kamau Bell reminded a packed ballroom of the pervasiveness of racism in this country and the responsibility of each of us to recognize and combat it.
  • Never stop composing your story. Jane Fonda closed the conference with the admonition that as we live longer, healthier lives, we must continue to proactively create the story we want to tell: “I believe that the purpose of the third act, the last three decades, is to finish the act of finishing ourselves—creating the person we are supposed to be.” As the current generation at the highest levels of higher education leadership makes room for their successors, their third acts have the power to continue to transform the lives of those around them.

The annual NACUBO conference always provides insight to bring to bear on our work and our perspective. Looking forward to seeing what Austin 2019 brings!


Amy Sugin
Vice President, Executive Search

Amy Sugin brings to Koya over two decades of higher education administration experience in enrollment management, program management, and international education.

Amy has led searches for Carnegie Mellon University, Fordham University, Rutgers, Yale, New York University, University of North Carolina, Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and University of Dayton, among others.

Learn more about Amy here.