7 Questions with Dr. Angie Besendorfer

Name: Dr. Angie Besendorfer

Current title: Chancellor and Regional Vice President

Current organisation: Western Governors University

Dr. Angie Besendorfer is the chancellor of WGU Missouri and regional vice president for the midwest for Western Governors university, a private, non-profit, online, competency-based university. She champions college attainment for working adults who wish to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree. WGU offers advanced degrees in business, education, information technology, and health professions, including nursing.

Besendorfer leads the efforts to connect students and community stakeholders with WGU’s online competency-based model for increasing levels of higher education. Besendorfer spent 23 years in the field of education in Missouri, implementing innovative and technology-focused learning strategies. Before joining WGU Missouri, Besendorfer was the assistant superintendent of Joplin Schools for eight years leading advancement in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and facilities.
Among the innovations Besendorfer has championed is a focus on digital learning. She took the lead in the Joplin district’s recovery after an EF-5 tornado hit 10 schools. As the leader in designing and building cutting-edge new schools, Besendorfer guided the community to re-imagine high school education, questioning things like “why should it take the same number of minutes to learn algebra as biology or art appreciation?” Besendorfer has extensive experience in management; she has served in Missouri schools as superintendent, director of special services, and elementary school principal. She began her career as a teacher, winning the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.

Besendorfer holds a bachelor’s in education from Missouri Southern State University, a M.S. in Elementary Administration from Central Missouri State University and a doctorate in Education Leadership from the University of Missouri.

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1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?

Leading in a large organization has many blessings and challenges. As a people person, I find connecting with individuals across the organization on a personal level to be particularly challenging. I have the desire to know the people at a level that is genuine. With so many employees it is extremely difficult especially for employees whom I don't see very often. What makes me feel guilty is that they seem to know me and I don't have the same familiarity. I hope that I show how much I care about them in my conversation even if I don't get to communicate with them often. To counteract I strive to share the real me at all times even when I'm speaking in large meetings. Being real a real person is important to me because I believe that each individual no matter the role they play is important and is critical to our collective success.

2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I never anticipated a leader in such a large organization. In fact, I never thought I'd work for a university. I became Chancellor of WGU Missouri because a friend knew I was looking for my next move and saw things in me I didn't see. When I joined WGU 7 years ago, we had 40,000 students and 22,000 graduates. Today, we have grown to 130,000 students and over 200,000 graduates. WGU has grown significantly while I have been on the team.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

In my role, each day is different as far as the types and topics of meetings. The consistency is the focus on ensuring the mission of WGU is accomplished. Workdays begin early, usually rising around 6 am. After dressing and a quick bite, I generally have an early meeting that progresses from meeting to meeting throughout the day. During the pandemic, I seem to have more meetings and they run from one to the next often resulting in my carrying my laptop to the kitchen to grab lunch. Since the university is headquartered in a later time zone, I sometimes have meetings that run beyond the typical workday. In addition, I often slip back to the laptop after dinner to complete tasks or catch up on email. I typically squeeze in the wife and mother tasks in between. Thankfully, my daughters are adults now and I have an understanding husband. I typically head to bed between 10 and 11 to start again.

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

With the pandemic, I have been inspired by our team. The underlying lesson is to trust generously. When you hire well you can trust team members to respond in unprecedented ways to unprecedented times. For instance, we had to figure out new ways to accomplish our goals when the normal strategies were now not possible. In addition, the team was dealing with a new personal normal including trying to educate their children at home when schools can't be open. Empowering our team to do what they needed to do while allowing them to try new strategies. By doing so, our team was able to innovate and create new paths while also taking care of themselves and their families as they dealt with the stress of the pandemic. I learned by trusting the team to be the people we hired them to be they will keep pulling on the rope to accomplish our targets.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

The book Good to Great by Jim Collins was a leadership book that created a leadership foundation for me. The easy to remember principles created pillars for other leadership ideas to connect. The big idea of keeping the focus on what you want to be great at the center of all you do allows you to know what to say no to. I have found keeping the main thing the main thing paves a road for success. The other driving principle of having people in the right seats on the bus helps the organization run smoothly. All of the principles in the book are important concepts that serve as a foundation for greatness.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?

Building leadership capacity begins with selecting the right people followed by a strong onboarding process that focuses on the mission and leadership principles. Additionally, helping people new to the organization understand the culture of the organization is critical. Spending ample time with new employees to help them understand the decision-making processes and what we value prepares them to be empowered with responsibility. The concept of empowerment with responsibility must be coupled with the idea that it is okay to make mistakes and fail forward. If you want an organization that continues to grow and improve you must create a culture of innovation. Focusing on people and collaboration can lead to success.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?

As a university leader, the most meaningful stories are the stories that are held by each employee of changing lives. As a leader, I am blessed by the honor and privilege of hearing the amazing stories of the triumph of our students from our employees. It's incredible that it is not one story, it's so many stories that come together to create the heart of the university, our reason for existence, our why. It is the collection of the stories that make our work meaningful.